Straus Scholars Visit Historic Charleston

Straus Scholars visit historic Charleston and explore Jewish life during the Civil War period.

During the fall 2017 semester, the Program on Early America and the Jews at the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought has devoted much of its teaching and work to the question of Jews and the Civil War, as part of its ongoing study of the role of Judaism and Jews in early America.  On November 3, students of the Straus Scholars program traveled to Charleston, SC to learn about Jewish life during the Civil War period and to spend Shabbat in the historic town. In addition to its beauty and charm, Charleston is an important center for the study of the Civil War, the role of Jews in the Civil War, and the history of the Jews in early America.

Shortly after the group arrived, students visited Kahal Kadosh Beit Elohim (founded in 1749) and toured its museum and historic cemetery. KKBE was the site of a famous debate in 1843 over ritual rites, as part of the ongoing debates among American Jewry over the Reform movement. This critical moment in Jewish history set a precedent for Jewish religious life in the South.

Over the course of Shabbat, students grabbled with the question of Jews in the Civil War: Why were Jews so well integrated in the antebellum South? How did Jews view questions of slavery and why did many take the side of the Confederacy? What were Rabbinic views of slavery, north and south, during the war, and what sources were invoked?

After a spiritually uplifting and intellectually stimulating Shabbat at Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue, students visited Fort Sumter—the place where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. They took the first ferry of the day to the notable sea fort so that they could participate in the special flag raising ceremony.

More broadly, this thought-provoking trip enhanced students’ understanding of American Jewish history in general, and helped them develop a perspective on the question of Jews and the Civil War. Currently, Straus scholars are using these insights to frame their research papers that relate to this topic.

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