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The birthplace of Reform Judaism in the United States and the oldest surviving Reform synagogue in the world.
The Story of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim


The first congregation to practice Reform Judaism in the United States, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim still worships in a synagogue that is an imposing example of Greek Revival architecture so popular in Charleston in the pre-Civil War period. Constructed in 1840-41, it is the second oldest synagogue building in the United States and the oldest in continuous use. It is also the oldest surviving Reform synagogue in the world.

Charleston was established in 1670, and the earliest known reference to a Jew in the English settlement is a description dated 1695. Soon thereafter other Jews followed, attracted by the civil and religious liberty of South Carolina and the ample economic opportuntiy of the colony. These pioneers were sufficiently numerous by 1749 to organize the present congregation, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Holy Congregational House of God) and, fifteen years later, to establish the now historic Coming Street cemetary, the oldest Jewish burial ground in the South.
The minutes of Beth Elohim for the 1840s reveal that the leadership agonized over many details of the building. They often called congregational meetings to arrive at final decisions. Matters of the greatest concern were the size of the new structure, the location of the entrance door (some wanted to place it facing the street), the location of certain tablets and their inscriptions. The most divisive issue arouse from a request from reform-minded members to install an organ in the new building, which was approved after much debate by a very narrow margin.
Beth Elohim is acknowledged as the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the United States. In 1824, a sizable group of congregants, 47 in number, petitioned the Adjunta ( the trustees) to change the Sephardic Orthodox liturgy.
For almost two and a half centuries members of Beth Elohim have been eminent leaders in the city, state and country. Among notable early congregants were Moses Lindo, who before the Revolution helped to develop the cultivation of Indigo (then South Carolina's second crop), and Joseph Levy, veteran of the Cherokee War of 1760-61 and probably the first Jewish military officer in America. Almost two dozen men of Beth Elohim served in the War of Independence, among them the brilliant young Francis Salvador, who as delegate to the South Carolina Provincial Congresses of 1775 and1776, was one of the first Jews to serve in an American legislature. Killed shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Salvador was also the first Jew known to die in the Revolutionary War.