The City Magazine Since 1975

Sharing Heritage

July 2017
Sharing Heritage
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Since 2007, Chabad of Charleston and the Lowcountry has been enriching life for Jewish locals. And last year, thanks to grassroots funding, it got a space to call its own

Last September, the doors to 477 Mathis Road first opened. It’s a handsome structure—a sleek new build with clean lines and minimal adornments. Dubbed “The Center for Jewish Life,” the space is home to Chabad of Charleston and the Lowcountry, a group with an approach to religion as fresh as the structure’s new façade.

“We’re not offering what the traditional synagogue offers,” says Rabbi Yossi Refson, who, with his wife, Sarah, moved to Mount Pleasant a decade ago as representatives of Chabad, a philosophy and worldwide movement within the Jewish faith that helps unaffiliated and affiliated followers alike embrace their heritage. “Our goal is to provide meaningful, engaging, fun, and authentic Jewish experiences that people today can connect with.”

One such experience is Shabbat dinner—a traditional group meal held on Friday evenings to mark the start of the traditional day of rest. The first week the Refsons moved to Mount Pleasant in 2007, they hosted a gathering with a guest list of two. “It grew from two to five to six to 10 to 20, and on,” Refson says, until one Friday in 2014 when 90 diners squeezed into the couple’s home. “We eventually realized that if we wanted to accommodate more people, we needed a bigger space.”

The idea of a brick-and-mortar building caught on like wildfire among attendees of those Shabbat dinners, and within two years, funds for the $6-million, 15,000-square-foot structure had been raised. While major donors included the Zucker, Scheer, and Star families, many more Jewish locals showed their support with amounts large and small.

Today, the center—which is the only Jewish gathering space east of the Cooper River—offers the Preschool of the Arts and community classes, such as Yiddish Club and a Mommy & Me program. It also brings to town speakers like Eva Schloss—Anne Frank’s stepsister, who spoke in February—and serves as an event space for bar mitzvahs, weddings, and more.

And, of course, every Friday at 7 p.m., you’ll find dozens of visitors—affiliated and unaffiliated Jews, as well as community members with no ties to the Jewish faith—breaking challah together in the comfortable dining space, the walls of which are peppered with portraits of locals’ parents and grandparents. The vibe of the meal, and the center as a whole, is inclusive, friendly, and familial. “We didn’t move here to create an organization, we’re here to form an extended family,” says Refson.