Treasure hunting at Temple Sinai

Temple Sinai, Sumter, South Carolina

Dale, Harlan, and I recently traveled to Sumper, South Carolina, to pick up the remaining records and books from Temple Sinai. I’ve been processing their congregational records for the past few weeks and wanted to make sure we had everything before the collection was finalized.

Temple Sinai (officially named the Sumter Society of Israelites) was formed in April 1895 as a Reform Sephardi congregation. The temple building that stands today was built in 1912  in a Moorish Revival style and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. It is known for its stained glass windows that depict scenes from the Old Testament. These windows were believed to have been imported from Germany; but during a recent Southern Jewish Historical Society field trip to the temple someone with excellent eyesight noticed one of the windows said “manufactured in Atlanta, Georgia” (or something to that effect). Also, one window depicts a man with two left feet!

Sumter, located in central South Carolina, was a popular summer location during the 19th and early 20th centuries for those wishing to escape the heat, humidity, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes of the swampy lowcountry. These summer refugees included many Charleston Jews, notably the Moïse and Harby families. Penina Moïse, one of the first Jewish American women poets and hymnists, was forced to flee Charleston for Sumter during the Civil War. And if you remember my June post regarding the Camp Lawless album, Clifton Moïse was from Sumter and very involved in Temple Sinai.

Temple membership boomed during the 1950s and 1960s, but has declined rapidly in the past 30 years. Many descendents of the original families have left the area, and those that remain often chose to attend services in nearby Columbia. It’s estimated the congregation has approximately 30 due-paying members, and from what I’ve been led to believe, only a percentage attend Friday services, which are usually conducted by lay members.

The congregation is making plans for its closure in the next few years and the Jewish Heritage Collection is taking the necessary steps to ensure the history of Temple Sinai will be preserved.

For more information about Temple Sinai, please visit the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina website. To view more photographs from the trip, please visit my Flickr page.

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