Temple B’nai Israel – March
Dr. Robert Kimmel
are told that the first Jews to settle in Anderson, the Lesser family, were well-established here before the Civil War. During
the War, they took in an injured Union soldier, Oscar Geisberg, who later married their daughter. By 1878 there were about
17 Jewish residents of Anderson, most all related to the Lessers and the Geisbergs. Like many early Jewish settlers in the
South, they were merchants and did not hesitate to do their part for the betterment of the general Anderson community.
The last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of
the twentieth saw a massive influx of Eastern European Jews into the United States. My grandparents went to Massachusetts.
My wife’s grandfather stayed in New York only long enough to earn some travel money and then headed south, ending up
in eastern North Carolina. The Fleishman and Siegel families came to Anderson. Many of these immigrants became clothing merchants,
but many branched out into other businesses.
Alvin Fleishman, whom we lost just recently, was born in Anderson in 1921 and estimated that in the twenties, there
were 15 to 20 Jewish families in Anderson, who gathered as a congregation for services and may have chosen the name B’nai
Israel around the time of the First World War. By the 1930’s, the Jewish population had grown to more than 70 and celebrated
Alvin’s barmitzvah in 1934, reportedly the first in town. Among these residents were members of the Poliakoff family,
who, like several other Jewish families, had spread throughout the Carolinas establishing dry goods stores. David and Barry
Draisen’s grandmother, Elka Rachel Poliakoff, had brought a Torah with her from the old country
and by the 1940’s the community had, in addition to weekly Shabbat services, Sunday school classes and celebrations
of the holidays. Rabbinic students were brought in from New York for the High Holy days. The services were Orthodox, with
some English being introduced.
1948, with the influx of more families wanting to set-up non-union factories and men returning from the War, the enlarged
Jewish population was ready to build a synagogue. This building in which we sit was completed in 1948 in time for the bar-mitzvah
of Ronald Bern, who wrote about it in his novel, the Legacy.
In the 1950’s, Conservative Jewish practices were introduced, and Rabbi Norman Goldberg, a retired Reform rabbi
living in Augusta, provided services for many years. The need and support for regular services and Sunday school rose and
fell over the years. When I was first invited to Anderson in the mid-1970’s to conduct High Holy Day services, and then
later monthly shabbat services, we were using the Conservative liturgy. We successfully ran Sunday school classes for several
years. In the 1980’s, we switched to the Reform prayerbook, but retained a traditional atmosphere of our services to
meet the needs of an eclectic membership gathered from all over southwestern South Carolina.
The congregation has maintained a steady membership of 20 to 30,
sometimes even approaching 40 families, as people move in and out of the area, children leave and return and older members
pass on. We can boast today of regular Friday night and High Holiday services, an active sisterhood, and regular Conservative
Shabbat and Holiday services and adult education organized by a small group of Jews from Greenville joined by some Temple
members. Many larger congregations cannot claim two sets of regular services every week of the year!
Members of the congregation continue to be active in the community
to this day, in social service organizations, in leadership positions and behind the scenes. At a time when many congregations
around the world hide behind locked gates and there are many countries where anti-semitism is on the rise, it is extremely
significant that we here in Anderson are proud of who we are, proud to shine the light of our Torah onto the world around
us through beautiful stained glass windows, and proud to celebrate our history on a new historical marker to be seen by all
I remember remarking
on the occasion of celebrating the 50th anniversary of this building
in 1998 that this was a special place, inhabited by a special congregation. When I am here praying with this congregation,
I feel a warmth that is unmatched by any other temple or synagogue in which I have prayed. When I lead this congregation in
prayer, the responses and singing fill this building.
I am reminded of a famous poem by Edgar A. Guest, the so-called People’s Poet, who was extremely popular during
the first half of the twentieth century. His poem called Home was everyone’s favorite. It began “It takes a heap
o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home…” That’s how this building makes me feel. It’s
had a heap of livin’—weddings, funerals, bar and bat-mitzvahs, baby namings, sedars, and purim spiels, sunday
school classes, Shabbat and holiday services, times of oneg, of happiness and times of sadness. Like a home, it’s needed
care and maintenance. Like a home, it’s been lovingly improved, year-after-year, project after project--to meet practical
needs and just to make it more welcoming and beautiful.
To our congregation, it is our home-- and all are welcome to enter and share it with
us. Now it has been recognized as part of the history of South Carolina—well deserved recognition for more than 150
years of Jewish life in Anderson.