South Carolina: The Organ and the Pillar-Transcript

This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.

(Intro) Welcome to American Rabbi Project. The Podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan.

(Justin Regan) As I mentioned in the previous episode, my travels after Washington D.C. made it the hardest leg of the trip. The recent shooting in Pittsburgh, plus the other shooting and fires in my California hometown were weighing heavily on me. Not to mention I was traveling through parts of the country where I didn’t know anybody who could provide a room or couch for a night. And for a whole week it seemed like I was being followed by a very persistent rain storm. Again, this was the part of the trip where the project pushed me to continue on and that was great. The downside is when your primary focus is work, it’s going to turn into work. On one particular weekend, I scrambled to get the last couple of interviews on the trip. On that Friday I woke up at 5 AM and drove all morning to conduct an interview in Charleston, South Carolina. That Sunday I would drive 2 hours from Charleston to Savannah, Georgia and then back up to Charleston that same day, because I was planning to be in the Smokies by Monday. But this is a Jewish podcast. So on that Saturday I took a much needed break. The storm cleared and it was a warm Southern November day. I started by touring a tea plantation, and jolting my system with all sorts of caffeine. Later that night I walked around downtown Charleston and had a delicious traditional South Carolina dish. I won’t say what it was for the sake of the integrity of this Jewish podcast. But it sure was tasty. That same day I also went to the beach. Not only was it great to play on the surf and sand, it was also a good moment of closure. At this point, I was quickly approaching the time where I would start heading back west. Here, I was able to have one last moment in the Atlantic Ocean and collect my thoughts. It was a much needed day of rest to help me prepare for the transcontinental leg ahead. 

South Carolina: The Organ and the Pillar

(Regan) For the next few episodes of American Rabbi Project, I’m going to profile some of the oldest congregations in the country. Specifically focusing on three that pre-date the United States. Two of them are in the South. 

(Rabbi Greg Kanter) Hello my name is Rabbi Greg Kanter of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina.

(Regan) You might have heard Kanter’s voice on this podcast before. Last season he was one of several rabbis to weigh in on what the phrase ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ means to him. Here’s a quick refresher. 

(Kanter) For me, when I say ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ I am transported to a city that was once my home. I am sitting on the meer pesset, Hebrew for balcony, where I celebrated Passover with friends and classmates 30 years ago.

(Regan) Today, Rabbi Kanter is one of the many rabbis who has served this congregation since its inception in 1749. And he also makes a pretty good tour guide as well.

(Kanter) We’re now in the sanctuary. When you look out here you see the pews, the wooden pews, you see the stained glass, going down both sides. A number of windows and you see the balcony.

(Regan) Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, or KKBE for short, is placed in the heart of Charleston, and manages to proudly stick out from its surroundings. Frankly, it looks like a Greek temple complete with a tall triangle roof and white columns holding it up. It mirrors that style in the sanctuary with more columns, a high ceiling, a multi-level beama up front, and a white interior to nicely contrast with the wooden pews and ark. Everywhere you look there is history, including the floor. 

(Kanter) These wood planks where they are flooring, there’s a line where they stop. And then stop start again. And that was the location of the original place they read Torah from. 

(Regan) Reading from the center of the sanctuary is a Sephardic tradition. Sephardic Jews are originally from Spain and Portugal, also known as the Iberian peninsula. After fleeing the Spanish Inquisition many went to places like North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. However others went to The Netherlands and England. From these areas, some found their way to the “New World”. The Sephardim were the vast majority of the early Jewish North American settlers. 

(Kanter) Charleston, before New York, was the biggest Jewish community in North America. That’s because a lot of business went in and out of the port. That brought Jews here, and they also found a lot of freedom here. The original charter for the Carolina colony said that Jews could be equal here and own property. And owning property meant you could vote. And this was the only place in the world, some of the colonies didn’t even allow that at the time.

(Regan) These freedoms helped many Jews gain prominence in the early South Carolina colony. That includes Moses Lindo who played a key role in boosting the colony’s indigo industry. And Francis Salvador, whose rise to the South Carolina Provincial Congress in 1774 made him the first Jew to be elected to public office in America and the British Empire. An impressive feat when some state legislatures barred non-christians well into the next century. Salvador used his position to push for independence and would be the first Jew killed fighting in the Revolutionary War. In the 1790’s, while George Washington was serving as the country’s first president, KKBE opened a grandiose synagogue in Charleston. When it was rebuilt after an 1838 fire, an interesting new device was put in.  

(Kanter) Also looking out here you’ll see the Organ. This is not the original Organ. I believe it is the fourth. But it’s still lovely and historical and part of the Reform history of the congregation.

(Regan) The Reform movement started in Europe around the time of the emancipation, when European countries started granting more freedoms to its Jewish residents. This helped foster a denomination with the focus of putting a more modern spin to Judaism. That involves having services be in the language of the host country, being more egalitarian and seeing the Torah as a guiding document and not necessarily written by The Divine. Critics would counter by saying it was a more diluted and assimilated form of Judaism with less focus on the religious aspect. By the mid 19th century the new style was gaining traction in the U.S. with Charleston becoming one of the hotspots of debate between the Traditionalists and the Reformers. This conflict can even be seen in the sanctuary’s layout. There’s an organ for playing music on Shabbat, a Reform staple, but it’s placed on the balcony, an area typically used as the women’s seating section in synagogues that are more traditional(or as they are commonly called today, Orthodox). 

(Kanter) So there was an occasion, I’ll have to check for the precise date, when the Reforms began where the Rabbi came out on the beama at a service, looked up at the balcony, which was the women’s section, and said “ladies, come join your families. It’s family seating from this point forward here  at KKBE” And that was a pretty big innovation for any synagogue outside of Europe.

(Regan) Back on the ground floor, Kanter shows me the beama, the platform where services are run. It’s a sanctuary within the sanctuary with more columns flanked by Menorahs and gold Hebrew letters. It all leads to the arc where the Torahs are placed. At KKBE it’s big enough to be its own room.  

(Kanter) This arc was very important to the builder of this second version of our congregation when it was rebuilt in the mid 1800’s. We know from some of the documents that did exist that there were at least two skilled slaves that were very involved in working on the reconstruction of this. This was before the Civil War.

(Regan) Just as many Charleston Jews supported and fought for the Patriots in the American Revolution, many supported, and fought for, the Confederacy during the Civil War. It was a conflict that directly affected KKBE. 

(Kanter) Sherman’s army, they anticipated was going to come to Charleston. They packed up all the valuable things that could be moved from the Sanctuary and sent them to Columbia for safe keeping. As it happened, somewhere along Sherman’s March instead of coming to Charleston they went to Columbia. Which means almost all those valuable things that we sent to Columbia were lost. There’s one silver basket that someone found at an estate sale, and determined from the engraving that it belonged to the congregation and is currently in our museum. But just about everything else valuable, the Torahs at the time, the silver on the Torahs, anything else valuable that could be moved was lost when Sherman’s army went to Columbia.

(Regan) From the Colonial period to the Civil War, Charleston Jews participated in slaveholding at about the same rate as their non-Jewish neighbors. That includes the liberty loving Francis Salvador. The Indigo industry, which Moses Lindo helped greatly increase, was heavily reliant on enslaved labor. Lindo himself owned a slave ship. A connection to this troubled time can be seen on a mural in KKBE’s social hall. 

(Kanter) One has soldiers from wars throughout  the history of the United States, including the Confederacy. And the picture of the Confederate soldier has his head bowed, near him there’s a pillar broken off which is a traditional symbol of defeat. So we have to be honest about it. We can’t sweep it under the rug. This happened. We’re part of the confederacy during and before the Civil War. Even though people know about what went on during the civil war, sometimes people on our tours are a little shocked. But I think it’s better for people to be a little shocked and ask questions about it and also let people know how we’re part of social justices in the 21st century in Charleston and address the issues that affect us in Charleston today in a completely different way then they did in the 19th century. 

(Regan) Like many Southern institutions, KKBE is working on how to address a Confederate past. I asked Kanter if this was a source of tension in the congregation.

(Kanter) There are members here who have been here for many generations, since the 1700’s possibly earlier. And they’re proud of their Southern Jewish roots which is a different experience from people like me who are originally not from the South. But I think ultimately our common Judaism overcomes that. So we get to know those things but we can still love each other and come together really a lot like family. They both exist here but they peacefully co-exist. 

(Regan) Kanter himself is not originally from one of the Confederate states. He grew up in St. Louis. Side note: Missouri was a slave state but it did not leave the Union. Like several other rabbis interviewed for this podcast, Kanter credits a special Hebrew school teacher of his for providing the spark to his Jewish interest. He would become a Hebrew school assistant teacher, participate in youth groups and work at Jewish summer camps. 

(Kanter) After graduating college and having to think seriously about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life as I looked back to what I enjoyed the most and where I got the most satisfaction it was always related to Jewish life. So to apply to Rabbinical school was the natural next step for me. 

(Regan) He was ordained in 1993, and has served congregations in places like Minnesota and Florida. By 2016, Kanter found himself in Charleston. 

(Kanter) Rabbis in the field had told us as rabbinical students to expect this. But until you are actually living the career that it doesn’t really sink in that it’s more than a 9 to 5 job. That even on your day off you’ll get calls. They’ll be urgent needs. Some will be less urgent needs where people will reach out to you because they always expect their rabbi to be available. And in a town like Charleston no matter where I go if I’m in jeans and sweats, out shopping for my family, it’s quite common that I’ll hear ‘hi rabbi’ and which is wonderful in a way especially in this community. But until you live it you don’t realize how blended your personal life and professional life are always going to be. 

(Regan) Sometimes, this blending can be a real challenge. Especially during a tragedy. Like the shooting in Pittsburgh, a topic that was still very much on everyone’s mind when I was in Charleston.

(Kanter) Fear and sadness were the biggest emotions I felt because you worry is this part of a trend across the country? Certainly the level, both in the media and based off some reports from the anti-Defamation league seem to indicate that anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise all across North America. And being in the South you worry about that just a little more. Although this can happen anywhere obviously, Pittsburgh was not the south.

(Regan) Kanter says, it’s a worry that many people in the Charleston community know all too well. KKBE is not far from Mother Emanuel Church; the site of a 2015 shooting massacre when a white supremacist killed nine African American worshippers at a Bible study. More and more there are concerns about how much security is necessary without being too much.

(Kanter) As a much younger rabbi I traveled to visit the community in Mexico City. Security there by comparison was extremely high. You were greeted at any Jewish institution at the street where there was a guard gate and if you’re name wasn’t on a list you didn’t get in. But what they would tell me is ‘this is coming to you’. This kind of security. And it looks like in this country we are moving closer and closer to that situation.

(Regan) More than just security concerns for the synagogue, Kanter says it’s a challenge to advise his congregants when it comes to personal safety. Especially at a time where Jews might feel more and more like a target.

(Kanter) On the one hand it can make someone afraid and want to hide more. So people who might be more open and outward about their Judaism might feel less secure about those kind of things. Wearing a yarmulke, wearing Jewish jewelry. On the one hand I want to say to people ‘do more of it’. I’m well aware the more people know of you and who you are, the less likely they are to be afraid of a Jewish person. And I think that a lot of the anti-Semitism we see comes out of irrational fear. My biggest fear would be incidents like this, which are terrorist incidents, would make people afraid and want to hide their Jewish identity.

(Regan) Kanter says it can be a cruel irony when anti-Semitism increases due to more Jews leaving or hiding who they are because of anti-Semitism. Something he says happens in other countries. But just like the Jews of old who set sail for the South Carolina Colony, Kanter sees this place as different.

(Kanter) We certainly enjoy a lot of freedoms provided to us by the Constitution and I’d hate to see any of those melt away. We have to be vigilant about that. And I think that does make us a really special place. The same is not true for other places in the world for Jews. It’s looking more and more like the United States and Israel are the two safest places for Jews in the world. I hope it stays that way. I love both those countries very much. But I like to visit other places and I’m part of a family that’s international. Traveling around the world I would hope is something wonderful so when I do visit places outside of America they’re curious in a positive way about my Jewish identity and that’s something I can share with them wherever I go. And also explore our international identity as well. 

(Regan) As for Kanter’s domestic identity, he doesn’t think it’s as simple as saying he’s ‘more Jewish than American’ or ‘more American than Jewish’. 

(Kanter)  To me I don’t think it’s linear. So at any time of the day one part of my identity or the other can emerge a little more or little less. I love being Jewish I embrace it. It’s part of my life when I’m at KKBE and when I’m not here. But I’m unusual. I’m not a typical member here of the congregation. To combine my thoughts on this particular topic with the last particular topic, I would hope I am doing everything to get people to integrate their American identity and Jewish identity more and more and more.

(Regan) Another part of Kanter’s identity is being openly gay. He came out to himself in 93 when he was getting ordained and interviewing at congregations. It was a time when there barely any openly gay or lesbian rabbis. 

(Kanter) And I didn’t share everything in 1993. But I found shortly after taking my first job that living that way all the time made me miserable and I had to come out. And now 93-94 some rabbis were being out in their interviews and getting hired by mainstream congregations. It was a major shift for gay and lesbian rabbis in the best possible way. Things have gotten a lot better since 1993. This congregation in particular is wonderful to me, my husband and our family. So the world is changing for the better. We hope it continues to do that, there’s still work to do. I try to educate people wherever I go, both about being Jewish and being gay. Sometimes one or the other is more the focus of what I’m doing. But both are part of my identity and it’s sort of like the American part of my identity and the Jewish part of my identity. It’s like a puzzle that all fits together. 

(Regan) I asked Rabbi Greg Kanter if there was a particular part of the Torah or other sacred texts that helped him come to this realization about himself. 

(Kanter) I thought a lot, especially when I came out publicly to my first congregation in the winter of 93-94 about the story of Joseph. Joseph was abandoned by his family and treated poorly by them. Joseph had to make a life for himself and rebuild his life. He became a huge success using the best parts of his identity. And later in life he was reunited with his family. I think a lot of LGBT people even if it’s not exactly their story, it’s not exactly my story, we can relate to it and find inspiration in that. And there are certainly lots of other parts of Jewish teaching that inspire me as a rabbi, as a gay man, as a dad, as an American. I always look to Jewish texts for inspiration and I always find it.

(Regan) Usually I wrap up episodes by talking about my travels after the interview and, if I’m really on top of my writing game, how lessons from the interview affected the trip. But this time I want to end on a different note. When I was writing this episode something that stuck out to me was when Kanter was talking about the heightened security at Mexico City Jewish institutions and how the guards would say ‘this is coming to you’. It made me think about how, over the course of this last year the two synagogues I frequent the most have both been hit by anti-Semitic vandalism, shoddily drawn swastikas and all. That includes Congregation Beth Jacob near Toronto and the Flagstaff, Arizona synagogue of Rabbi Dovi Shapiro. Shapiro was the first person I interviewed for this podcast. In no way are either of these incidents even close to the horrors of Pittsburgh or Poway. But it’s scary all the same. It makes me think, ‘are those security measures coming our way?’ And how, despite that, Kanter says the best way to defuse trouble is to be Jewish and be public about it. It’s kind of like how Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim proudly pops out of the Charleston skyline. 

(Regan) American Rabbi Project South Carolina: The Organ and the Pillar was written and produced by me Justin Regan. If you like what you’re hearing, please donate to my podcast. Your support makes all of this possible. Find out more by going to my website rabbiproject.com and clicking on the donate tab up top. Derek Povah handles the web stuff and also helps by having higher standards then me. I also want to thank Jeremy Krones, Kylie McCormick, Beth Vander Stoep, Sarit Rathbone and my parents for the assistance. And a special thanks to Dylan Abrams who somehow manages to assist me while also planning a wedding. Mozel Tov and remember to take deep breaths. Please feel free to reach out to me by emailing justin@rabbiproject.com or follow me on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject and facebook.com/rabbiproject

And until next time, Shalom and safe driving. 


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