Sunday, December 20, 2015

Historical Synagogues

While I wanted to vacation with a road trip to the pleasures of Orlando, my wife being more sensible cut the journey by about a third each direction, bringing us to different pleasures of Charleston, SC for about a week.  While the city's historical area is now charming, it was not always that way as warfare, yellow fever and the cruelty of slavery shaped what take inspiration from now.  In a South of John C. Calhoun and within my adult lifetime Strom Thurmond, Jews who would have been regarded as acceptable targets of hatred elsewhere in Dixie, in Charleston the welcome of colonial times was never seriously interrupted.  One can drive on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard memorializing a public official of the 1920's or worship at either a Reform or Orthodox synagogue's housed in classically elegant buildings.  But unlike other historical synagogues of Curacao or New York's Lower East Side that have become more museums than congregations, these two Charleston synagogues attract worshippers, local and transient, for regularly scheduled services.

Both have history, formalized in a tour of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the Reform congregation where a fine guide told about ten visitors the various transformations of his congregation from a Sephardic Orthodox origin to something 19th Century Reform with schisms that created a modern orthodox congregation and migrations that resulted in a Conservative shul in proximity to where the people live.  Brith Sholom Beth Israel, the Orthodox shul resulting from a merger at about the time the two AKSE congregations merged, sits within walking distance of a hotel, so we attended shabbos morning there.  The experience was classic Modern Orthodox, where I was one of the few with a full beard, nobody wore black, and the people could not have been friendlier to us.  At one time women sat in the balcony but now they have a fairly standard mechitza with glass on the upper quarter allowing a view to the other side and with the Torah processional following the barrier so that women can touch the Torah with their Siddurim.  They worship from Artscroll, siddur and chumash.  Services were much as I would expect anywhere though an Israeli read Torah in Sephardic trop and the Haftarah was also done as Sephardic chant, which I assume was just that week.  They had a kiddush luncheon which we attended and on the way out to our hotel, noted a small unpaved parking lot in a discrete nook at the side of the building with a few cars in it.

Both of these shuls outlived many others but along the way, they had and have to deal with the same challenges that we have now, with the added interruptions of fire, earthquake and flood.  Neighborhoods change.  Buildings are too small sometimes and too large sometimes.  Modes of worship evolve, satisfying some but unacceptable to others.  Each place has to find somebody to lead worship each day for the Orthodox and each week for the Reform.  Both buildings show some wear and tear, one needing roof repair and better lighting needed on the other.  Yet they are both adaptable, never running out of the people needed to keep them active for their own members and welcoming for visitors like me.  Our places currently in some jeopardy should be able to take a look at this history and make comparable adaptations and realignments as well.

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