A synagogue, or temple, is a house of worship, a place of learning and a center for Jewish communal programs. It is the true focal point of Jewish life. The synagogue has existed for more than 2,500 years and is the first known institution involving communal prayer.
Jews have lived in South Carolina from the earliest days of the Carolina Colony. The Jews of Charleston founded one of the New World’s earliest synagogues, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, in 1749, and it remains today the oldest continuously operated synagogue in North America. Jews came to the Columbia area in the late eighteenth century and by 1822 had organized the Hebrew Burial Society, which continues to this day as the Hebrew Benevolent Society at the same location across from Finlay Park. Columbia’s Jewish community founded the nation’s seventh Jewish religious school in 1843 and the city’s first synagogue, Shearith Israel (Remnant of Israel), three years later.
The early Jewish community of Columbia played an active part in the development and growth of the city. Two prominent members of the Jewish community, Dr. Mordecai Hendricks De Leon and Mr. Henry Lyons, were elected mayors of Columbia before the Civil War, and Jews were leaders in the city’s business and professional life. By the year 1830, Columbia’s highly educated and prosperous Jewish community represented the highest ratio of Jews to the total population of any city in the United States.
The tragic burning of Columbia on the Sabbath evening of February 17, 1865 brought an end to the vibrant early Jewish community of Columbia. In the course of the fire, which engulfed downtown Columbia, the synagogue on Assembly Street and most of the Jewish businesses were destroyed. A majority of Columbia’s Jewish community left the city shortly after the war to seek greater opportunities elsewhere.
By the 1890’s, a new wave of Jewish immigrants, mostly eastern Europeans, had arrived in Columbia. On January 15, 1896, a group of eighteen members of the Jewish community met in city hall chambers and organized the Tree of Life Congregation. Shortly after its organization, Tree of Life affiliated with the Reform branch of Judaism, an affiliation which continues to this day.