Jewish Highlights In The Lowcountry


Wending through the bayous and palmettos between Savannah and Hilton Head Island, visitors are invariably captivated by the beauty of South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

But after years of increasingly fierce Atlantic hurricanes, the fragility of this bewitching landscape is impossible to ignore. You feel it in marshes thick with egrets; where the road dips toward hidden inlets, boats bobbing alongside the docks; and along the ocean dunes that give way to wide, sandy beaches whose high water lines are higher than ever.

Water views are a dime a dozen around the Sea Islands, a chain of barrier isles between Charleston and Savannah. Well-worn roads, bleached by the sun or dusty with dirt, form a kind of seamless unity with lagoons and creeks and bays, flat and tranquil under a Carolina sun. In my childhood, perhaps, I could savor this tranquility without simultaneously contemplating the potential for flooded devastation. But not now.

Which makes the Lowcountry all the more magical. That’s especially true in autumn, when warm afternoons can feel like summer — a stolen opportunity for beach getaways. But locals keep a wary eye on the hurricane-season forecast, knowing how quickly those peaceful bayous can overflow.

There is a fascinating tension between the particularity of this Southern landscape and the diversity of people drawn to it —Yankees and immigrants and city folk as well as local(ish) boaters, golfers, fishermen and beachcombers.

A flourishing local Jewish life reflects this diversity. South Carolina is home to some of America’s oldest Jewish communities, and also some of its youngest — at least in institutional years.

Retirees make up a good share of the 500 congregants at Temple Oseh Shalom in Bluffton, founded in 2006. On Hilton Head Island, where a third of the residents are seniors, New York and Philadelphia accents flavor the conversation at Congregation Beth Yam; this “House by the Sea” counts members from across the Northeast and Midwest, as well as across the observance spectrum.

Pockets of cosmopolitanism are increasingly emblematic of what Hilton Headers like to call their “New South” — a modern community that cherishes history while embracing its multiethnic present.

Hilton Head is well known for golf and beaches, but travelers may not realize how close the island is to Savannah — less than an hour by car — or how enchanting the scenery is along the way. Best known for its singular landscapes, this corner of the Lowcountry has enough well-preserved architectural history to fill a week.

And along with idyllic weather, fall brings a Jewish cultural harvest. October kicks off the Lowcountry Jewish Film Festival, a winter series sponsored by Congregation Beth Yam. Nearby in Savannah, the 31st annual Shalom Y’All Jewish Food Festival draws 10,000 people for Israeli dancing, live klezmer and cuisine from blintzes to Moroccan-style lamb.

Through forests draped with Spanish moss and dotted with spiky palmettos, the road toward Hilton Head takes you into Bluffton, a quintessential Lowcountry town dripping with country charm.

It’s not hard to find shade in Bluffton. Sleepy, traffic-free roads wind through jungly thickets under canopies of trees. Along Calhoun and Promenade Streets in Old Town, balconies offer respite from the sun; at sidewalk level, you’ll find a lively array of wine bars, art galleries and antiques.

Over the bridge lie Hilton Head and the oceanfront. Coligny Beach Park has it all, from splash parks and pavilions to palm-lined boardwalks with disabled sand access. The island’s bike trails are protected from traffic, winding along tidal marshes, horse farms and the Sea Pines Forest Preserve.

In a resort synonymous with retirement, the myriad of kid friendly activities are a pleasant surprise. What kid can resist climbing the Harbour Town Lighthouse, a tower striped like a candy cane? This lighthouse offers more than spectacular views over Hilton Head’s harbor and yacht club; on view are Civil War artifacts, PGA Tour memorabilia, and, in the shop, nautical souvenirs.

Nearby, the Coastal Discovery Museum offers a mix of outdoor and indoor attractions — from exhibitions on the local Gullah culture to guided walks through a butterfly garden where you might spy ospreys, minks and fiddler crabs.

A few miles north, elegant Beaufort is among the best-preserved examples of antebellum architecture — without the Charleston crowds. More than 300 downtown acres are designated a National Historic District, with buildings dating to English colonial times.

One landmark is the circa-1908 Beth Israel Synagogue on Scott Street, one of just a handful of wooden synagogues still in use in the Southeast. The small Conservative congregation also maintains a century-old cemetery (tours are by appointment).