When the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina meets later this month, they will discuss the declining community participation statewide.
Many once-thriving congregations in South Carolina are experiencing declining participation.
“All of the grandchildren flew the coop and that happened across the state, so what we see now are these communities that their populations, for the most part, are dwindling,” Historical Society program director Rachel Barnett said. “Which is pretty sad, when you think about the vibrancy that we had in a lot of these smaller cities.”
It’s a common issue with rural towns: young people move away after graduating from high school and college, mostly to the suburbs or cities. Their departure leaves empty homes, storefronts and places of worship.
“The next generation taking flight and not going back to the small towns, and then, of course, not having people to come back in and fill those places either,” Barnett said. “You weren’t getting newcomers.”
Barnett used the example of Kingstree in Williamburg County, which once had a thriving Jewish community. Many young people left and eventually the synagogue building was sold to a church.
“Then what do you do because we have Jewish cemeteries all over South Carolina as well? And the first thing that a community worries about when they know they’re going to have to tun out the lights is what do we do about our cemeteries?” Barnett said.
To save the synagogue in Sumter, members reached out to the Jewish Community Legacy Fund, which has helped congregations in several states deal with the similar issue. Members in Sumter were able to turn the Temple Sinai old social hall into the Jewish History Center, which opened in May.
“It’s a way to keep the temple as a vibrant part of a community,” she said. “It’s sort of like planning your estate, in a way. It’s like, what do we do with our assets? What do we do with our archives? What do we do with the buildings? How do we take care of the cemeteries in perpetual care? It’s really a tough conversation to have for a community.”
Some communities are hanging on, such as in Walterboro.
“They’re down to just a handful of families for that synagogue . . . they open up that synagogue for the Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and all of those children come home, and the grandchildren. So they have services. It’s interesting because people have strong family ties to these communities.”
The Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina is addressing the strategies for survival for endangered congregations at its annual meeting this year, which will be held in Sumter so participants could see how the Temple Sinai was saved. Organizers hope attendees can get similar ideas and resources to take back to their communities.
“It’s an issue that we can all deal with together,” she said.