Doing Charleston

Anthea Gerrie makes the most of BA’s new direct flights to Charleston to discover the area’s Jewish history and neighbouring Savannah


It was a barmitzvah, but not quite as we know it. The singing was led by a lady guitarist who harmonised ad hoc with the female rabbi, and the final hymn was a Hebrew translation of Bob Marley’s Redemption song, preceded by a few lines of translated rap.

Welcome to Charleston, home of the US Jewish Reform movement, itself born in the country’s oldest synagogue in continuous use. Kahol Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE) was founded in 1749, by which time neighbouring Savannah’s Temple Mickve Israel had been up and running for 16 years — a strong Jewish presence in these parts pre-dates the birth of the nation.

Both communities prospered on the back of a rich plantation economy and the slave trade, their success surely surprising London’s Bevis Marks synagogue, which sent its poorest refugees from the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal to help swell the Savannah congregation.

By 1800, the larger port city of Charleston — whose own migrants, lured by the assurance of political and economic as well as religious freedom, had flooded in from Germany and the Caribbean along with Spain, Portugal and England — boasted the largest Jewish population in America.

And this stretch of the US east coast is now easier to reach, thanks to the new direct British Airways flight from London to Charleston, letting you visit not only the thriving communities in two of the country’s most elegant cities but also more of the historic settlements on either side.

Charleston is the obvious starting point. Like Savannah, you’ll find an entire neighbourhood of beautifully preserved 18th century buildings alongside the vibrancy of a college town. And it’s easy to discover the Jewish heritage behind the elegant façade.

Historian Ruth Miller leads guided walks, which can be tailored to Jewish interest, around the picturesque South of Broad Street neighbourhood, while KKBE offers tours of their own handsome Greek Revival building near the waterfront. Tragically the synagogue (whose congregation was split by the move towards Reform in 1824) lost all its ancient Judaica, first to a fire which gutted the original building and later to an earthquake. The elegant sanctuary with its organ and the striking murals of the community hall are well worth a visit.

Check in to the Belmond Charleston Place directly opposite: its grand colonial-style staircase belying the relatively new construction and whose outstanding gourmet restaurant needs to be booked several days ahead.

The temptation for first-time visitors is to explore the historic district and one of the nearby plantation houses and gardens, then head straight on to Savannah. But it’s worth going an hour or so north first for some more Jewish history, to Georgetown, the third oldest town in South Carolina after Charleston and Beaufort.

Its own Jewish community dates from the 18th century, all the more remarkable for being built up anew over the past few decades after dwindling to just five families, selling one of its Torahs and even contemplating closing before this welcome revival.

As well as visiting the town’s Temple Beth Elohim, the Kaminski Museum covers local Jewish history while Georgetown County is home to glorious coastline, including beautiful beach houses for rent. Stop off too at Hobcaw Barony, the country home of Jewish presidential advisor and philanthropist Bernard Baruch, who entertained Churchill here in the 1930s. Both the house and expansive grounds, which contain a former slave village, can be visited by appointment.

As you head back south to Savannah, take the slow road towards Beaufort, South Carolina’s second oldest town, today a beautiful sleepy waterfront hamlet which has appeared in countless movies. From a horse-drawn carriage tour, one of the sights pointed out to visitors is another beautiful old synagogue, Beth Israel. Beaufort’s community was established long before the synagogue was consecrated in 1908, and continues to thrive today.

The lovely streets themselves are paved with English brick — brought as ballast on slave ships. For those who want to explore the dark history of slavery in the area, nearby St Helena Island is home to one of the few uplifting stories which followed the American Civil War.

Here the Quakers set up the Penn School to offer freed slaves on the local plantations immediate access to the education they had been denied for generations.

With its own generous helping of Southern charm, Savannah is also making a name for itself as a foodie mecca, while the students and professors of SCAD, the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, have helped both to ensure the restoration and preservation of the city’s historic architecture and create an edgy new arts district.

Staying centrally in the Landmark Historic District, the city highlights are easy to reach — and Perry Lane, the city’s newest five-star hotel, is the hip choice of lodging. From here, a short stroll or hop-on, hop-off trolley takes you to many of the city’s 22 squares lined with magnificent live oaks dripping Spanish moss as well as Temple Mickve Israel. Open to all, its sanctuary and fascinating museum of Judaica includes 500-year-old Torah scrolls and an ancient silver circumcision kit bequeathed by Bevis Marks.

Further outside the city lies the unmissably spooky and decorative Bonaventure cemetery — made famous by the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, it also houses one of five Jewish cemeteries in Savannah, still used to this day.

There’s one final historic spot not to be missed: Leopold’s ice-cream parlour, celebrating its centenary this year — tutti frutti and lemon custard have both been on the menu since the start. And its rich offerings are the perfect accompaniment to the area’s own rich history.


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