Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE) is celebrating its 275th anniversary in 2024. Established in Charleston, South Carolina in 1749, KKBE's synagogue is the second oldest synagogue building in the United States and the oldest in continuous use. We sat down with Naomi Gorstein, KKBE's president, to talk about the congregation's history, social justice initiatives, and plans for the future.
URJ: What can you tell me about the early years of KKBE?
Naomi Gorstein: The congregation was established in 1749, and the cemetery was established 15 years later. That cemetery is now the historic Coming Street cemetery. In 1792, the congregation was big enough to build a really impressive synagogue, which was dedicated in 1794.
In 1838, there was a giant fire in Charleston, and the building was burned to the ground. In 1840, they began building the structure we use today, which is often cited as one of the country's finest examples of Greek revival architecture. It was designated a national historic landmark in 1980.
Wow, that's amazing! How did KKBE become part of the Reform Movement?
Naomi Gorstein: KKBE was originally established as a Sephardi Orthodox synagogue. In 1824, 47 congregants petitioned the trustees to change the Sephardic Orthodox liturgy they were using. After the trustees refused, the liberal members resigned from the congregation and organized the Reformed Society of Israelites. This independent society was led by Isaac Harby, Abraham Moise II, and David Nunez Carvalho. Many of the society's practices and principles have become part of today's Reform Judaism such as shorter services, praying in English and Hebrew, allowing all-gender seating, and more. After nine years, the Reformed Society rejoined the old congregation. After the synagogue was rebuilt in 1841, they persuaded the community to introduce an organ, and that's when the orthodox members left. KKBE was also one of the earliest synagogues to join the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873, which is now known as the Union for Reform Judaism, and we remain proudly committed to Reform Judaism today.
You mentioned the current synagogue was built in 1840-1841. Did the builders use the labor of enslaved people?
Naomi Gorstein: All the old buildings in Charleston were built by enslaved people, including our synagogue. People don't realize this, but Jews enslaved people, too. That's a big thing for people to come to terms with when they come here. They're like, "What? How could that happen?" But it is something that's really important to acknowledge.
After our restoration work in 2019, we created a monument and put it outside our building to honor the enslaved people who worked on the synagogue. The monument includes a quote inspired by Mishnah Yoma 8:9: "There is no atonement for transgressions of one human being against another until that person has reconciled with the other." It goes on to say, "In 2020, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim rededicates itself to recognizing the errors of the past and reconciling the beliefs of our faith with our actions as we commit to spiritual growth and social justice for all."
Could you share a bit about the social justice work that KKBE's been involved with recently?
Naomi Gorstein: Our senior rabbi, Rabbi Stephanie Alexander, is passionate about social justice, and our congregants are very supportive of that. One of the things that she was involved with founding is the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM), which focuses on community organizing and pushing local officials to do more for the community. It's been active for over 10 years and has focused on issues like having more spots in public preschools and helping people who work in the service and hospitality industries get legal representation.
Our first event for our 275th anniversary will also focus on social justice. It's called "Jews and Justice" and is going to be a panel discussion about the impact Jews have had on the Supreme Court and civil rights in the United States.
What are some of the other events you're planning to celebrate your 275th anniversary?
Naomi Gorstein: Our second event is going to be a community Purim festival. We've gotten grants from Jewish organizations to provide kosher food and we'll have live music, crafts for kids, a flash mob, rock climbing wall, petting zoo, and pony rides. It's just this huge festival for everybody to enjoy, and it's actually on Purim, March 24.
The third event is during Memorial Day weekend, and that is going to be a celebration of Reform Judaism with a cantorial concert. The concert will trace the evolution of the Reform Movement through music. Our choir, Koleinu, and Bates O'Neil, our music and artistic director, will be joined by the director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at HUC-JIR, Cantor Jill Abramson, Professor Joyce Rosenzweig, and five cantorial students as they perform Reform music spanning the 200 years since the Reformed Society of Israelites was established.
In the fall, we're having historic tours as our fourth event. We're partnering with the Preservation Society of Charleston to give tours of prominent Jews' homes and buildings. The tours will feature sites of historical interest and demonstrate the intertwining of Charleston's history with Jewish history.
The last event is going to be a gala, held early next year, and one of the things we're most excited about for that event is our plan to bring in members of one of the resident programs at The Second City for a performance.
Finally, what are some of your thoughts about the future of KKBE?
Naomi Gorstein: As important as our history is, and it obviously is very important, we also need to look to the future. Welcoming people, finding out how they celebrate their Jewish identity, and connecting with them is paramount because they are our future. We want to be the place people want to come to, we want to be exciting and interesting and relevant. That's our highest mission.
If you are interested in learning more about these events or want to participate, please email Naomi Gorstein.