During his eight years as a federal judge, Richard Gergel has overturned the South Carolina Constitution’s ban on same-sex marriage, overturned a death sentence because the prosecutor compared a black defendant to King Kong, and presided over the trial of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine African-Americans during a church Bible study.
It would appear to some that South Carolina is not a tolerant place. But that’s far from the truth, said Gergel, a U.S. District Court judge in Charleston.
“I’ll simply say tolerance and respect for the diverse views of others is part of our state’s history,” said Gergel, who wouldn’t talk about specific cases over which he has presided.
“We haven’t always been perfect. But it’s been a major thread in our history.”
Gergel, a historian who has studied civil rights and religious tolerance in South Carolina, will be the keynote speaker Sunday, April 15, at ShalomFest ’18. He is presenting “From Francis Salvador to Max Heller: Jewish Public Service in South Carolina” at 1:30 p.m.
Gergel said South Carolina’s religious tolerance dates back to when noblemen were trying to induce settlers to the Province of Carolina, which included most of the land between what is now Virginia and Florida.
The Fundamental Constitution of Carolina, written by the British philosopher John Locke, provided that any seven or more people agreeing in any religion could form their own church.
“It was the first constitution in history to outline religious freedom,” Gergel said.
By 1700, more than half of the white settlers in Carolina were religious dissenters. A century later, South Carolina had the largest Jewish population of any of the United States.
“You don’t think of our state as a particularly tolerant place, but it was a model of tolerance,” Gergel said. “It’s a great tradition of which we all need to remind ourselves.”
The first Jew to be elected to public office was Francis Salvador, a young English plantation owner in the Ninety Six district near Greenwood.
There have been plenty of Jewish officeholders since. Jews were elected mayor in Columbia, Camden, Georgetown, and, of course, in Greenville, where Max Heller was credited with downtown’s renaissance. They have served in the state House and Senate. Gergel was the first Jewish federal judge in South Carolina.
“There’s a history of Jewish public servants in the state. It’s a tradition that goes on from the inception of the state to the present,” Gergel said. “Jews are called to service. They are deeply grateful communities have allowed them to thrive and prosper.”
Years ago, Gergel appeared on historian Walter Edgar’s program on public radio. He was talking about Jews that settled in South Carolina’s small towns from 1880 through 1930 and opened stores.
All the phones lit up, prompting Edgar to think that they were having technical problems, Gergel said. When he answered the first call, the person on the line told him they had grown up in Saluda and knew the Greenbergs, the judge said. Call after call, listeners were saying the same thing, the difference being the name of the towns and the names of the Jewish families that operated the stores there. “Jews were so accepted in small towns,” Gergel said.
That doesn’t mean anti-Semitism or discrimination doesn’t exist, and Gergel said some religions are tolerated more than others.
“But the larger story is how our state is widely accepting of diverse populations,” he said.
This year is the 10th ShalomFest, which was started as a way to introduce the Upstate to Jewish traditions, culture, and food.
Sisters-in-law Angi and Liz Einstein are co-chairing this year’s festival. They are both Christians who married Jews more than 25 years ago but did not convert. “In all this time, we are still learning this beautiful faith,” Angi Einstein said. “Since it is our families’ faith and the faith that Jesus was raised in, it’s important for us to understand as much as we can.”
The festival, which runs from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Temple of Israel in Greenville, will feature Zev Rogalin, a Lithuanian who survived three concentration camps, including Dachau. He will present “When They Came for the Neighbors: Bearing Witness” at noon April 15. The presentation will detail Rogalin’s experience during the Holocaust and his life in Israel in the 1940s and 1950s.
In addition, there will be performances by an interfaith choir, a 42-minute film from the National Holocaust Museum, a rabbi lecture on bar and bat mitzvahs, re-creations of a Jewish wedding and Passover Seder, food, and children’s activities.
WHEN Sunday, April 15, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
WHERE Temple of Israel, 400 Spring Forest Road, Greenville
TICKETS Free admission