The South is home to some of the oldest and most historic Jewish congregations in the United States. Some, such as those of Charleston and Savannah, rival even New York in their venerability. Because of this, the South boasts a surprising number of particularly beautiful and historic synagogues, including several that rank among the most important in the United States. Grand synagogues from the mid-19th to mid-20th century grace the skylines of many of the South’s major cities, especially along the coast.
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue
Charleston, South Carolina (built 1840)
The Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue is home to one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the United States, and is the second oldest synagogue still in use. It was founded in large part by Jewish immigrants fleeing the Inquisition, with the first arriving as early as the late 17th century. Charleston was the first city in the South to receive Jews thanks in part to the colonial charter for South Carolina, personally prepared by John Locke, which expressly permitted Jews to live and worship freely in the colony.
By the time of the American Revolution, the Jewish community of Charleston was so large that it was home to both Sephardic and Ashkenazi congregations. The Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue, the Sephardic congregation, has several claims to fame. It boasted the first Jewish elected official, and it sponsored an all-Jewish infantry unit that fought in the American Revolution. The current synagogue was constructed in 1840, with the adjoining building dating back a century earlier. Both are part of the Charleston historic district.
Congregation Mickve Israel
Savannah, Georgia (built 1878)
Congregation Mickve Israel is one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the United States and the first to be established in the South. It was founded in 1735 by Jewish immigrants from England, many of whom were refugees from the Inquisition in Southwest Europe. The congregation struggled during the 18th century, as many members fled Savannah in the 1740s in the face of a Spanish attack on the city. The community became reestablished just before the American Revolution. Mickve Israel was the first Jewish congregation to receive a presidential letter, in which George Washington called for a blessing on the Jewish people.
The Jewish community of Savannah inhabited a number of synagogues, both temporary and purpose built, before the congregation grew too large in the second half of the 19th century. A new synagogue, one of the largest in the United States at the time of its construction, was completed in 1878. The Congregation Mickve Israel Synagogue is located in, and is an integral part of the Savannah Historic District.
Congregation Beth Ahabah
Richmond, Virginia (built 1904)
Congregation Beth Ahabah is the most historic synagogue in Virginia and thanks to roots in an earlier Jewish community one of the oldest congregations in the South. Some of the congregation’s history can be traced back to the founding of another synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome, established in the 1780s. Congregation Beth Ahabah was not established until 1789, but the two congregations merged in 1898. Beth Ahabah is famous for its Cemetery for Hebrew Confederate Soldiers, one of the only Jewish military cemeteries outside of Israel.
A few years after the merger of the two communities, a new synagogue was built to accommodate the larger congregation. It was completed in 1904. Congregation Beth Ahabah maintains the Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives, one of the best Jewish museums in the South. The synagogue and museum are both located in Downtown Richmond.
New Orleans, Louisiana (built 1909)
Touro Synagogue is the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States outside of the original thirteen colonies. Although it was founded in 1891, it is actually the result of a merger between two older congregations, Nefutzot Yehudah founded in 1846 and Shangarai Chasset founded in 1828. Both communities descended from Jews that had arrived during the French colonial era, and who had stayed in New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase. Judah Touro, a Jewish-American war hero and philanthropist for whom the synagogue was later named, was instrumental in establishing Judaism in New Orleans.
About a decade after the merger of the two congregations, a new synagogue was constructed to replace the older buildings and accommodate the greater numbers. It was completed in 1909. On a historic note, the Touro Synagogue was on the very edge of the flooding during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and many members of its congregation were forced to evacuate the area. Nevertheless Touro reopened on Rosh Hashanah of that year, the first synagogue to hold a service after the destruction. Touro Synagogue is west of the Central Business District.
Miami Beach, Florida (built 1948)
Temple Emanu-El is one of the largest and most historic synagogues in Southern Florida and a cornerstone of Miami’s vibrant Jewish community. The congregation was established in 1938 as the Congregation Jacob Joseph of Miami Beach when the Jewish population of Miami was still relatively small. Its early years were hectic, due in part to World War II, when Miami was transformed into a major center of military activity at the same time as the first sanctuary was under construction.
After the war, Miami’s Jewish community, and the congregation, grew by leaps and bounds. A massive new sanctuary was constructed to accommodate the new influx of people. At the time of its completion in 1948, the immense domed synagogue, modeled after the Great Synagogue of Oran, was the largest in the South, and remains so to the present day. It is considered one of the major architectural landmarks of South Beach.