When a new kosher food item arrives at a grocery store in Charleston, the community will hear about it immediately.
“Someone will post a photo of the food in our ‘Kosher in Charleston’ Facebook group,” said Abby Leibowitz. “Then community members will rush over to the store and buy out the item, and the grocer will wonder why his shelves are suddenly clear!”
For Abby, a third-generation Charlestonian, the close community is one of the joys of living in a city that lacks many kosher food options, let alone a kosher restaurant.
“We have a sense of purpose and that brings us together,” she said.
Charleston’s unique unity can also be felt in its few synagogues. Though there are options for people of different denominations with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Chabad institutions, locals often belong to more than one and attend each one depending on the occasion.
“I grew up going to an Orthodox synagogue with my grandparents, a Conservative one with my parents, and a Reform synagogue during high school,” said Abby. “Each week, we can choose our own adventure, while knowing that we’ll see friends wherever we go.”
Today, Charleston is home to approximately 12,000 Jews — about 10 percent of the population — and Jewish values are emphasized throughout the city. In fact, when the philanthropic Zucker family attended an event at the local food pantry that they support, they were greeted with a sign that said, “Tikkun Olam.” With their name donning many of the local buildings — from the Citadel’s Zucker Family School of Education to the aquarium, the Zucker family has shown locals what it means to make the world — beginning with their own city — a better place.
Just as the Jewish community has supported its city, the city of Charleston has supported its Jewish community since the 1700s. Nicknamed the “Holy City,” Charleston is known for the church steeples that dot its skyline, as well as the religious freedom it offered early European settlers. By 1800, the city was home to about 2,000 Jews — which was more than any other U.S. city at the time. Charleston was also the site of the first Hebrew Orphan Society, Hebrew Benevolent Society, and synagogue sisterhood, and it is where the first American Jewish public official served.
Though the city is dotted with historic Jewish sites and near-daily Jewish events, living a Jewish life still isn’t simple. Abby’s children attend the only Jewish school in the area, and there are three children in her son’s kindergarten class. Families who want to send their children to a Jewish high school either move away or have their children board at a school in another city or state.
Yet, the Jewish population is growing, and Abby often hears Hebrew spoken on the street.
“That’s something I never would have imagined 20 years ago,” said Abby.
The South Carolina-Israel Collaboration brings business leaders to Israel, and fosters business relationships with Israeli businesses and South Carolina businesses. An Israeli emissary creates more Israel education and programming for the community.
In Downtown Charleston, the Jewish community hosts “Hanukkah in the Square.” Hundreds of community members — both Jewish and non-Jewish — enjoy free hotdogs, latkes, jelly donuts, and a public candle lighting in Charleston’s beautiful historic center.
“We love celebrating our Jewish heritage with our community and neighbors,” said Abby.