Where The Souvenirs Read `Shalom, Y'all'

The synagogue, which resembles a Greek temple, is on a narrow street in the heart of old Charleston, S.C. You walk up a brick path, through whitewashed columns that flank the entrance, and are met by a gracious lady. "Welcome to Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim," she says, "America's oldest Jewish synagogue--and the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the U.S."

She's a bit off the mark. Touro, in Newport, R.I., is the oldest American synagogue. But Beth Elohim is the oldest in continuous use. It is indeed the birthplace of Reform Judaism in America, and the heart of a Jewish community whose members have for centuries been accepted as full members of the moneyed elite. But today, the tranquility and solidity of Beth Elohim are threatened by a force from within: a faction of back-to-the-Hebrew-roots members whom the old guard doesn't quite understand.

OLD-TIMERS. A tour of the synagogue--rose carpets, 1850 mahogany organ, 100-year-old stained-glass windows--takes a half-hour and ends with an urging to visit the temple's museum and gift shop. The former displays a letter from George Washington, thanking the congregation for its good wishes on his Inauguration. The gift shop sells tote bags that say: "Shalom, y'all."

At one time, a fifth of all U.S. Jews congregated here--more than in any other city. These days, while the 4,500 Jews of Charleston constitute less than 1% of the city's population, they remain affluent, influential, and respected. "No one can say anything against the local Jewish community, because it's been here just as long as anyone else," says Rabbi William Rosenthall, rabbi emeritus of Beth Elohim.

In colonial days, the Carolinas had a much more benign--and pragmatic--attitude toward Jews than did Puritan New England. South Carolina's constitution, influenced by the ideas of rationalist philosopher John Locke, promised tolerance to "Jues, Heathens and other Dissenters." The colonies needed human capital, period.

Some of the predominantly Sephardic Jews who came in the early days became planters, but most pursued commerce. The richest became merchants, importers, and vendues (brokers or auctioneers) in such commodities as cotton, indigo, rice--and slaves. In 1794, Abraham Seixas advertised: "He has for sale/Some Negroes, male/Of various price/To work the rice."

Charleston Jews had full economic and political rights--a thing without precedent in the Western world: They could vote, hold citizenship, pursue any occupation, and dwell anywhere. Small wonder Beth Elohim's rabbi in 1841 called the city "our New Jerusalem."

In some ways, it still is. "There are anti-Semites here, like everyplace else, but they don't dominate the social or political landscape. Nor do racists," asserts Reuben Greenberg, Charleston's chief of police. "The proof of that is that I'm here." Greenberg is both Jewish and African-American. One of the duties he relishes most is leading the local Ku Klux Klan's annual parade. Greenberg's office issues their marching permit. He meets them at the city limits and, in his ceremonial capacity, leads the procession along its route.

FAMILY PEWS. In 1824, 47 members of the 150-family congregation petitioned the temple trustees for innovations: shorter services, a sermon, prayers in English instead of Hebrew (which few understood anymore) or Spanish (which even fewer understood). Rejected at first, the reforms were adopted in the 1840s and 1850s, along with organ music, English hymns, and family pews in lieu of separate areas for men and women. Paralleling the contemporary Jewish Reform movement in Germany, the innovations quickly took hold. And they soon became hidebound conventions. The current president of the congregation, Sidney Katz, recalls that when he first came here in 1965, "everyone sat where they'd been sitting for centuries. God help you if you took their seat."

But as more Northerners moved south over the past 20 years, the city's Jewish population doubled. "The traditional Charleston Jew feels a little bit of an outsider in his or her own synagogue these days," says attorney Steven Steinert. "You keep hearing: 'I don't like to go to Friday night services anymore because I just don't know anybody.'"

Newcomers and new thinking have shaken Beth Elohim. Newer members--now about half the 352-family congregation--have pushed for a return to traditions that no old-timer can remember: services with more Hebrew, more singing, more ritual. "A lot of these people don't come to temple regularly," sniffs Joan Schones, a temple guide. "It's us old fogies who attend. And we don't understand Hebrew."

The clash came to a head in a battle over The Gates of Prayer, a new Reform text that replaced the century-old Union Prayerbook 18 years ago with modern English, more prominently placed Hebrew passages, and traditional right-to-left reading. Beth Elohim only began using Gates in 1987, and then only on occasion: Rabbi Rosenthall held the line against its wholesale intrusion. Tension between the camps grew just as Beth Elohim was being surpassed in membership by Charleston's conservative temple, a 1947 newcomer. All this led to the replacement of Rabbi Rosenthall with Rabbi Anthony Holz in 1992.

Holz has met with a mixed reception. But he has made it easier for the new guard to get its way by conducting outreach efforts to attract younger congregants, especially the children of mixed marriages. Still, the old-timers, shrinking in numbers, remain "the financial majority," as Katz puts it. So Holz, who says he is "more open-minded than my predecessor," is making changes slowly. Among them: adding more Hebrew to Sunday school and allowing the wearing of yarmulkes in temple (long forbidden by Rosenthall).

As for the prayer books, Holz, "in my Solomonic judgment," has decided to use them both--on alternate weekends. Meanwhile, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations has been revising Gates of Prayer and recently published a new edition. Nobody at Beth Elohim is even thinking about that one yet.