The early years of Jewish religious life in Walterboro, South Carolina dates to the early 1900s. Jewish community members held Shabbat services in various locations, including private homes, the Masonic hall adjoining Zalin’s Department Store, and, for a time, at the Walterboro Army Airfield chapel. Jacob Frank kept the community's Torah at his home on Lucas Street. Lewis Harris, the son of Ruth Horowitz and Abram Harris, proprietors of Hayes Jewelers on Washington Street, recalls seeing Mr. Frank walking from his house to the Masonic hall, carrying the Torah wrapped in a sheet. Various members of the Jewish community led the prayers and delivered sermons.
News of Hitler’s atrocities in Europe inspired the approximately 40 members of Walterboro’s Jewish community, the majority of eastern European descent, to build a temple and community center, where they could worship, celebrate, educate their children, and hold cultural and communal events. After a few years of searching for an appropriate location for their sanctuary and social hall, the congregation bought a parcel of land on Neyle Street, which is situated southwest of the main thoroughfares of Walterboro, and hired architect John Truluck Jr., a local Clemson graduate and World War II fighter pilot to design and oversee the construction of the building. Construction began in 1950 with an official groundbreaking ceremony. The building was completed by the fall of 1951, in time for the High Holidays.
On May 25, 1952, Temple Mount Sinai was dedicated in the presence of the entire Jewish community of Walterboro, as well as non-Jewish residents of Walterboro. Temple President Leon Gelson led the program with welcoming remarks in which he thanked the Town of Walterboro for its spirit of friendship and cooperation. The ceremony program indicates that Albert Novit and Murray Warshaw placed the scrolls in the ark. Cantor J. J. Renzer of Charleston’s Conservative Synagogue Emanu-El sang, and the eternal light was lit. Rabbi Lewis Weintraub, also from Emanu El, gave the dedication address. Rabbi Julius Fisher of Beaufort’s Beth Israel offered a prayer of dedication and congratulated the congregation on its beautiful temple and cultural center, while noting, “The completion of the Synagogue is not, in itself, the end. It is the beginning . . . The spirit of a congregation is more important than its beautiful temple. Gold and marble are never as bright as love and loyalty.” Rev. John Younginer extended formal greetings on behalf of the Walterboro Ministerial Union. A reception in the temple’s new assembly hall followed the ceremony.
In the early 1950s, the congregation also arranged to have a parcel of land in Walterboro’s Live Oak Cemetery set aside for a Jewish burial ground. This became known as the Temple Mount Sinai Cemetery and freed the city’s Jews from having to purchase plots 50 miles away in Charleston, an accomplishment that was a high priority for Sam Siegel. Siegel was a local merchant and real estate agent and a World War II veteran. He moved from Anderson in 1940. His father, Max Siegel, was the original benefactor for Temple B’nai Israel in Anderson.
The congregation of Temple Mount Sinai never identified as either Conservative or Reform. At the January 1952 annual meeting, Sam Novit proposed that the congregation formally affiliate with the Conservative Movement. While some members supported the motion, others expressed concern over the cost or a strong preference to adhere to the customs of the Reform Movement. Those present took a straw poll and the final result was thirteen in favor of Conservative and nine for Reform. In the end, there was no motion, second, or formal vote. When the topic was broached again in 1956, this time by Henry Kessler, the board decided to request materials to help plan services from both the United Synagogue and Hebrew Union College (Reform). Although Temple Mount Sinai was often regarded as a Conservative synagogue, many members felt a close kinship with Reform Judaism.
Several members also joined either Synagogue Emanu-El (Conservative) or the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Reform) in nearby Charleston. Scholars such as Rabbis Alan Tarshish and Burton Padoll of KKBE frequently travelled to Walterboro to present lectures and lead discussions about the challenges facing modern Jewry. Student rabbis commissioned through the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative organization, conducted High Holiday services, and traveling rabbis supplemented Sunday school classes with Hebrew instruction for a congregation of about 50 adult members and 15 children. The Sunday school children put on plays and there was a sukkah at the synagogue. The holidays - Passover Seders, Purim parties and Hanukkah - were celebrated communally.
Although the future looked bright, the erosion of small town economies across the United States began to present a challenge to Walterboro's Jewish community. Once a thriving area for small Businesses - many owned by Jewish families - downtown Walterboro no longer provided a fertile environment for this type of enterprise. The construction of major highways and roads in the mid-to-late 1960s bypassed Walterboro, diverting much needed business from the downtown. A younger generation of Jews were drawn for social, cultural, and economic opportunities in larger urban settings.
For nearly three decades after the synagogue was built, the Jews of Walterboro maintained a vibrant religious community despite its small size. Paul Siegel, president of the congregation for four decades, fondly remembers community leader Bernard Warshaw informing the congregation of attempts by Charleston synagogues to "swallow" up Temple Mt. Sinai. Siegel remembers Warshaw striding up to the bimah and announcing to the world, "We are a proud community and will not give up our identity."
Sixty-six years after the founding of Temple Mt. Sinai, Jewish life in Walterboro has drastically diminished. With fewer than fifteen members residing in town, holding weekly Shabbat services is unrealistic. However, there is still something remarkable about the sense of community that remains among the Jews of Walterboro and their descendants. While most of the founding families and their children live elsewhere, their extended families still treasure their roots that lie in this small, southern town. Each year, family members of Walterboro's original Jewish community come together in Temple Mt. Sinai for the High Holy Days.
Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina