By Jennifer Berry Hawes / The Post & Courier
It’s not a synagogue, not centered around prescribed hours of worship. It’s not about rituals performed within walls. It doesn’t even have a building, not yet anyway.
Think more of a Jewish grandmother’s kitchen where the scent of challah bread lingers, the oven never rests and nobody leaves hungry. Even if they want to.
It’s where you can cry, kvetch, laugh, pray and always, always feel welcome at Shabbat dinner.
For centuries, traditions like these of the home, faith and culture have formed the essence of Jewish life. And that is what Rabbi Yossi Refson and his wife, Sarah, wanted to capture and re-create when they started Chabad of Charleston and the Low Country in Mount Pleasant.
Over the seven years since they moved to town, he from England, she from New York, the Chabad has operated and grown largely out of their Mount Pleasant home.
That is about to change.
The Chabad is poised to greatly expand Jewish offerings East of the Cooper with a new Charleston Center for Jewish Life, set to break ground in coming months.
No, it won’t be a synagogue. Instead, it will expand on what the Chabad has worked to tap into already, that very essence of Jewish life.
More than half of local Jewish residents aren’t members of a synagogue or any Jewish entity at all, Refson says. It’s a problem facing communities nationwide, according to a Pew Research Center study and others.
By wide margins, Jews say they identify with being Jewish. But they don’t join Jewish institutions as they once did, a change many fear is watering down Jewish identity and putting American Judaism at future risk of dissolving entirely into the melting pot.
So when the Refsons moved to town, they wondered what they could offer to draw in those unaffiliated masses.
“We wanted to tap into that deep connection with being Jewish,” Refson says. “We needed to find something that talks to them.”
Where to start?
First off, they realized being Jewish is about far more than synagogue worship. It’s also anchored in family, culture and shared history.
And that means food, especially traditional Jewish food. Meals connect people in ways worship services often cannot. And no other time feeds a hungry Jewish soul quite like Friday night Shabbat dinners to celebrate the sabbath.
“It tickles our Jewish souls, our Jewish brains, in all sorts of ways,” Refson says.
It’s why the Refsons’ Mount Pleasant home centers around a large dining room table where Sarah’s Shabbat dinners have become community legend, drawing everyone from philanthropist Anita Zucker to young adults just moving to town.
“We wanted to bring a positive experience to the community,” Refson says.
The Chabad is not member-based. Attendance isn’t obligatory. It’s not connected to a particular Jewish movement. Those drawn to its events bring roots in the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform traditions. Many come with roots to no tradition at all, and it doesn’t matter.
“Labels are for shirts,” Refson says. “Every person has a contribution. We can’t judge how observant they are. We just look at each person as a brother or sister.”
The group holds a range of meals and events largely aimed at hospitality and inspiration. The idea is that Judaism isn’t confined to a building or certain hours of the week. It doesn’t get locked away with the closing of synagogue doors after worship.
“Spiritual needs pervade our lives,” says Edie Rabin, who lives in Charleston’s Wagener Terrace. Many Chabad participants, she adds, want their children to grow up seeing Jewish traditions as something enjoyable, not simply ritual.
“This is more of a shared experience, something that doesn’t exist currently in our community,” says Richard Star, a Mount Pleasant resident. “They aim to get to the heart of the matter.”
Buddy Streit recalls growing up in an Orthodox synagogue and going to Hebrew day school. Yet, as an adult he realized how little he really understood about many traditions.
At the Chabad, he has discovered a deeper well.
“It’s just warm and welcoming and not judgmental,” says Streit, a West Ashley resident.
And it is filling a need particularly in Mount Pleasant and its neighboring island towns.
“There’s a strong focus on East Cooper because that is where the void is and where the growth is,” Refson says.
Writing new chapters
Along with Sarah’s Shabbat dinner, the Chabad offers a variety of programs and educational events, most of which are held at the Refson’s home or at rented venues.
It has held Sushi in the Sukkah, Chanukah in the Square, a Tashlich Cruise, you name it.
But you can only cram so many warm bodies into one home, already with its own family living there. The Chabad needed its own space.
So a year or two ago, a supporter bought a serene, 2.5-acre parcel off southern Mathis Ferry Road in Mount Pleasant. The wooded acreage rests just off the road, offering a sense of tranquility while sitting on a fairly busy road near the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge.
Recently, a sign went up: Charleston Center for Jewish Life.
The new life center will serve East Cooper, where there is no synagogue and few Jewish offerings to serve a growing population. Refson, however, also wants to ensure its doors are open and convenient to Jewish residents from all over.
There was a day when the area’s vibrant Jewish community was centered in downtown Charleston. Then thriving suburban communities formed in West Ashley, where the Charleston Jewish Community Center, Addlestone Hebrew Academy and Synagogue Emanu-El grew up. Congregation Dor Tikvah, a new Modern Orthodox congregation, recently formed as well.
But times are changing. The Jewish community reaches far and wide.
As evidence, the Charleston Jewish Community Center in West Ashley, a hub of Jewish life since opening in 1956, is going up for sale as its board ponders how to best serve more widely spread Jewish residents.
It’s all why Refson wants to ensure the life center will be open and accessible to Jewish residents who live and work all over the region.
The new 11,000-square-foot Jewish center aims to mirror the Refsons’ home, which is to say a warm, welcoming Jewish center of life. It won’t look like a religious building, although it will have a chapel.
With more of a campus feel, the $4 million center will feature a coffee shop, social hall, lecture room and conference room. Clean lines of wood and glass, an airy floor plan and gardens aim to welcome people.
“It’s a beautiful shell,” Refson says. “But it’s not about a building as much as about the space.”
So, inside will be anchored by a kitchen. “We tried to bring it back to this warm place in our lives,” Refson adds.
The building’s spine will form around a large demonstration kosher kitchen to host cooking classes, some featuring kosher chefs, and weekly Shabbat dinners.
Sarah will bake her challah bread here as well, allowing the familiar scent of a home to permeate its aura while practically producing the bread volunteers can take to retirement homes and home-bound residents.
Which brings up the Jewish notion of tikkun olam, a term that means “world repair” and describes the Jewish imperative to serve others.
“The center will provide the nexus for this,” Streit says, “for repairing the world.”
The center also will include a preschool with ties to Addlestone Hebrew Academy. Also on the drawing board: author lectures, classes in Jewish ethics, children’s classes, senior social hours, business networking opportunities and Mommy & Me gatherings, among others.
“What we’re doing is different and unique,” Star says.
Of course, with new buildings come new fundraisers.
Anita Zucker and other prominent names in Jewish philanthropy’s wide local circles have pitched in, helping to raise just over half of the money needed so far. But those spearheading the effort say they are most pleasantly surprised by the number of young adults who have donated.
Refson hopes to break ground in coming months. Construction should take about 15 months, so the center could be completed by late 2015 or early 2016, opening a whole new gateway to local Judaism.