In the mid-1600s, the English Lord Proprietors had a problem: How could they entice anyone to settle the coastal areas of the Carolinas? The Spanish in Florida might attack any fledgling colony there, as could the local Native American tribes. So, influenced by the philosopher John Locke, the Lord Proprietors granted any who would come complete freedom of religion. Many long-suffering Jews of Spain and Portugal heard those startling words and decided to take the Lord Proprietors up on their offer. By 1749, their numbers were sufficient to organize the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE) Congregation. Today, it is the second oldest synagogue building in the United States (the first oldest being Touro Synagogue, a National Trust Historic Site in Newport, Rhode Island) and the oldest in continuous use. But most importantly, the KKBE is acknowledged to be the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the United States.
When I asked KKBE’s Executive Director Alex Grumbacher to explain how that came to pass, he laughed and pointed to the sanctuary organ: “After the Charleston fire of 1838, our synagogue was rebuilt, eventually reopening in 1840. By a narrow vote, the congregation decided to install an organ and to use it during worship. Appalled at this idea, those with more Orthodox views left to form their own congregation. KKBE became the home to Reform Judaism.” After my visit, Grumbacher recommended I visit Coming Street Cemetery, one of the synagogue’s associated cemetery. There I met docent Randi Serrins. Well into the tour, she pointed to an old foundation wall and explained, “Shortly after the schism, the Orthodox Jews built a high brick wall so that their tombs would be separate from the Reformers. After the Civil War, the wall was knocked down.”
Both KKBE and the Coming Street Cemetery are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But that’s not the only thing they have in common: Both need extensive and expensive repairs, neither have enough money, and both are at risk.