TEMPLE BETH ISRAEL – THEN AND NOW
By: Beatrice K. Rogol
“To unite the Hebrews of Florence and surrounding country into a fraternal and benevolent association and to assist needy Israelites.”
“The purchasing and maintaining of a suitable burying ground.”
These were the two objectives of the Florence Hebrew Benevolent Association, taken from their Constitution and By-laws back in 1887. One hundred and seventeen years later, this fraternal and benevolent association is still in existence under the name of Beth Israel Congregation. The methods of operating may have changed to a great extent, but the results are those of the intended purposes of the organization’s original constitution.
Florence has seen great change since that time. As the city grew, so did the Jewish population – from the Lyons and Jacobi families, who were the earliest known Jewish families in Florence, having settled here some time before 1865, to a total of eighty-five families living in Florence and surrounding towns.
Travelers through the city one hundred and fifteen years ago knew they could find a comfortable bed and a hearty welcome at the Jacobi house, which was a well-known hotel located on what is now Front Street in Florence. By 1881, the only Jewish children in Florence were those of Mr. & Mrs. A. A. Cohen,* Bea and Edna. In order to receive a Jewish education, they traveled to Darlington, where worship services were also held at that time.
As more Jewish families settled in Florence, the need arose to reach out. So, on October 26, 1887, application was made by D. Sternberger,* J. Dejongh,* S. Elias,* and Harris Joseph* for a charter for a charitable and religious association to be known as The Florence Hebrew Benevolent Association, located at Florence, S. C., with a capital of twenty-five shares at $10.00 each, for the purpose of ”creating and maintaining an Israelites burial ground, and for education and religious purposes”. Leadership was provided by Chairman D. Sternberger,* Secretary -Treasurer J. Dejongh,* and Director E. Salmonsen.*
The organization members carried out their mission to “contract unity among the Israelites in Florence by establishing an association to aid and assist its members in sickness and distress and to help such persons of our religious belief as may be deemed proper”, and to “purchase a suitable burying ground and do such work that will further advance Judaism in every respect”. A cemetery lot was soon purchased from the Northeast Railroad for $50.00. In the tradition of his father, Charles Insel,* the business of maintaining the record keeping of this cemetery was managed through the untiring efforts of Secretary-Treasurer, Herman Insel.* After the death of Herman Insel in 1999, the record keeping was taken over by Mark Schemel. Additionally, the Jews of Florence and surrounding areas are still being aided and helped in their religious beliefs through the most active synagogue in the area, Beth Israel Congregation.
The Jewish population was growing and, as more children blessed the community, the need for religious education was foreseen. The foundation of a Sunday School was laid when, on June 2, 1889, A. A. Cohen* made a motion to “order Sunday School books, that a Sunday School be established and all children of Israelite parents, who were or were not members of this association, were cordially invited to send their children to participate in the exercise of the Sunday School lessons and that also the parents be invited to attend”. That was the beginning of a religious school that continues today, and which has been the Judaic foundation for our area young people.
This brings us to our beginnings as a full-service house of worship. A Certificate of Incorporation was filed with the State of South Carolina on September 27, 1912, establishing a congregation to be known as Beth Israel, with B. Patz,* M. Rosenfeld* and I. Silverman* signing as Trustees.
During the years 1906 to 1922, a small number of Orthodox Jews found their way to Florence. They held services, conducted by Rabbi Silver,* in various places around the city. Then, some time around 1922, a compromise was reached between the Orthodox Jewry of Florence and those who chose to follow Reform Judaism. The decision was reached to hold Reform services and Sunday school classes monthly, and Orthodox High Holy Day Services. The Orthodox High Holy Day Services were held in the homes of the Orthodox Jews of the community, conducted by lay leaders, among whom was Louis Greenberg,* father of Dr. S. A. Greenberg.* Rabbi Jacob Raisin* of Kahol Kadosh Beth Elohim Congregation in Charleston, S. C. was hired to conduct Reform Services in various halls, beginning over what was Zeigler’s Drug Store, better known as the store on the corner of Dargan and Evans Streets. Rabbi Raisin* remained spiritual leader of Beth Israel for twenty-five years. Sam and Hannah Semless* of Philadelphia, grandparents of Nathaniel Rosenfeld,* donated the first Torah in honor of Nat’s parents, Maurice and Mae Rosenfeld.*
Some time around 1927, the decision was made to build a Temple building. Land on East Elm Street was purchased for that purpose, but was subsequently sold to the city for the erection of Florence High School. In the meantime, Reform Services continued in the Rainwater Building. Prior to World War II, they were held at the YMCA, moving to the Masonic Temple after World War II, where services were held until 1947. At that time, the YMCA again became home for Reform Services. And during all those years of moving, without a permanent home, the president’s car trunk served as storage space for prayer books and the Torah.
In February, 1949, a meeting was held at which there was discussion on the construction of a new religious facility on land located on Park Avenue, which was donated by Dr. Michael M. Morse.* A committee composed of Dr. S. A. Greenberg,* Dr. Michael M. Morse* and Isadore Stein* was appointed to manage the construction of a new Temple building. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations provided the building plans, and the facility was completed in July 1949. A formal dedication was held in September of that year, with Rabbi Philip Frankel* of Charlotte, N. C. officiating.
Religious services in the new building were still held on a monthly basis, with leadership provided by Rabbis coming from Sumter, S. C., Columbia, S. C. and Charlotte, N. C. With only about twenty-five families in the congregation, it was not financially possible to hire a full-time Rabbi. However, in 1953, with more families moving into the area, Rabbi Fabian* came to serve as the first full-time Rabbi.
Rabbi Fabian* helped to organize the Sunday school and began conducting weekly services on Friday nights. Rabbi Morris Clarke* followed, introducing music to the congregation. Rabbi Avery Grossfield* came next, introducing Hebrew into the Sunday school and holding adult education classes. He performed the first Bar Mitzvah service in the Temple. When Rabbi Grossfield* left, spiritual leadership was received from two student Rabbis coming from the seminary in New York, Jay Krouse and Paul Kushner. Every two weeks, they flew to Florence for weekend services, Sunday school and Hebrew classes. In this way, the congregation was held together with the continuance of services, Bar Mitzvahs and confirmations. The next spiritual leader was Rabbi Gottesman,* a circuit-riding Rabbi who traveled in his bus. He served for a short time until 1961, when Rabbi Charles B. Lesser* arrived. Rabbi Lesser* remained until 1970.
The congregation was continuing its growth, and during Rabbi Lesser’s* tenure, plans were made for expansion. In 1967, two houses close to the Temple building were purchased. The following year, plans were undertaken to remodel the original Temple and to add a kitchen, classrooms and social hall. The houses were demolished and a committee was appointed. Those on the Building Committee were Chairman Dr. Eric Heiden, Nathaniel Rosenfeld,* Dr. S. A. Greenberg,* Herman Insel,* and Dr. Raphael Wolpert, who also served as chairman of the Future Expansion Fund. Spring of 1969 saw a groundbreaking ceremony, and the building was completed in June, 1970. By this time, Rabbi Howard Folb* was hired and he was present for the dedication of the new addition in 1970. In October of that year, the building was officially opened and used for the High Holy Days, with Rabbi Folb* officiating.
Rabbi Folb* remained for approximately eleven years, followed by Rabbi Sidney Strome,* who became spiritual leader for the next five years. After Rabbi Strome’s* tenure, Rabbi Lawrence N. Mahrer served as Rabbi for ten years, when Rabbi Marc Kline began his service. Rabbi Kline served until July 2003. Student Rabbi Malcolm Cohen then served the first and third weekends of every month from September 2003-May 2004.
In 1986, with Dr. Eric Heiden spearheading a committee made up of Dr. S. A. Greenberg,* Ruth Greenberg, Herman Insel,* Dr. Raphael Wolpert, Melvin Siegel,* Patricia Siegel, Sandra S. Levy, Selig Levine,* and Rabbi Lawrence Mahrer, Temple Beth Israel underwent another change. This time the sanctuary was renovated and the pulpit remodeled. The innovative ideas of Dr. Heiden and his committee are seen throughout the sanctuary and its foyer.
During these years of growth and expansion, two organizations became an integral part of Temple life – Temple Beth Israel Sisterhood and the Men’s Club of Temple Beth Israel.
In the early 1900’s, the ladies of the community came together in what was known as the Beth Israel Ladies Aid Society in 1922. The thirteen members were Mesdames A. A. Cohen,* A. L. Berger,* Charles Insel,* Edna Jarrott,* L. Greenberg,* Charles Kalinsky,* Frank Leomson,* A. L. Miller,* I. Finklestein,* M. Rosenfeld,* Abraham Schafer,* S. Schaffer,* and H. Werblum.* They were concerned with Sunday school, participation in community activities, and they served as a nucleus for continuing Jewish interests in religion. Mrs. Abraham Schafer* saw to it that they became affiliated with the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, and served as the first president of the new sisterhood in 1928. Monthly meetings were held in members’ homes until 1949, when they moved to the new Temple Assembly Room, presided over by Mrs. Chester Heimlich,* President. This organization contributed financially to the Temple and was looked upon as a helpful source of support.
Somewhere around 1958, the Men’s Club of Temple Beth Israel was established with (as far as the records show) Marvin Fine* as President. They affiliated with the National Federation of Brotherhoods and, like Sisterhood, became very active and became a financial arm of the Temple as well as providing social activities for the men of the congregation.
In 1973, because the work of Sisterhood and Men’s Club overlapped, the decision was made to merge the two organizations into one, and The Affiliates was born, with each organization keeping its own identity with the two National Federations. Membership of The Affiliates was made up of men and women who shared equally in its leadership and work, alternating between a male and female president and vice president. Frederick Levy served the first presidential term, and Patricia Lovit the second. This organization was a pioneer in the field of Sisterhood and Men’s Club (or Brotherhood) mergers, having been the first organization of this kind in the nation. It was so successful that a presentation was made at a convention in Savannah, Georgia by the two presidents on its success. Through 2002, The Affiliates was a most important financial aid to the Temple and a very large source of revenue, while maintaining social interests among its members.
During the more recent years of Temple Beth Israel, there were two significant mergers. The Darlington, S.C. Congregation, whose membership was slowly diminishing, decided to merge with Beth Israel. Then, in the year 2000, the Dillon, S.C. Congregation “Ohev Shalom”, whose membership was also diminishing, decided that they would merge with Beth Israel. This merger took place during the tenure of Rabbi Marc Kline. With the mergers of the two outlying synagogues with Beth Israel, the membership grew and brought many committed and active people under the Beth Israel umbrella.
Temple Beth Israel has come a long way since 1887. Today, it is known as Beth Israel Congregation and draws from Florence, Darlington, Marion, Dillon, Kingstree, and Murrells Inlet, all in S. C. and Laurinburg, N. C. The Religious School has expanded into one that is turning out young people with a more rounded Jewish education. A choir enhances services. The Affiliates has become a vital mainstay of the Temple. And a full-service house of worship has become the center for Judaism in the Florence area.
Throughout these one hundred and seventeen years, the members of the Jewish community in our area have become pillars in their Synagogue, as well as pillars of their communities. They have served unselfishly and with pride on various committees and boards of Beth Israel Congregation, as well as those of the arts, education and local communities. They have left their marks in Florence and neighboring towns and have each, in his or her own way, made their communities better places in which to live.
Those who have provided leadership for Beth Israel Congregation and who have led the congregation to bigger and better things, have been dedicated people who have given of their valuable time and efforts to bring us to where we are today. They are:
Dr. S. A. Greenberg*
Dr. Michael M. Morse*
Dr. Elliott Finger*
Mortimer Stavenhagen* Selig Levine*
Dr. Raphael Wolpert
Leslie Levy Patricia Lovit
Sandra A. Levy
Dr. Alex Cohen
Dr. Mitchell Falk
Judy Kammer +/Bruce Siegal +
Dr. Alan Sechtin
Dr. Scott Cohen
Adam Siegal ^
+=Co-presidents ^=Currently Serving
In the community today are Ruth Greenberg, wife of Dr. S. A. Greenberg,* her sons, Dr. Stuart Greenberg and Dr. Phillip Greenberg, along with their five children, Brody, Laura, Barnett, Andy and Patty, who are fourth generation, and all of whom are direct descendants of Louis and Dora Greenberg* who were early founders of Beth Israel Congregation.
We’ve taken a look into the past, and as we look to the future, it is hoped that the Jews of Florence and surrounding areas will continue growing and enriching Beth Israel Congregation and the entire community of people. By following in the dedicated footsteps of our devoted and foresighted founders and those who have followed, Judaism will be kept alive in our area and we will continue to take pride in ourselves as Jews.
Acknowledgments: A special “thank you” is extended to the committee of Celia Kraft,* Herman Insel,* Nathaniel Rosenfeld,* and Sam Rogol* who shared their memories and ideas, as well as to the unknown author of the history for the 1970 Dedication, and to Ruth Greenberg who, in 1975, wrote the “History of the Florence Jewish Community”.
“Temple Beth Israel – Then and Now” – September, 1987
Brought up to date – May, 2002
Some modifications made in 2004 by Larry Falck
(Added by Larry Falck-March 2004:) The city of Florence was incorporated on March 9, 1871. According to the Florence Chamber of Commerce&:
“Anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism, which flourished elsewhere after Reconstruction, were absent in Florence. In fact, from the very beginning of Reconstruction, both Jews and Catholics were not only accepted, but they were also active politically and frequently elected to office.”
“…on April 10, 1871…Elected as wardens [councilmen] were Aaron Weinberg…Aaron Weinberg, a Jewish Merchant from Charleston, opened one of the first stores in Florence.”
“The second intendant [mayor] of the town, John Kuker (1845-1926), was Jewish. Kuker had been born in Hamburg, Germany, became a pharmacist, and, after immigrating to the United States in 1865, was employed by McKesson & Robbins in New York. He moved to Florence in 1866, opened a mercantile establishment, and became a successful merchant and moneylender. In addition to serving as intendant, he was also elected warden (1876-78 and 1884-86).”
“…and Albert Baruch, a Jew, former magistrate of Florence, and radical Republican.”
“From the beginning, the Jewish population of Florence was influential in business and civic affairs…they had strong support in Charleston, where Jewish families had formed a congregation in 1749. Moritz Jacobi, who built the Jacobi House, came to America from Denmark and, in 1857, settled in the village of Florence. During Reconstruction, most of the Jews in Florence supported the Democrats, with the notable exception of Albert Baruch. Baruch operated a store on Front Street, was appointed a magistrate, served on the town council, and was elected Sheriff of Darlington County. He was generally mistrusted, and after the Democrats came to power, he disappeared.
Two outstanding Jewish citizens of the 1880’s were David Sternberger, a merchant, and Isaac Sulzbacher (1884-1920), a jeweler. Both were members of the executive committee formed to promote the creation of Florence County. Sternberger was born in Bavaria, became a citizen of the United States, and in 1872, moved to Florence and opened a store. He was one of the organizers, in 1882, of the Hebrew Benevolent Association, which had for its purpose “creating and maintaining an Israelite’s burial ground, and for education and religious purposes.” It was largely due to this organization that the congregation known as Beth Israel was incorporated in 1912.”
&Excerpts from Florence: A Renaissance Spirit. History and Profiles By Eugene N Zeigler. 1996.