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The history of the oldest Jewish charitable organization in the country and its legacy of helping children and others in need

The history of the oldest Jewish charitable organization in the country and its legacy of helping children and others in need
July 2022
WRITER: 

The Hebrew Orphan Society was established in Charleston in July 1801



The former Hebrew Orphan Society building on Broad Street, now in private hands, served as a home for orphans right before and during the Civil War.

On July 15, 1801, the Hebrew Orphan Society was established in Charleston. Incorporated a year later, it is the oldest such Jewish charitable organization in continuous existence in the United States. 

This distinction should not be surprising because Jewish people were welcomed to Carolina from the beginning, offering them freedom of religion often denied elsewhere. Having arrived by the 1690s, Jewish settlers prospered. They formed a congregation at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in 1749, started a Benevolent Society in 1789 (not incorporated until 1830), and in 1833, purchased a building for the Orphan Society at 88 Broad Street, which they owned for nearly a century. (Although no longer owned by the society, the building, in private hands, sports a marble plaque in Hebrew on its facade.) 

Records of tuition payments by the Orphan Society for five children from 1819-1820.

The society’s founders included Revolutionary War veterans David Cardozo, Gershom Cohen, and Marks Lazarus; Emanuel De La Motta and Moses Levy, some of the original founders of the US Supreme Council of Scottish Rite Masonry; politicians like Aaron Lopez and Solomon Cohen (both later mayors of Georgetown); as well as merchants and philanthropists. 

The charity’s “bounty” was used to support Jewish orphans in homes and offer aid to widows and indigent children. 

The Hebrew Orphan Society’s 1867 Constitution.

The building was used by both Jewish and Christian organizations, secular and religious, and in the mid-19th century, hosted a Hebrew school. It was only used to house orphans right before and during the Civil War. 

The founding words celebrating “freedom and equal rights, religious, civil, and political” continue to guide the organization in its support of scholarships, health care, and the work of charities throughout the community.