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SC Synagogue Remembers Enslaved Black People Who Built It

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue, Charleston, SC
Warren LeMay
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue, Charleston, SC

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The house of worship is stained with the sin of slavery, not unlike many other buildings constructed in Charleston before the Civil War.

Dedicated in 1841, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim's synagogue was built by enslaved Blacks.

"We're being honest and transparent about what has enabled us to come together and has enabled us to come to this space," said Rabbi Stephanie Alexander.

The congregation is making an effort to formally acknowledge this painful past with a plaque recently installed outside the house of worship. The inscription on the new monument also speaks to KKBE's commitment to equality for all people.

"Upon the renovation and rededication of the building 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," it reads.

The recognition came as the Reformed Judaism congregation began renovating its historic building in 2019, the year after the city of Charleston issued a formal apology for its role in the slave trade.

KKBE's $1 million effort was completed in 2020, an effort to preserve the historic structure while also modernizing it for future use.

The new brick monument sits about knee-high outside the sanctuary. The bricks themselves have significance, as they were taken from the synagogue's historic Coming Street cemetery and were likely also formed by enslaved Blacks, Alexander said.

Other religious groups have made similar steps. KKBE took inspiration from the Unitarian Church in Charleston's brick monument that honors the African Americans who built that religious building. First Baptist Church in Charleston has a plaque at the sanctuary's stairwell, a path once used by enslaved African Americans who sat upstairs in a segregated church.

KKBE's fight for equality for all people continues in several ways. The synagogue is actively involved in the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a coalition of dozens of faith groups that tackle issues of housing, transportation and health care. The Jewish group has also been helping form the faith advisory council for Charleston's International African American Museum.

KKBE's congregation is not only reminded of its own commitment towards racial justice but also hopes to inspire others. The synagogue, which hails as the first Reformed Jewish congregation and also has the oldest Jewish sanctuary in continuous use in the nation, welcomes thousands of visitors each year.

The hope is that guests will be inspired to also think about how many of the nation's institutions are built upon the legacy of slavery, Alexander said.

"Hopefully, they'll be inspired to do some of that 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 sanctuary burned in a fire.

The names of two slaves are known — Kit and George, as detailed in College of Charleston professor Barry Stiefel's journal "David Lopez Jr.: Builder, Industrialist, and Defender of the Confederacy."

What's also known is Lopez paid at least one other slave owner to use the owner's enslaved African Americans to help construct the house of worship.

Additionally, researchers believe it was an enslaved worker who repaired one of the silver casings that once held the Torah scrolls inside the synagogue. That device is no longer at KKBE because it was sent to Columbia in anticipation of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's March during the Civil War, only to have the holy texts burned there in the march.

It's important for synagogue members to study the past so as to not repeat the same wrongdoings, said KKBE member Harlan Greene.

"It's a heavy burden," he said. "We have to acknowledge it."