Jewish life below the Mason-Dixon line

(July 22, 2019)

David Weinfeld: Walking outside in the extreme heat and humidity of Charleston, S.C., I felt a long way from my home and native land of Canada. It was technically still spring, but it felt like the dead of summer. It was even hotter than my current hometown of Richmond, Va., where I’ve been living for the past three years.

I was in Charleston participating in a two-week program, funded by the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), called “Privilege and Prejudice: Jewish History in the American South.” The NEH gathered 25 scholars for a bootcamp on Southern Jewish history. We heard superb guest lecturers, engaged in stimulating discussions, conducted important archival research and went on fascinating walking tours that brought shvitzing to unprecedented heights.

We learned about the rich, but oft-ignored Jewish history of the American South. The second-oldest synagogue in the United States, which was built in 1840, is in Charleston. The third oldest, built in 1878, is in nearby Savannah, Ga. Charleston was the birthplace of Reform Judaism in America, and Jews played a central role in the economy of its vibrant port, as well as in other Southern cities, like Richmond, New Orleans, Mobile, Ala., and later Atlanta.

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