January 12, 2014

Historical marker honoring Beaufort synagogue unveiled

Members of the Beth Israel Synagogue and the Beaufort County Historical Society dedicated a historical marker at the synagogue Sunday, celebrating the long, rich history of the congregation and the county’s Jewish residents.

About 100 people attended the hourlong ceremony, which ended with the unveiling of the black and gray marker outside the synagogue’s entrance on Scott Street.

“It’s very exciting,” synagogue president Barbara Mark said. “Today was a day all of us were looking forward to.”

Mark said the sign was erected a few days before the ceremony and covered with a tablecloth until its unveiling Sunday by Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, a member of the synagogue.

Historical Society president Mary Lou Brewton said she knew countless people who had worshipped at the “little white-frame building,” including Keyserling, whom she served alongside on the University of South Carolina Beaufort’s student government association while both were in school.

“He went into politics,” she joked, “and I didn’t.”

Keyserling and former Beaufort Mayor David Taub, also a member of Beth Israel, spoke briefly at the ceremony. In his remarks, Taub thanked Keyserling, who worked as Taub’s campaign manager during his mayoral run.

“I wouldn’t be the former Beaufort mayor without the current Beaufort mayor,” he said.

Sunday’s ceremony was the culmination of more than 15 years of research into the history of Jewish residents in Beaufort by synagogue member and Historical Society research secretary Linda Neidich-Hoffman. Neidich-Hoffman, a fourth-generation member of the synagogue, said she began looking through old newspapers from the area to trace Beaufort’s Jewish lineage.

Neidich-Hoffman said the first record of Jewish residents in Beaufort dates to 1769, but said it’s believed there might have been others before then. She found records of the first birth of a Jewish child, in 1819, and the first marriage, in 1850.

Since the earliest records, the city’s Jewish residents have played an active role in politics and local business, said College of Charleston historian Dale Rosengarten.

Rosengarten said Meyer Jacobs, a member of Beaufort’s Volunteer Army, became the city’s first Jewish mayor in 1831. After the population of Jews in Beaufort quadrupled between 1869 and 1919, the majority of storefronts along Bay Street were owned by Jewish families, she said.

That explosion of residents led to the founding of the congregation in 1905 and the construction of the synagogue, which was completed in 1908. The building will celebrate its 106th year of service June 18, Neidich-Hoffman said.

In 2005, the 100th anniversary of the congregation, Neidich-Hoffman began to ask about placing a historical marker outside the synagogue building. After receiving the approval two years ago, Neidich-Hoffman began painstakingly researching and writing the text for the sign, which was limited by size constraints.

“It was a lot of writing and condensing and changing of wording,” she said. “There were definitely some hair-pulling moments. The significance of today’s ceremony is immeasurable, though. This marker shows how much Jews were a historic part of the community here in Beaufort.”

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