(February 28, 2020 / JNS) CHARLESTON, S.C.—Ahead of the presidential primary on Feb. 29, the remaining eight Democratic candidates have been making their case as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) remains the frontrunner, despite fears from the Democratic establishment that his nomination could work against the party and ensure another four years for U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Jewish community in South Carolina—approximately 16,820, or less than 1 percent of the state’s population, with around 11,500 in Charleston, one of the first Jewish communities in the 13 colonies—is active on the political scene, though not so much on an organized basis.
For example, Bill Stern, chairman of the South Carolina Ports Authority, is the state finance chair for U.S. Trump’s re-election campaign. And Charleston hosted the Democratic presidential debate on Feb. 25 in which the U.S.-Israel relationship and the Middle East were discussed.
Ideologically, the Jewish community is more moderate than the population overall and “a lot more conservative than U.S.-Jewish sentiment, attitudes, beliefs as a whole,” said Rick Silver, a longtime political operative in South Carolina who’s involved in the Jewish community. “It is more broadly conservative than not.”
Charleston has five synagogues: Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Reform), one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the United States; Brith Sholom Beth Israel (Orthodox); Dor Tikvah (Orthodox); Emanu-El (Conservative); and Chabad of Charleston and The Low Country (Orthodox rabbi).
The Charleston Jewish Federation has a solid relationship with the congregations and “an open dialogue” with one another, according to Brandon Fish, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Charleston, who added, for example, that there’s a three-rabbi panel event four times annually at the College of Charleston, featuring a rabbi from the different branches of Judaism to talk about a pressing issue. Topics have included sexuality, pluralism in the Jewish community.
“We are a community where there is open dialogue between all the different streams of Judaism, with those who are unaffiliated,” said Fish. “People are able to engage politically and disagree and, at the end of the day, participate in Jewish life together.”
“If there’s one universal thing that we encourage as a community, it’s participation in the process,” he continued. “Certainly, we want to see Jewish people engaged in the political process and educated about the issues that they care about and participate.”
Unlike in Iowa, the first state to hold a primary, the Jewish Federation has not hosted events with the presidential candidates.
However, Chabad held a women’s only event in December with then-Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, who spoke about spirituality and the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. It was attended by about 150 women.
Synagogues and the Federation have email lists and a community calendar where the congregations advertise their events.
Chabad has been led for the past 12 years by Rabbi Yossi and Sarah Refson, who have four children. “Charleston is very mixed. It’s like most Jewish communities,” said the rabbi. “It’s an exceptionally laid-back place, so people are extremely nice and polite and genuine.”
Some Jewish families have been in Charleston for a while, while others are fairly new, according to Refson, who added that it’s a “big town with a small-town feel.”
Therefore, he said, “you have to be more civil because if you’re going to cut someone off on the bridge, you’d probably be standing behind them in the grocery store at the register, so that also encourages a lot of civility”—a quality that seems to be lacking in today’s society, he observed.
Charleston’s value of civility intersects “perfectly,” noted Refson, as South Carolina is part of the Bible Belt.
“Jews have always been very welcomed here, which is one of the reasons why they feel so comfortable in Charleston,” he said. “There’s always been a deep respect for the Judeo tradition.”
That mutual “deep” respect between Jews and Christians makes it “not uncommon to be walking in the street or going in the elevator in a hospital, and someone comes up to you and say, ‘Are you a rabbi?’ I say, ‘Yes.’ And they say, ‘Can you bless me?’ ”
“It’s just one of those things that happens in Charleston,” he said, “which wouldn’t happen anywhere else.”
Interfaith dialogue and support in the wake of tragedy
Indeed, the city’s Southern location sets a backdrop for interfaith dialogue—a way of life in South Carolina.
General interfaith dialogue happens “periodically,” said Refson, whose Chabad has hosted both an interfaith dinner where traditional Jewish food was served for local church leaders, as well as a weekday lunch attended by more than two-dozen pastors.
Even Shabbat dinners, which occur every Friday night with usually 50 to 75 people, is often attended by local pastors—“not an interfaith effort, but just as pure as a friendship thing, and they’re curious to see how we celebrate Shabbat,” said he rabbi.
Chabad even hears from people around town who say they “heard about the Shabbat dinner. It even finds its way into the Sunday-morning service,” Refson has heard.
Another example of faith communities coming together occurred following the October 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 worshippers were killed in what was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.
“We had many people come by at the Chabad House … outside there was probably 40 or 50 bouquets of flowers [that] were placed,” said Refson.
The Saturday night following the shooting, he received a voicemail from Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who organized a vigil downtown in Marion Square that was, according to the rabbi, attended by around 750 people, the majority of them from the non-Jewish community.
The community overall in Charleston is “very sensitive to how vulnerable the Jewish community feels,” said the rabbi.
Following the April 2019 shooting at Chabad of Poway in California, Refson got a call from Tecklenburg, who asked “if everything was OK.” The police frequently check in with the rabbi to ensure that the congregation and family are safe.
Another time the Charleston joined together was in the aftermath of the June 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, where nine African-Americans were shot and killed during a Bible-study session.
Chabad participated in one of the vigils and has since participated in forums on combating hatred, enabling Refson’s group to forge connections with the Christian community. All of the rabbis in the community and the imam of the Central Mosque of Charleston spoke.
Fish noted that was when Federation started to forge a relationship with the imam, who was the first person to reach out after the Pittsburgh shooting to offer his sympathies and suggest working together in the future. The vigil was concluded on the steps of the AME church, where the institution’s bells rung one time for each of the Tree of Life victims.
“It was a really powerful event and it was also an inspiring moment to see all of these different communities coming together in support of us,” said Fish.
Referring to the Pittsburgh shooting, “Charleston tends to be known as a civil place and to think that something like that could happen,” he said. “It was devastating.”
Additionally, there’s the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, which includes Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim is a member. (Its rabbi, Stephanie Alexander, declined an interview request.)
Issues that unify the community, including food insecurity
When it comes to issues, the Charleston Jewish community varies in what it prioritizes outside of what Fish called the “unifying issues that Jews … around the country care about,” including the State of Israel and the democratic process, especially as the primary is on a Saturday.
South Carolina has absentee voting only for those who are unable to vote on a Saturday for religious reasons (in addition to other exceptions). The JCRC has been informing people that those who fit the criteria can vote early.
“Our job is to try to educate people about the process, and get out the vote and make sure people are registered to vote, making sure people know what their rights are,” stated Fish.
The JCRC in Charleston, which relaunched late last year after being disbanded in 2015, tends to focus on local issues, including vouching for the state to pass a hate-crime law. South Carolina is one of four states without such legislation (the others being Arkansas, Georgia and Wyoming).
State Rep. Beth Bernstein, a Democrat who’s the only Jewish member of the state’s General Assembly, said that the bill, of which she is a co-sponsor, is a priority for the Jewish community and needs to become law to say, “This is not right. You don’t treat people this way, and if it’s a hate crime, you’re going to have a consequence because of it.”
If enacted, the legislation, introduced in November, would lengthen prison sentences by up to five years and increase fines by $10,000 for those with a prejudicial motive who attack, kill or rape someone. It would also increase the sentence by three years and $5,000 for those who harass or stalk victims out of bigotry. Vandalism motivated by someone’s “race, color, creed, religion, gender, age, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability” could tack on one year to the punishment.
Bernstein said that while she hasn’t spoken with Gov. Henry McMaster, she has been told that he wouldn’t veto it.
When asked in August if McMaster would support hate-crime legislation, the governor’s office referred the local ABC News affiliate in Columbia, WOLO-TV, to a 2018 Republican gubernatorial debate when McMaster said, “I think we have enough hate-crime laws. Those things are hard to define. People forget that we have so many laws. It’s getting to where we are criminalizing things that are not even crimes.”
However, Bernstein noted that the bill faces an uphill climb in the remaining few months of the state legislative calendar in a body controlled by Republicans, some of whom Bernstein recalled told her that the legislation is unnecessary.
Bernstein speculated that because this year is an election year, Republicans don’t want to hand the Democrats a victory, even though the bill has bipartisan support.
Nonetheless, South Carolina was the first state to enact legislation to fight the anti-Israel BDS movement, with former Gov. Nikki Haley signing that into law in 2015.
Fish said that the hate-crime bill has become an important matter for the Jewish community, especially in the aftermath of the recent string of anti-Semitic attacks in New York, in which legislators from both sides of the aisle on all levels sent messages of support to the community, exemplifying their close engagement with the Jewish people in the area.
According to Fish, there’s “a good mix” of Democrats and Republicans in the Charleston Jewish community, although the quantitative figure is unknown.
He cited his JCRC board, which has Democrats and Republicans, in which “we try to build consensus around issues that we can work on. That’s been difficult in the past, a difficult job to do. But we’ve been focusing on a lot of local issues people can get behind.”
One issue of mutual concern is food insecurity. The Federation had a food pantry in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which was especially useful for those who keep kosher. As the economy improved JCRC realized that it had to go out into neighborhoods where residents don’t have access to fresh produce.
Once a month, in conjunction with the Low Country Food Bank, they distribute fresh produce to what are known as food deserts. Fish said that they are expecting to distribute 100,000 pounds of fresh produce this year.
“It’s also proven to be a vehicle of collaboration with other communities,” said Fish, citing the Central Mosque of Charleston, which has co-sponsored some of the distributions, complete with members of the Jewish community who volunteer to deliver items.
The Charleston JCRC also works with the African-American, LGBTQ, Muslim and Christian community.
Within the Charleston Jewish community, Fish said he hasn’t observed animosity over politics—an exception to current toxic discourse, though that may not seem surprisingly since Charleston has been touted as one of the friendliest towns in the country.
Nonetheless, anti-Semitism “is a big concern,” said Fish, who noted incidents of anti-Semitism in schools, and the fact that the Charleston Jewish Federation is raising money to have a community security director to oversee security at synagogues.
The Federation has advocated for and been a recipient of the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which helps safeguard nonprofit institutions. The 2015 Charleston church shooting has caused for security at religious and other nonprofit institutions to be a serious concern, said Fish.
Charleston consists of one of the nation’s first Jewish community security task forces, established in 2015, noted the Federation’s assistant director, Rebecca Engel.
Regarding anti-Semitism in schools, Fish said that school administrations “don’t have the tool set. They don’t know how to deal with anti-Semitism.”
He added that the Federation brought in the ADL “several times into the community” to educate school faculty members so they can attempt to deal with anti-Semitism.
At the end of the day, “part of organizing a Jewish community that’s civil and gets along well with each other is understanding what each of our roles are and what each of our lanes are, and try to be respectful,” said Fish.
Atmosphere in other cities in the state
Myrtle Beach and the state’s capital of Columbia are the other two major Jewish communities in South Carolina.
The resort town of Myrtle Beach, which has a small Jewish community and is popular as a spring-break setting and an area that has increasingly attracted retirees, is home to Temple Emanu-El (Conservative), Beth-EL (Orthodox), Temple Shalom (Reform) and Chabad of Myrtle Beach (Orthodox rabbi).
Beth-EL is a Sephardic synagogue led by Rabbi Shlomo Meir Elharar, who was once the chief rabbi of the Sephardic community in Colombia, where he lived for 10 years. His and his wife, Orly, have six kids and 16 grandchildren. She heads the synagogue’s sisterhood and mikvah.
The synagogue was built in the 1970s, but eventually closed for 25 years (only open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Nine years ago, it opened for daily morning and evening services with study, and has since been headed by Elharar.
Israelis live in Myrtle Beach, 95 percent of whom are Sephardic, according to Elharar. A good number of them run beach-side shops frequented by tourists, who come by in the millions every summer, as well as seasonally.
Elharar said his main mission is to educate the youth, who go on Shabbatons and a trip to Israel organized by NCSY (formerly the National Conference of Synagogue Youth), as there is no Jewish day school beyond the youngest grades. Most of the Jewish youth attend public school. Elharar offers opportunities for them to learn one-on-one with him on any subject. He also prepares most of the kids for their bar mitzvah.
Shabbat in Myrtle Beach is “beautiful,” said Elharar, whose shul offers a free lunch with singing, d’var Torahs and “the best cholent in all South Carolina.”
Beth-EL organizes an annual event on Yom Ha’atzmaut that is even attended by Christians, says the rabbi.
Chabad of Myrtle Beach was founded 33 years ago by Rabbi Doron and Leah Aizenman, both Israelis. They were sent in 1986 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson—when there was just a small population of Jews at the time. Today, they run a day school attended by about 70 children in a city of a few thousand Jewish residents.
On the day of the interview with JNS, he happened to get a call from the FBI about an emailed bomb threat received by synagogues and other Jewish institutions. The FBI told him it was a hoax. Chabad was not one of the recipients of the email.
Following the Tree of Life shooting, there was a vigil next to the Holocaust memorial in Market Common, which was dedicated in 2016. It featured churches and other communities, in addition to the Jewish community.
Aizenman said that wherever he goes in town, he’s treated with respect and even sometimes asked to say a prayer.
Meanwhile, an estimated 3,000 Jews live in Columbia, according to Columbia Jewish Federation executive director Barry Abels. Gun violence, the rise in anti-Semitism, the U.S.-Israel relationship, the economy and taxes are issues the community cares about, he said.
“But compared to many other communities, I think we’re trying to be more proactive; we’re trying to ally ourselves with other people and organizations within the community, and not only looking at anti-Semitism but at racism, at gender bias, at all of the things that are of concern in terms of where people are being accused and abused today.”
Columbia is home to three synagogues: Tree of Life Congregation (Reform), Beth Shalom Synagogue (Conservative) and Chabad of South Carolina (Orthodox rabbi).
Beth Shalom has 300 family members and been led over the past dozen years by Rabbi Jonathan Case. The synagogue is politically diverse, according to Case, and its members focus on issues such as poverty, the environment and immigration.
In his community and the Columbia Jewish community, ahead of Saturday’s vote, “there is no political vibe except extraordinary involvement and excitement. I don’t anybody who is impartial or impassive about this upcoming election and the Democratic primary that’s about to occur in South Carolina,” said Case. “Everybody is impassive. Everybody is concerned.”
In terms of interfaith interactions, Case said that over the past few weeks, there’s been “a Jewish-Muslim-Christian dialogue that has attracted a large number of people who want to come out and hear each other’s positions, and how we can get along better.”
Morris Blachman, who has been active politically and in the area Jewish community his entire adult life, said organized political activity in the Columbia Jewish community “has diminished significantly over the years,” though “Israel is obviously a big issue.”
Nonetheless, said Beth Shalom president Larry Needle, “regardless of who is elected president, we need to be able to maintain strong bipartisan support for the State of Israel.”
Were Sanders, the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary who has made critical comments about the Jewish state and has associated with anti-Semites, to win in November, he said, “it’s something that we in the Jewish community have got to be very vigilant about to make sure that the policies toward Israel … does not change, regardless of the administration.”
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