On June 25, 1784, the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Charleston, South Carolina, was founded, making it the oldest Jewish charitable organization in the United States.
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In its 1669 charter, written by John Locke, the Carolina County, as the British colony of South Carolina was originally known, guaranteed freedom of conscience to all settlers, including “Jews, heathens, and dissenters.”
The first recorded evidence of a Jew in Charleston, the colony’s oldest city, comes from 1695. The colony’s first synagogue was established in Charleston in 1749, followed by a cemetery 15 years later. Until about 1820, the state continued to have the largest Jewish population in the United States.
During the American Revolution, Charleston was occupied by British troops, and it suffered significant physical damage. The Hebrew Benevolent Society was established in the wake of the war, with the goal of responding to those members of the town’s Jewish community who were in need. The society’s seal, which depicts the grim reaper, scythe in hand, against a black background, notes, in Hebrew letters, its founding on Tammuz 8, 5544; its Hebrew name “Hevra Gemilut Hasadim” (society for acts of loving-kindness); and its motto, “charity delivereth from death” (Proverbs 10:2).
In its initial incarnation, the society operated under the auspices of Congregation Beth Elohim, Charleston’s oldest synagogue, and was occupied mainly with the duties of caring for the sick and acting as a burial society. That was eventually expanded to include provision of assistance to new immigrants to the community. The society became fully independent in 1830.
Thomas Tobias, a one-time president of the Benevolent Society, wrote an extensive history of the organization in 1965. In it, he describes a fund-raising ball that took place on November 24, 1847, at which the assembled drank a series of 10 non-alcoholic toasts, not only to the U.S. president and the governor of South Carolina, but also to Moses Montefiore, to “Arari-the Martyr of Damascus” (a reference to the Jewish victims of the Damascus blood libel of 1840), and to “the memory of Grace Aguilar,” the late Jewish-English poet and historian.
Tobias also notes how the society’s president, Samuel Valentine, “told the gathering, of two needy Jewish families, numbering eleven persons in all, who had that day arrived in the city, shipwrecked on the way from Havre to New Orleans. Several had suffered smallpox. A collection was raised on the spot to send the families to relatives in New Orleans.”
During the Civil War (1860-1865), in which some 180 members of Charleston Jewry served with the Confederacy (most of the Jewish households in Charleston were slaveholders), the Benevolent Society ceased to function, although the social needs of the community were very great. Only in 1866 did the organization succeed in reorganizing itself, and for a number of years, its expenditures exceeded its revenues. In 1868, for example, it sent a member north to raise money from sister organizations in Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York. Nonetheless, according to Tobias’ history, that same year, the society presented its retiring physician, Dr. Columbus Davega, with an “ebony, gold-headed cane.”
The Hebrew Benevolent Society remains in operation to this day. Although the website of the organization itself has not been updated since 2012, the calendar that appears on the site of Charleston’s Jewish Federation notes that the society was planning to hold its 2014 annual dinner this past May.