Their voices, reciting Hebrew on high holidays, had an otherworldly cadence. The congregation chanted with a lilting resonance in which individual accents stood out.
This decades-old memory of men and women speaking familiar religious words in accents spanning Europe is what has stuck with Bobbie Jean Rovner since her childhood. Rovner grew up in the close folds of one of Greenville’s oldest Jewish families. Her family has been tied to Congregation Beth Israel since before it was officially chartered by the state of South Carolina 100 years ago, on June 17, 1916.
“Many of our members were from other countries,” Rovner recalls. “So their dialects when they prayed were not from South Carolina, and I still hear those voices in my mind.”
Their roots were from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and even the Greek island of Rhodes, which is off the Anatolian coast of Turkey, she notes.
Rovner’s own family ties include Greenville’s Davis and Zaglin families, both of which were among the founding families for Congregation Beth Israel. Her ancestors were prominent business owners, helping to define downtown Greenville’s commerce.
Twentieth-century Upstate textile scions would buy clothing and other merchandise from Jewish businessmen in Greenville and Spartanburg because the Jewish entrepreneurs and immigrants brought New York-style fashions to the South, says Diane Vecchio, professor and chair of the history department at Furman University. Vecchio, who is an immigration historian, is conducting research for a book about the Jewish community of the Upstate.
“Jewish merchants were vital to the community’s well-being,” Vecchio says. “They really helped the commercial development of these Upstate cities; they laid the foundation for it.”
Max Heller was among the congregation’s prominent members. A business and civic leader, Heller was elected Greenville’s mayor from 1971 to 1979. He died in 2011, but his wife, Trude, remains a member of the synagogue.
Rabbi Charles Zaglin was one link in a chain of Jewish family continuity in Greenville. He was Congregation Beth Israel’s first rabbi, having moved to the city around 1909–1910 from Wilmington, N.C.
Another Jewish Greenville congregation formed the Temple of Israel around 1913. The Temple of Israel follows Reform Judaism tradition, which sees Judaism as a living fountain that can be innovated and embraces diversity, according to the Temple’s website. The Temple, now located on Spring Forest Road, formally organized in 1917 and built its first temple on Buist Avenue in 1928.
Congregation Beth Israel was founded in the early 20th century as an orthodox congregation. As Orthodox Jews, the families needed to be kosher, which meant that their meat had to be slaughtered by a rabbi or shochet, a person certified by a rabbi to slaughter animals in the way prescribed by Jewish law. By inviting Rabbi Charles Zaglin to Greenville, they were able to have their first rabbi and someone who could open a kosher market, Vecchio says.
In her research, Vecchio came across an interview with Alex Davis, who now is deceased. Davis spoke of seeing “over half the Jewish population of Greenville waiting outside Zaglin’s store on Saturday night to get their kosher meat.”
Charles Zaglin was ordained in Lithuania before moving to the United States in 1907, says Jeff Zaglin, who is the rabbi’s grandson and owns the 70-year-old Army Store on South Main Street in downtown Greenville. Zaglin’s father, Harry Zaglin, opened the Greenville Army-Navy store in 1946.
“They needed rabbis in small communities down South,” Zaglin says. “My grandfather was a rabbi for a short period of time, when it was just a bunch of families who organized and called themselves Congregation Beth Israel.”
Zaglin’s grandmother, Evelyn Rose Zaglin, gave birth to four children and then died from “bad blood” a few years after the family had moved to Greenville, and that led to his grandfather stepping down as the congregation’s rabbi to focus more on his business, Zaglin says.
Beth Israel built its first synagogue at 307 Townes St. in the late 1920s, completing it in 1930, according to newspaper accounts. Then in 1957, the congregation moved again, this time to its current location at 425 Summit Drive. The current synagogue’s second stage and expansion was completed in 1970.
Greenville’s Jewish community has remained very close and connected over the years. In the mid-20th century, the synagogue would draw in Jewish worshipers from across the Upstate during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, says Ann Lurey, whose family also was among the founders of the synagogue.
Lurey’s family dates back to the 1890s when a grandfather with the surname of Switzer came to Greenville. “My family helped organize the synagogue,” she says.
As an interim rabbi since last summer, Rabbi Barry Kenter performed the June 17 Centennial service at the synagogue, which now has about 100 families in its membership.
“What I think is most impressive about the congregation is its sense of community and continuity,” Kenter says. “It has a deep involvement within the community, and the congregation takes great pride in people who were an early part of Greenville’s history in the last century.”
Kenter, who had never lived in Greenville before moving here for the interim role, which ends in July, is also impressed with the city’s Southern culture: the synagogue’s website welcomes visitors with “Shalom, y’all.”
“I’ve been astounded at the depth of Southern hospitality and have discovered that it’s really true,” Kenter says.
“Shalom, y’all”: Jewish Greenvillians reflect on being part of Southern religious minority
When Carole Weinstock’s family was considering a move to Greenville from the Northeast for her husband’s job, they were leery about moving South, far from cities where there were extensive Jewish networks and communities.
“Then Max Heller reached out to my husband,” recalls Weinstock, who now is co-chair of Congregation Beth Israel’s centennial committee.
A former Greenville mayor, Heller reassured the family that they would find a small, yet quite vibrant, Jewish community in Greenville, and he was right, Weinstock says. “We felt very welcome here.”
Beth Israel members Laurie Rovin and Tamar Paltrow Zwerdling had similar doubts when they first made Greenville their home.
“I was raised in the metro D.C. area and then lived in New York, where, culturally, we were just part of the fabric, and I never felt any different,” Rovin says. “When we moved here in 1992, I started noticing the differences in Southern culture and how I was raised, being Jewish.”
Having the Congregation Beth Israel as a spiritual home made a big difference, she notes.
“For me, Beth Israel provided the connection to my Jewish heritage, and the smallness of the Jewish community turned out to be something I was pleasantly surprised with.”
An issue of identity
Rovin now is the president of the Sisterhood of Congregation Beth Israel, which provides support to the congregation, helping with the religious school and kitchen.
Children from ages 4 to 13 attend religious school on Tuesdays and Sundays to learn Hebrew and prepare for Jewish adulthood, she says.
Congregation Beth Israel boys at age 13 become a bar mitzvah (“son of commandment” in Hebrew), meaning they now are accountable to Jewish ritual law and tradition; girls become a bat mitzvah (“daughter of commandment”) at ages 12 or 13.
“It’s really important that we have a religious program for our youth,” says Rovin, whose own children received the religious instruction.
Jewish families sometimes struggle with being a member of a minority in a Christian part of the world, says Rabbi Barry Kenter, who is interim rabbi for Congregation Beth Israel.
“Jewish children meet people who are not sure who or what Jews are, so it becomes an issue of how to identify successfully in two very different worlds,” Kenter explains.
For Zwerdling, the move to Greenville resulted in a more difficult cultural adjustment than she anticipated, particularly during Jewish holidays.
“We moved here in July 2005 from South Florida, which is a highly Jewish area,” Zwerdling says. “The Walmart there had more Passover goods than Easter candy.”
The Zwerdlings, who were fed up with hurricanes and wary of Florida’s public and private schools, chose Greenville as their home, but they had not anticipated the religious culture shock. The first time Tamar Zwerdling walked into a Greenville Walmart to buy matzo, which is a traditional, unleavened flatbread, and Gefilte fish, which also is popular on Jewish holidays, she was shocked to learn the store didn’t have any.
“I said to a manager, ‘Where’s your stuff for Passover?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about — I’m from Hawaii,’” Zwerdling recalls.
Connecting with neighbors
Public schools and their holiday traditions also were a surprise. Zwerdling’s daughters saw their first Christmas trees in their elementary school. Zwerdling decided that if her Jewish girls were going to learn a little about Christian holiday traditions in school, perhaps she could teach their classmates a little about Jewish holiday traditions.
So, with their teacher’s permission, she talked to kindergarteners about Hanukkah and how it was the first recorded history — over 2,100 years ago — of a battle for religious freedom. She showed them how to play with the dreidel, a four-sided spinning top that has a Hebrew letter on each side.
Zwerdling explained how the Jews used the game as a subterfuge to keep hostile Syrian-Greek soldiers from learning that they were congregating for Jewish religious observance, which was an offense punishable by death.
Zwerdling’s daughters, who now are in middle school and high school, have celebrated their bat mitzvahs with both Jewish and Christian friends. For some of their friends, it was the first time they attended a bat mitzvah religious ceremony.
The synagogue has long worked to develop a connection with its Christian neighbors. For instance, Congregation Beth Israel has an ongoing relationship with Northside United Methodist Church, which is located next door on Summit Drive.
“For more than 30 years, we have had a joint Thanksgiving service,” Kenter says. “Also, late last year, we did a Sunday morning program called ‘Journeys Across the Parking Lot.’”
That Sunday’s worship started at the Methodist church and continued with about 55 Jewish and Christian congregants walking across the parking lot to the synagogue, where they watched the Jewish religious school students lead the worship and a discussion of Judaism.
“Beth Israel is the most welcoming, most open-armed, most traditionally and globally accepting synagogue that I’ve ever experienced,” Zwerdling says. “The moment you walk in the door, everybody wants to know who you are, where you come from, and, please, come in.”
From Hyman Endel to Max Heller and beyond, Jewish leaders have been part of Greenville’s fabric since the 1880s
One of the first Jewish business leaders to establish a home in Greenville was Hyman Endel, a clothing merchant, who came to the city in 1859. A couple of decades later, he was joined by Simon Swandale and Lee Roth, who were partners in an 1880s clothing business, according to Furman University immigration historian Diane Vecchio.
“The Jewish community was very small in the mid-19th century, and it didn’t take off until after the Civil War,” Vecchio says. “That’s because the end of the war was creating important changes in the economic structure in South Carolina upcountry.”
War-torn Southern states desperately needed access to goods and services after the war, and enterprising Jewish merchants were attracted to South Carolina for its economic potential, she says.
“I basically argue that it was the Jewish migrants who helped establish the commercial foundation of the upcountry of South Carolina,” Vecchio says.
Until Congregation Beth Israel brought in its first rabbi in the early 20th century, Greenville’s Jewish community was more transient, with many Jewish merchants staying for some years and then moving on to another town, Vecchio notes.
“It was very common for Jewish merchants to move from place to place,” she says.
Building a community
Vecchio says she has found no evidence that antisemitism or discrimination played a role in how few Jewish families who moved to the Upstate in the 19th century remained into the 20th century. While there was discrimination in that Greenville’s dinner clubs were closed to Jews until around the 1970s, this also was true in the North and elsewhere in the nation, she explains.
The bigger impediment to the Jewish community was the lack of a cohesive Jewish civic and religious life until Rabbi Charles Zaglin arrived around 1909–1910 to both lead the religious community and open Greenville’s first kosher meat market.
Congregation Beth Israel sponsored a Jewish serviceman center for Jewish soldiers stationed at Camp Sevier, which was established in Taylors in 1917, according to Vecchio and news reports.
A Sept. 17, 1917, local newspaper article, published on the synagogue’s website, noted that the Jewish New Year would be observed in Greenville with a service held by Rabbi C. Zaglin. Its services would be open to servicemen of Jewish faith who were stationed at Camp Sevier.
“It provided social events and probably nice home-cooked meals by Jewish families, who could entertain the servicemen and give them a sense of what it was like to be back home,” Vecchio says. “They’d also have an opportunity to meet Jewish girls through social events and dances and services.”
Mid-20th century local news articles say Congregation Beth Israel started with 25 families and held its first meetings in homes of members and in the old Bank of Commerce building at Main and Coffee streets, as well as in the Woodmen of the World on Laurens Street.
Max Heller’s legacy
Greenville’s most well known Jewish leader, Max Heller, had emigrated from Austria, moving to the U.S. after Hitler invaded his home nation in 1938. Heller chose Greenville because of a chance meeting with five young women from Greenville, who were on tour in Europe. One of the women, Mary Mills, found him a job with the Piedmont Shirt Factory, according to a biography published on Furman University’s Special Collections and Archives website page.
Heller later founded the Maxon Shirt Company, growing it to 700 employees, before selling it in 1968. He was Greenville’s mayor in the 1970s, helping the city’s downtown begin a revival that has transformed it in recent decades. Heller also served as chairman of the South Carolina Economic Development Commission under Gov. Richard Riley.
Heller devoted his last decades to public service and died at age 92 on June 13, 2011.
Leaders locally and statewide
Vecchio estimates there were 300 to 400 Jewish people in Greenville during the Second World War period, and most of them were secondary migrants with roots in Russia, Lithuania and Poland. A few were Sephardic Jews from the region between Italy and Greece, and others might have been from Germany and other parts of Europe.
Among the Jewish Greenville men who fought in World War II were Sam Fayonsky, a local “star” baseball player, and Morton Sher, an Army Air Force pilot, who both were killed in action, according to an unpublished work, “A History of the Jewish Community of Greenville, South Carolina” by former Greenville attorney Jack L. Bloom. Bloom, who was a member of Congregation Beth Israel, died at age 89 on May 8, 2010.
Bloom’s history also notes that Jewish citizens in Greenville were doctors, lawyers, college professors, teachers and other local professionals, as well as business owners.
In 1930, Bloom writes, there were at least 22 retail stores on Main Street that were owned by Jews, and by 1961, there were 27. Decades later, the only remaining Jewish business on Main Street was Harry and Jeff Zaglin’s Army store, which had opened in 1946.
Bloom lists other Jewish Greenville leaders — including some who were members of Greenville’s Temple of Israel. The local Jewish leaders Bloom places in the history story include Jerry Fedder, who was elected by the state Legislature to be a commissioner of the South Carolina Workmen’s Compensation Commission; Bloom’s wife, Lillian Bloom, who was elected by the legislature to be a member of the South Carolina Commission on Consumer Affairs; Sylvia Dreyfus who served the state legislature as a Democrat in House District 22 in the 1970s and who died in 2013; Robert Dreyfus, who was appointed by the governor to serve on the State Commission of the Holocaust; and Michelle Shain, who served on Greenville City Council in the 2000s.
Bloom’s history also recalls how Jewish scientist Albert Einstein’s son Hans Albert Einstein had lived in Greenville near Bloom’s home. The younger Einstein was once visited by his famous father, who gave a speech, which Bloom attended, at Furman University. Hans Albert Einstein had worked for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service’s Greenville Sediment Load Laboratory in the late 1930s and early 1940s.