Monday, January 26, 2015

USA: Charleston, SC, Congregation Maintains Historic Jewish Cemetery One Stone (and One Wall) at a Time

 Charleston, South Carolina. KKBE's Coming Street Cemetery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

  Charleston, South Carolina. KKBE's Coming Street Cemetery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

USA: Charleston, SC, Congregation Maintains Historic Jewish Cemetery One Stone (and One Wall) at a Time
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) In early November I had the pleasure of spending a few days in Charleston, South Carolina, one of the most beautiful cities in America and a place with one of the oldest and richest Jewish histories.  Besides visiting the beautiful Greek Revival Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE) synagogue (1841), about which I have often written and lectured, I had my first visit to the congregation's old cemetery on Coming Street - one of the oldest Jewish sites in the New World, and one that deserves to be among the most celebrated. 

The cemetery, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the repository of the human remains of Charleston's early Jewish community, but it is much more than that. The gravestones and monuments tell the history of what was once America's largest and most prosperous Jewish settlement. I was fortunate to learn more of this history and the particulars of the cemetery from Anita Moise Rosenberg, President of the KKBE Board and congregant and cemetery historian Randi Serrins.

Jews have lived in Charleston since at least 1695, twenty-five years after the founding of the colony. KKBE was organized in 1749 and the congregation built its first impressive synagogue in 1791.  The Coming Street Cemetery originated as the De Costa Family plot in 1754 became a community cemetery in 1764. It is the second oldest Jewish cemetery in North America. The oldest identifiable grave is that of Moses D. Cohen, the first religious leader of Beth Elohim, who died in 1762.  A second section dates from 1841, and was developed by KKBE members who seceded  over the installation of an organ in the synagogue and formed Orthodox Congregation Shearith Israel. After the Civil War, the two congregations reunited and the brick dividing wall was removed.

Charleston, South Carolina. KKBE's Coming Street Cemetery. The Lopez Family section. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 

The last section added to the cemetery is the former Lopez family plot  established in 1843 when Shearith Israel refused burial to David Lopez Jr.'s first wife Catherine who had not converted to Judaism when she married Lopez in 1832, though she ran a Jewish house and raised her five children as Jews. When she died, Lopez acquired a lot immediately adjacent to the Jewish cemetery for the ornate Gothic style tomb beneath which she and her youngest son  were buried. A wrought iron fence and gate with the words, “David Lopez,” separated the Lopez plot from Shearith Israel’s burial ground. In all, 21 members of the Lopez family were buried in thirteen graves in this plot. The conservation of the Catherine and Charles Lopez tomb is now a priority for the congregation. Besides its artistic merit, the history of this tomb and its occupant tell us much about the mores and taboos of early antebellum Charleston Jewry - an important time when Charleston's preoccupations both mirrored and influenced Jewish communal behavior nationwide.  You can read more about this impressive monument here.

David Lopez, Jr. was one of America's first known Jewish builders. He was born in Charleston in 1809 and made his fortune in construction. He became a leader of the community and was responsible for the building (but not design) of KKBE. He also built Institute Hall where South Carolina signed the Ordinance of Secession, a prelude to the Civil War.  According to Randi Serrins Lopez also built the Queen Street tenements at 153-155 Queen Street, Mt. Zion AME Church, a four-story department store that later became the Academy of Music, the Moorish style former Farmer’s and Exchange Bank (more recently Saracen Restaurant), and the Courtenay Building. During the Civil War his factory made torpedo boats to fight the Union blockade of Charleston.  

Ernest O. Shealy documented that early in his career Charleston architect Edward C. Jones worked for David Lopez, and Serrins speculates that perhaps Jones and his associate Francis D. Lee - who together re-designed the Unitarian Church on Archdale Street in an English Gothic style in 1852 - were the architects.

 Charleston, South Carolina. KKBE's Coming Street Cemetery. Catherine and Charles Lopez tomb in Lopez family section. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Charleston, SC. Unitarian Church, Archdale St.  Edward C. Jones
and Francis D. Lee, architects, 1852. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2014)

In total, the cemetery has over 500 graves;though many are not marked. Upright "tablet" gravestones are the most common, though there are also many box tombs covered with inscribed monolithic slabs, and there are also an assortment of more sculptural monuments in the style of the 19th-centyr with columns and obelisks.

The Coming Street cemetery is a military cemetery with the graves of ten congregants who fought in the American Revolution, six soldiers of the War of 1812, two soldiers in the Seminole Wars in Florida, 21 Civil War participants, of whom eight died in the Confederate cause.  The cemetery also is the resting place of six of the KKBE's rabbis, 18 past congregation presidents and four of the eleven founders of the Supreme Council of Scottish Rite Masonry in 1801.

Charleston, South Carolina. KKBE's Coming Street Cemetery..Box tomb of colonial merchant Moses Cohen (1700-1762), the oldest identifiable grave in the cemetery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2014)

The congregation has been restoring the cemetery for many years.  Study of the gravestones is aided by the compilation of inscriptions published by Rabbi Barnett A. Elzas in 1903. Local historian Solomon Breibart also contributed much to the knowledge of the cemetery's history.  He was buried there in 2009 and his grave in the near the cemetery entrance.

The centuries have taken their toll. Gravestones have been damaged by erosion, earthquakes, adjoining development, tree roots, pollution and vandalism.  Many inscriptions are hard to read.  Some stones are broken, others pushed over by tree root pressure.  Fixing all this is a difficult and expensive process and the work proceeds little by little, stone by stone.  Still, the overall condition of the cemetery is better than that of many of the old Sephardi cemeteries in Caribbean which share family members. Significantly, the cemetery borders remain intact, unlike so many ravaged cemeteries in Europe. 

 Charleston, South Carolina. KKBE's Coming Street Cemetery. Reinforced cemetery boundary wall still in need of restoration. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014  

In 2013 the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) donated $10,000.00 to KKBE for the restoration project. The DAR grant has been used for wall restoration and repair of the Revolutionary-era graves.  The original boundary walls constructed by 18th-century craftsmen are severely compromised with significant through-wall cracks which now present an urgent danger to the very graves they have protected for centuries.  See more pictures of the Coming Street Cemetery Restoration Project 

Charleston, South Carolina. KKBE's Coming Street Cemetery.. Box tomb of Revolutionary War Captain Abraham Mendes Seixas (1750-1799), restored with DAR grant. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2014)

Charleston, South Carolina. KKBE's Coming Street Cemetery. Gravestone of Confederate soldier Marx E. Cohen, Jr. (1839-1865), killed at the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina.

I was especially eager to see the grave of Penina Moïse (1797-1880), an early published American woman poet, whose 1833 poetry volume Fancy’s Sketch Book, was the first published by a Jewish American woman.  She was a leading voice in the new language of Reform Judaism in the first half of the 19th century.  A half century before Emma Lazarus, Moïse gave American Judaism a new voice in a new language, and to link the heroics of ancient Jewish history to new American opportunities. Moïse's hymns were written for KKBE but were sung across the country for more than a century.  She is also remembered as a founder with Sally Lopez (David Lopez's sister), of the Beth Elohim Sunday School in 1845, one of the first in the country.

 Charleston, South Carolina. KKBE's Coming Street Cemetery. Grave of poet and teacher Penina Moïse. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014
This year I was pleased to present and sing (with piano accompaniment by Syracuse University music history professor Amanda Winkler) Moïse 's hymn "Feast of Lights: Great Arbiter of Human Fate," at my annual Hanukkah party. The hymn in the tone of the lyric and the steadfastness of the musical arrangement by Edward Samuel recalls, not unexpectedly,  Protestant hymns sung at the time (and still today).
Penina Moïse. "Feast of Lights." Photo from Ashton, Hannukkah in America: A History (NY: NYU Press, 2013).

 Charleston, South Carolina. KKBE's Coming Street Cemetery. Obelisk grave monument. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Charleston, South Carolina. KKBE's Coming Street Cemetery. Column grave monument. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

 Charleston, South Carolina. KKBE's Coming Street Cemetery. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014
Today, KKBE congregation burials take place in KKBE’s Huguenin Avenue Cemetery, established in 1887. 

More information on KKBE’s history and the Coming Street Cemetery is available on  If you are interested in a tour of the Coming Street Cemetery, please contact the KKBE office, 843-723-1090 or email

1 comment:

Oscar Winner said...

Thank you for writing about the Coming Street Cemetery. We look forward to seeing you again!
To schedule a tour, please contact the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim office at 843-723-1090 or