Rich Jewish history evident in Sumter

Beautiful stained-glass windows are visible from the exterior of Temple Sinai.
Beautiful stained-glass windows are visible from the exterior of Temple Sinai.
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Sumter has a rich Jewish history. Like many others, Jews arrived in South Carolina seeking the freedom to practice their faith without persecution. The 1669 Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina allowed "Jews, heathens and other dissenters" the right to do this. The first Jewish settlers moved to Sumter from Charleston about 1815 and by the mid-1800s were involved in a range of businesses as well as being active in civic and military service.

Before there was a synagogue building, the Jewish settlers had formed two organizations. The Hebrew Cemetery Society was formed and land purchased for a cemetery in 1874. The Sumter Hebrew Benevolent Society was organized by 1881. Shortly thereafter, the two groups merged, and in 1885, the group formally became known as The Sumter Society of Israelites, the official name of present-day Congregation Sinai. Congregation Sinai, or Temple Sinai, built in 1913, is on Church Street. The temple's construction is unusual, with its Moorish design and large, uniquely crafted stained-glass windows.

There are three major branches of mainstream Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. They share many beliefs but differ in some practices. They have services in English as well as Hebrew and include music in their services. Every synagogue and congregation worships differently. Shortly after its establishment, Congregation Sinai formally affiliated with the Reform Movement.

Jews believe in one God but not in a Holy Trinity. All three branches of Judaism share a common belief in mitzvahs (good deeds) and moral and ethical behavior. Judaism is founded on a belief in monotheism and that the Torah forms the basis of their way of life. The Torah contains the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) begins on Friday at sundown and continues until Saturday after sundown. It is an important Jewish holiday.

In the past several decades, dwindling numbers in Temple Sinai's congregation have led its members to consider long-term planning for the building itself, if the day comes when the congregation is no longer viable. In a new partnership with the Sumter County Museum, an ideal solution has been reached. Temple Sinai still has a small but active congregation. In the new partnership, the congregation members continue to use the temple sanctuary to conduct Friday night and holiday services. However, the museum will use the adjoining social hall to create a permanent exhibit about Jewish history in South Carolina and Sumter. This exhibit will also include a large section devoted to the Holocaust and Sumter's ties to the Holocaust. The new facility is named the Temple Sinai Jewish History Center, Sumter County Museum, and is slated to open to the public in the spring of 2018.

Holidays abound at this time of year, including Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah), the eight-day Jewish festival which celebrates the Maccabean victory over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E.

Understandably, Hanukkah receives a lot of attention because it often falls near Christmas. However, even though it is a much-beloved festivity, Hanukkah is actually considered a minor Jewish holiday. This year, Hanukkah is celebrated from Dec. 12 through 20. Traditional foods eaten during Hanukkah include latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts. Family and friends also gather to play the game of Dreidel, which involves spinning a top (the dreidel) and players take a chance of winning the "kitty" - chocolate coins (called gelt), nuts, fruit and other small objects. It's all for fun.

For further information contact Elizabeth Moses at emoses@sumtercountymusuem.org or (803) 775-0908, www.sumtercountymuseum.org and visit us on Facebook.