When I was growing up in Charleston, West Virginia, I would hear from time to time that synagogues in other parts of the state were closing, either merging with other congregations or simply shutting down, leaving their towns with no operating Jewish institutions. The cities that had prospered with the coal industry had fallen on hard times and most of the Jews who lived there had moved away, or assimilated.
Charleston, on the other hand, still had a vibrant, active Jewish community with two thriving congregations, B’nai Jacob Synagogue and Temple Israel, known colloquially as the synagogue and the temple. Unfortunately, the factors that are taking a toll on Jewish communities throughout the United States – secularism, inter-marriage, and older members dying while fewer children are born – have continued to erode Charleston’s Jewish community. Now Charleston’s two congregations are discussing how they can consolidate into a single facility while preserving the rituals of the more traditional synagogue and the more liberal temple.
I see the wisdom in sharing resources and working together to sustain a Jewish presence in my hometown. But it’s still painful to see the decline of the community that helped nurture my Jewish identity. And, it’s hard knowing that an institution that was so important to my family’s history will be changing in dramatic ways.
My family, on my mother’s side, arrived in Charleston in the late 19th century and was always very involved in the synagogue. My great-great-grandfather was one of the founders of the congregation, one of my great-grandfathers was the president of the chevra kadisha (burial society) and another served for a few years as the congregation’s chazzan, mohel and shochet. My grandfather was a regular at Shabbos services, and sometimes at weekday services as well. Not to minimize the contributions of the women in my family, my great-grandmother was a leader in the chevra kadisha and other synagogue groups, and my grandmother and her sisters were active members of the chevra kadisha who sewed tachrichim, the traditional burial garments for the deceased.
As a child and teenager, I would sit with my grandfather in services. He always had hard candies in his pockets to give to me and my sister. We enjoyed sitting with him, singing the songs from the service, and walking home with him afterwards.
The synagogue is located on a residential street in Charleston’s East End, just a short walk from the state capitol building. My grandparents lived on the next street over, the 1500 block of Quarrier Street, which we were told was the longest residential block in the United States. Zayde, especially in later years, walked slowly, and the journey home with him was almost more important than the destination, as he would stop to admire spring flowers or fall foliage, and regale us with stories.
The synagogue describes itself as “traditional.” It is not affiliated as either Conservative or Orthodox, and is somewhere in between – most members drive to Shabbos services and men and women sit together, but most of the regular services are not egalitarian and incorporate all of the traditional liturgy.
My memories of the shul, I realize, are very much colored by my personal and familial experiences there. My family instilled in me a love of traditional Judaism, and the synagogue was the place outside our home where Judaism was practiced. To me, the main sanctuary was truly a place of holiness to connect to the Divine. And, it was also a place to connect to community, family and our history.
Judaism walks a fine line between revering the past and dreaming of the future. Too much emphasis in either direction can be detrimental. When there is too much focus on history, too much nostalgia on what used to be, or the ways things have always been done, then the relevance to the present and future is often sacrificed. On the other hand, a focus only on what is new and enticing is doomed to be ephemeral and rootless, without the foundation of tradition and history. Like Tevye and the Fiddler on the Roof, we are constantly on the precipice, bridging the gap between what was, and the unknown of the future.
Charleston’s Jewish community is still deciding what shape its future will take. It pains me to think that the synagogue building might not be part of that future. In a city in which Jews have always been a small minority, the synagogue is a building that is proudly Jewish, and was designed to accommodate Jewish rituals, from the wooden bima in the center of the sanctuary, the full sets of the books of the prophets and the five megillahs on hand-written scrolls, to the two kosher kitchens, and the mikveh down a dark hallway in the basement.
As ritual observance in the community has declined over the years, these facets of the congregation have become less used, and probably under-appreciated. I understand that, from a purely financial perspective, preserving them might seem decadent, but the real tragedy is to not understand their value and how these relics are not archaeological curiosities, but cornerstones of the Jewish future.
I feel incredibly blessed that the seeds of my Jewish future were sown in Charleston, and I am wistful sometimes that I don’t live there now. The synagogue, standing at the corner of Virginia and Elizabeth streets, has always been a comforting presence to me, and it saddens me to think that it might not be there someday.
I hope that Charleston’s Jewish community makes choices that are built upon its beautiful past, and not without regard for the importance of tradition and history.