The house of worship is stained with the sin of slavery, much like many other buildings built in Charleston before the Civil War.
Consecrated in 1841, the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue was built by black slaves.
“We are honest and transparent about what made it possible for us to come together and come to this space,” said Rabbi Stephanie Alexander.
The congregation is working to officially recognize this painful past with a plaque recently installed outside the place of worship. The inscription on the new monument also testifies to KKBE’s commitment to equality for all.
“With the building’s renovation and re-inauguration in 2020, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim is once again dedicated to recognizing the mistakes of the past and reconciling the beliefs of our faith with our actions as we commit to spiritual growth and social justice for all ”, we can read. .
The recognition came as the Congregation of Reform Judaism began renovating its historic building in 2019, the year after the city of Charleston formally apologized for its role in the slave trade.
KKBE’s $ 1 million effort was completed in 2020, an effort to preserve the historic structure while modernizing it for future use.
The new brick monument sits roughly knee-high on the outside of the shrine. The bricks themselves have significance, as they were taken from the synagogue’s historic Coming Street cemetery and were likely formed by enslaved blacks as well, Alexander said.
Other religious groups have taken similar steps. KKBE was inspired by the brick monument in the Unitarian Church in Charleston that honors the African Americans who built this religious edifice. The First Baptist Church in Charleston has a plaque in the sanctuary stairwell, a path once taken by enslaved African Americans who sat upstairs in a segregated church.
KKBE’s fight for equality for all continues in several ways. The synagogue is actively involved with the Charleston Area Justice Department, a coalition of dozens of faith groups that are tackling issues of housing, transportation and health care. The Jewish group also helped form the Faith Advisory Board for the African-American International Museum in Charleston.
The KKBE congregation not only remembers its own commitment to racial justice, but also hopes to inspire others. The synagogue, which is considered the first Reformed Jewish congregation and also has the oldest continuous-service Jewish shrine in the country, welcomes thousands of visitors each year.
The hope is that guests will be inspired to also reflect on how many institutions in the country are built on the legacy of slavery, Alexander said.
“I hope they will be inspired to be a part of this soul-searching,” she said.
Prominent Charleston-area Jew and slave owner David Lopez Jr. led the construction of the KKBE structure, using skilled and enslaved African-American workers to build the site. The place was built after the original shrine burned down in a fire.
The names of two slaves are known – Kit and George, as detailed in the journal of Professor Barry Stiefel of the College of Charleston “David Lopez Jr .: Builder, Industrialist, and Defender of the Confederacy”.
What is also known is that Lopez paid at least one other slave owner to use the owner’s slave African Americans to help build the place of worship.
Additionally, researchers believe it was a slave who repaired one of the silver cases that once held the Torah scrolls inside the synagogue. This device is no longer in the KKBE because it was sent to Colombia in anticipation of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march during the civil war, only for having burned the sacred texts there during the march.
It is important for synagogue members to study the past so as not to repeat the same wrongdoing, said KKBE member Harlan Greene.
“It’s a heavy burden,” he said. “We have to recognize it. “