In the year 1800, South Carolina was home to more Jews than any other place in North America.
So it was said when the exhibition, "A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life" was introduced in 2002, opening many eyes to the diversity that has long been a part of Lowcountry life.
Dale Rosengarten of McClellanville, founding director of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston Library, developed the traveling exhibition and co-edited a book by the same name with her husband, teacher and writer, Theodore Rosengarten.
Thus, her presence was important, and appreciated, when the rich history of the Jewish community in Beaufort was honored on Sunday, Jan. 12.
More than 100 people came to the ceremony when a historical marker was unveiled and dedicated at the Beth Israel Synagogue on Scott Street. It commemorates a congregation created in Beaufort more than 108 years ago, and a white woodframe synagogue building that was completed in 1908.
Rosengarten, who earned a doctorate from Harvard University, noted that the population of Jews in Beaufort quadrupled between 1869 and 1919, when the majority of storefronts along Bay Street were owned by Jewish families.
She pointed out that those families were community leaders in many ways. The first Jewish mayor was Meyer Jacobs in 1831. And on the program were current Mayor Billy Keyserling and past mayor David Taub, both members of the synagogue. Keyserling's mother, the late Harriet Keyslering, became a statewide leader as well, serving in the state House of Representatives.
In Beaufort County today, these things should not be surprising. The county also is home to two thriving Jewish congregations, on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton.
Rather it should be a time of celebration of diversity. Too often it is overlooked that the Lowcountry has been a global and ethnic melting pot throughout recorded history. Jews, Africans, Germans, French, Spanish, Scots, English, Catholics, Protestants, Latinos, Native Americans, the Dutch, Northerners, Southerners and Midwesterners all have played a role in making the Lowcountry a desirable place to live. It has been that way, generation after generation, and we hope that the newest historical marker in Beaufort points us anew to our oldest and greatest asset: each other.
Linda Neidich-Hoffman, a fourth-generation member of the synagogue, coordinated the long effort to get the historical marker. She said it culminates 15 years of her research. The Beaufort County Historical Society, now in its 75th year and led by Mary Lou Brewton, co-sponsored the marker. We thank them all for helping tell this important story.