You don’t have to wait for Tanglewood to open its gates to kick off your summer fun. Charleston, one of America’s most beautiful cities, will host its annual Spoleto USA festival from May 24 –June 9. Featuring 150 performances of music, theatre, opera and dance as well as talks, master classes and visual arts, the events will take place at various venues in a city Jews have lived in for centuries. And it’s not over when it’s over because that’s when Piccolo Spoleto begins. It’s an extra week of festivities that includes World of Jewish Culture, a program that brings a series of Jewish-inspired music, movies, lectures and more to the festival.
But beware: you may fall in love and never want to leave Charleston. It’s a beautiful vibrant city, a walking city, a port city with a pier and pavilion, where you can relax on one of the benches with its view of Fort Sumter and watch winged wildlife (birds and flying fish.) It has numerous hotels, including elegant historic ones, an aquarium, a water park, a Museum Mile, Holocaust Memorial, guided horse and buggy tours of the historic district; gardens and lots of other sightseeing and leisure activities. For those who enjoy shopping, there’s an elegant mall, boutiques, galleries, antique and craft shops, plus a covered marketplace. If you’re more interested in just chilling, there’s a plethora of restaurants; plus marvelous beaches just fifteen miles from downtown.
Charleston is also a college town. There are many institutes of higher learning including the Citadel, a medical school, law school, and a wonderful Art Institute, plus the College of Charleston (C of C), which dates back to 1770. It has a marvelous Judaic Studies department, an active Hillel and a kosher cafeteria, Marty’s Place, open to the public throughout the academic year. C of C is also instrumental in the World of Jewish Culture, which was inaugurated in 1998 as a joint project of the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program at the college, in cooperation with Piccolo Spoleto.
Charleston is hot, hot, hot in the summer. In winter, it’s warm, albeit cooler than Florida and a draw for those looking ahead to retiring to a laid-back city where snow rarely falls. It’s a relatively easy drive from New Jersey; and its airport is compact and simple to navigate. Taxis and Ubers are readily available, the drivers are friendly, with many who are more than glad to talk about their beloved city. The population is considerably less than a million, but it’s growing tremendously.
It’s also a city where it’s good to be a Jew. In fact, Jews seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity first settled there in 1695. It has the second oldest synagogue building and oldest continuous synagogue (originally Sephardi, now Reform) in the United States, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim led by Rabbis Alexander, Holz and Kanter. This synagogue was founded in 1749. Named a national historic landmark in 1980, it includes a small museum and Judaica store.
The spiritual leader of the Conservative Emanu-El synagogue, Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum, served at Beth Shalom in Livingston 2003-2009, before being tapped for this solo pulpit. There are also two Orthodox synagogues, as well as a Chabad Center for Jewish Life, led by Rabbi Yossi Refson and his wife. There’s a daily minyan downtown where congregants gather at Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue (BSBI.) Established in 1854, it is the oldest continuous Ashkenazi synagogue. Its leader is Rabbi Moshe Davis. Congregation Dor Tikvah (Modern Orthodox) is located a few miles from downtown in the West Ashley neighborhood. Dor Torah is the new kid on the block, established in 2006. Its leader is Rabbi Michael Z. Davies, the husband of Ora. The young couple, originally from New Jersey, are growing an involved and inclusive Orthodox congregation. Rebbetzin Ora established a Sunday morning Hebrew school for high school students committed to continuing their Jewish studies. The Minyan House, an Orthodox satellite Shabbat and Yom Tov minyan was Dor Tikvah’s predecessor and still operates as home away from home (reservations required).
The houses of worship, along with Charleston’s other Jewish institutions, its Federation, a JCC, and Jewish Family Services, assures that no day passes without at least one interesting program and event with spiritual, educational, cultural or purely social content. Additionally, there is Addlestone Hebrew Academy, whose executive director is Rebbetzin Ariella Davis. It’s a day school for children 18 months through 8th grade, and excellent summer camps are not far away.
You’re sure to find welcome wherever you go because of southern hospitality. When combined with the ancient Jewish tradition of hachnasat orchim, (welcoming guests) you’re certain to find a warm welcome. Don’t expect dinner in Abraham and Sarah’s tent. However, their descendants will make sure you won’t starve.
Charleston is a dining destination, though not for kosher foodies. At least, not yet. On King Street, whose shops were virtually closed on Shabbat in the 1920s-1950s because so many of the city’s merchants were Jews, there’s King Street Cookies, a kosher gourmet bakery, where you can get breakfast or lunch. The vegan-vegetarian cafeteria, at C of C, is a good option when school’s in session. A kosher caterer (Dining In) owned by Marci Rosenberg offers prepared meals (order ahead). Her challahs are said to be super delicious. And if you’re looking to have a regular tourist experience, there are even kosher meat meals available at one of the city’s landmark restaurants, Hyman’s Seafood. They’re prepared ahead by the Chabad Rebbetzin, Sarah Refson, and can be reheated and served in the restaurant. They’re also available for take-out. If you’re packing a picnic or prefer to prepare your own meals, you can buy your own food at the local Publix Supermarket, Trader Joe’s, as well as Bali Kosher, a recently-opened store that carries kosher meat and Israeli products. And if that’s not enough, there’s kosher Krispy Kreme, which for some make a great moveable feast. So go and enjoy.
Learn more about Charleston, S.C. from Rebecca Liebowitz Engel, who grew up in New Jersey and is a 2000 graduate of SSDS (now Golda Och Academy.) She works for the Jewish Federation of Charleston, which offers visitors information through Shalom Charleston: 843-614 – 66484 | www.jewishcharleston.org
Her grandfather was one of the founders of Piccolo Spoleto. at http://www.piccolospoleto.com/
By Barbara Wind
Barbara Wind is a writer, speaker and Holocaust related independent scholar, curator and consultant.