Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Anderson, South Carolina
Photos courtesy of Special Collections, College of Charleston
European hunters and traders who traveled in the late 1600s through the northwestern corner of what is now South Carolina encountered towns and villages populated by Cherokee Indians. Permanent settlement by Europeans in the 18th century transformed the land from woods to farmland. In 1785, South Carolina acquired by treaty all Cherokee territory within its borders. Anderson, named for the Revolutionary War patriot, General Robert Anderson, is situated on these former tribal lands in the Appalachian foothills near the Georgia line. The town was incorporated in 1833, seven years after the creation of Anderson County. Agriculture was the mainstay of the area’s 19th-century economy and cotton was the primary cash crop.
The first Jews to settle in Anderson, the Lessers, came from Prussia by way of New York and Georgia and were established in the town well before the Civil War. During the post-war occupation of South Carolina, Michael and Martha Lesser took an injured Union soldier, Oscar Geisberg, an observant Jew who hailed from Vienna, into their home, and in 1871, their daughter, Carrie, married him.
Reflecting the national pattern, Anderson’s Jews tended to be merchants of one sort or another. The Lessers ran a mercantile store on the main square and a number of their children and grandchildren followed them into the dry goods business. Dora Geisberg, Oscar and Carrie’s daughter, owned D. Geisberg’s Millinery, a ladies ready-to-wear shop. Her brother, Harry, operated a shoe store, while his wife, Sadie, offered ladies clothing at the Vogue Shop. Another Geisberg brother, Leo, sold general merchandise. It is unclear how Oscar made a living. Descendants report he tried his hand at storekeeping but was not successful. He was active in civic affairs in his adopted hometown, however, as an organizer of the YMCA and the Board of Trade. In 1878, there were some seventeen Jewish residents in Anderson, most or all of whom were members of the Lesser and Geisberg families.
The face of the Jewish community began to change with the arrival of Eastern European immigrants in the first decade of the 20th century. At the time, the area’s economic base was shifting from almost solely agricultural to a combination of farming and manufacturing. Anderson hosted the Southeast’s first long-distance transmission of electricity in the 1890s, earning it the nickname “The Electric City.” Development of an electric power supply in a region rich in rivers and cotton fields attracted textile manufacturers. Men and women who had grown up on farms flocked to Anderson and its outskirts to work in the mills. The town’s population almost doubled between 1900 and 1920.
The Fleishman and Siegel families, recent immigrants from Lithuania, established thriving businesses in this expanding market. Sam Fleishman was one of seven brothers who fanned out across southern North Carolina and northern South Carolina and established as many as 15 general merchandise stores. He opened his Anderson store in 1906 and, some time later, was joined by his 12-year-old nephew, Nathan. In 1926, Nathan and his wife’s brother-in-law, Philip Klyne, bought Sam’s store and changed the name to Fleishman and Klyne. They opened two more locations, one in Greenville and the other in Hartwell, just across the Georgia line. When the partnership broke up a few years later, a victim of the Great Depression, they closed the Georgia store and split the other two stores between them, Nathan keeping Anderson and Philip Greenville. Nathan ran Fleishman’s “Outfitter from Head to Foot for Men, Women, and Children” until an injury prevented him from working. His brother, Ted, who had been employed in one of the family’s stores in Fayetteville, North Carolina, came to run the Anderson operation. Once Nathan recovered, Ted opened his own store with credit from the wholesalers he had come to know while working for Nathan. After Nathan died, his son Alvin ran Fleishman's until it closed in 1981.
Max Siegel left Russia just after the turn of the 20th century and settled in New York’s Lower East Side neighborhood. Unhappy with the cold winters and the big city atmosphere, he boarded a train headed south in 1908 in search of warm weather, open space, and small-town life. His money took him as far as Anderson, where he earned his living first as a peddler and then established a livestock business that supplied meat to the Anderson markets and Clemson College, about 15 miles north of the city. His company thrived, enabling him not only to survive the Depression, but to provide assistance to the municipality. When the mayor and the city council approached him for help meeting the city’s payroll, he loaned them $50,000. In a bankruptcy auction, he acquired the country club, which did not admit Jews. He sold it one year later to the city for the same price he paid, but declined their offer of a membership.
circa 1930 Max’s son, Sam Siegel, was born in 1915 in Anderson. He recollected a childhood blighted by the anti-Semitic taunts of other children and a lack of Jewish playmates. He was acutely aware of the power of the Ku Klux Klan, whose members, he said, controlled every facet of city life. He observed that while white Christians “tolerated” Jews, anti-Semitic attitudes prevented outright acceptance. During his high school years, the taunting subsided, which Sam attributed to the popularity of his older brother, Reuben, a star athlete who lettered in three sports at Clemson. Reuben’s football and boxing prowess won him the respect of admirers and he became known as “The Jewish Juggernaut” or “Jew Boy Siegel.”
Nathan Fleishman’s son, Alvin, born six years after Sam Siegel, estimated that 15 to 20 Jewish families lived in Anderson during his childhood and, though many stayed only briefly before moving on, he remembered having Jewish playmates. Apparently his cohort was not numerous enough, however, to warrant a Sunday school. His father Nathan hired a rabbi to instruct him, and in 1934 Alvin became Anderson’s first bar mitzvah.
Alvin claimed the Anderson congregation had existed as long as he could remember, though the date of its founding and when it adopted the name B’Nai Israel is unclear. Younger members of the second generation recall Sabbath services taking place with some regularity by the late 1930s, when the city’s Jewish population numbered roughly 72, mostly Eastern European immigrants and their offspring. The Yiddish-speaking community with its strong sense of connectedness left an indelible impression on Raymond Rosenblum, who grew up there. “The Jews of Anderson at that time were one extended family. Everybody knew everybody else’s business.”
circa 1940 Congregants met in the Woodmen of the World hall and, later, in a room over a grocery store, also the site of High Holy Days services, Sunday school classes, and Purim plays. Services were Orthodox, led by lay readers. Men and women sat separately. Alvin Fleishman remembered some English making its way into the Hebrew liturgy by the time he was nearly grown. Members of the congregation taught Sunday school and hired rabbinic students from New York for High Holy Days services. Rabbi David Karesh, of Columbia’s House of Peace synagogue, presided over the bris ceremonies, always held on Sundays, the one day the merchants closed their stores.
In the years before World War II, virtually all of Anderson’s Jewish families operated their own businesses. Reuben Siegel returned from college and continued to trade livestock, opening his own barn. Nathan and Freida Rosenblum, Polish immigrants, moved to Anderson in 1933 after trying their luck in Miami, Florida, and three other South Carolina towns. They went into the dry goods business, selling new and used clothing; Nathan served as the cantor at Sabbath services. Herman Poliakoff, one of four brothers who settled in the region, owned a pawn shop. The Draisens ran a jewelry store, and Marvin “Dick” Breen, who married a member of the Lesser family, sold furniture.
The Kaplans were among the newcomers of the late 1930s, one of many families that left the Northeast to establish businesses in southern states known to be inhospitable to unions. Jules Kaplan moved to Anderson from Pennsylvania and opened a shirt factory; he served as a lay leader of weekly services. Joe Fleishman moved to Anderson in 1937 with his wife, Libby, and joined his brothers, Ted and Nathan, in the family business, which had grown to include a liquor store.
circa 1940 Max and Bess Siegel raised eight children in Anderson and, as each married, Max helped the newlyweds establish a business. His son Sam, in the years leading up to World War II, ran the Bern & Siegel Mule Company with his brother-in-law, Sam Bern, and achieved some renown by offering a helping hand to immigrant Kurt Sax, who had fled German occupied-Austria in 1939 and landed in Anderson at age 19. Sam gave the needy and ambitious young man a dollar and a note to hand other local Jewish business-owners, urging them to do to the same. The assistance Kurt received enabled him to open a kiosk, where he sold a “complete line of magazines, newspapers, soft drinks, cigarettes, cigars, tobaccos,” and gave him a kick-start toward a successful career as an executive in a large, well-respected company on the west coast.
In the 1940s, a growing Jewish population generated a more active Jewish communal life. A South Carolina rabbi reportedly came to conduct Sabbath services some Sunday mornings. The congregation hired George Ackerman of nearby Walhalla, a Hebrew teacher and cantor, to conduct High Holy Days services. Adult members continued to teach Sunday school classes and bar mitzvah candidates, and a chapter of B’nai Brith was chartered in 1945.
Max Siegel, Nathan Fleishman, Hyman Draisen, Sam Bern, and Nathan Rosenblum, among others, led the drive to build a synagogue—a 150-seat sanctuary with adjacent classrooms, social hall, and kitchen. Supported by a Jewish population that had nearly doubled since 1937, Temple B’Nai Israel (left) was completed in 1948, in time for its first bar mitzvah, Ronald Bern. According to Ron, who wrote about growing up Jewish in Anderson in his novel, The Legacy, the impetus behind the building project was his grandfather Max Siegel’s desire to see the ceremony take place in a proper synagogue. With a congregational membership of 20 to 25 families, the women organized a sisterhood and affiliated with the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods.
Old Silver Brook Cemetery, founded in 1886, has a separate Jewish section where over three dozen members of the Lesser, Geisberg, Breen, Funkenstein, Silverstein, and other families are buried. The earliest Jewish burial, Oscar Geisberg, took place in 1920. An additional Jewish burial ground was established when Forest Lawn Cemetery was opened shortly after World War II. Both cemeteries are utilized by members of the Jewish community today.
Anderson’s manufacturing industry continued to grow in the 1950s as Duke Power Company came on line and construction began on the Hartwell Dam. The promise of a substantial power supply was just one of a number of attractions for would-be manufacturers, such as Bill and Elaine Epstein, who moved to Anderson in 1953 and opened a ladies apparel factory, Iva Manufacturing Company. The business became quite successful, expanding to include six plants and contracting to a number of companies. Bill developed a patent on a sewing device. Louis Funkenstein, who married Caroline Geisberg, moved to Anderson at the end of the war and opened a plant that manufactured paper boxes. The Kaplans encouraged him to go into the business and used his boxes to pack their shirts.
By the 1950s, B’Nai Israel’s Orthodoxy appears to have been a source of contention among members. Louis Funkenstein, among others, wanted the congregation to align its practices with the Conservative movement. Nathan Fleishman reportedly encouraged his fellow elders to defer to the younger generation regarding ritual preferences in order to keep them involved. The senior members followed his advice and the two groups compromised. Weekly services followed Conservative customs, while High Holy Days were observed according to Orthodox tradition. Men and women sat together and the Sunday school was well-attended.
The congregation’s flexibility helped keep the small group viable as the first generation of immigrants gave way to second and third generation Americans. In the 1950s, B’Nai Israel hired Rabbi Norman Goldberg, a retired Reform rabbi living in Augusta, Georgia, to provide services once a month and on High Holy Days. He served the congregation for many years, including presiding over marriages and funerals. Some couples were married in Greenville by Rabbi Maurice Mazure of the Reform Temple of Israel.
Despite the absence of a resident rabbi, the congregation has maintained a steady membership of 25 to 30 families over the last half century. They meet in the same temple, adorned with twelve stained glass windows that depict significant events in Jewish history.
During the 1960s and ’70s, as baby-boomers reached maturity and moved away, the Sunday school experienced a gradual decline in attendance and, in the ‘80s, ceased to operate. Participation in Sabbath services also dwindled in the 1970s and ’80s. Perhaps to attract more members, B’Nai Israel joined the Reform movement, a move that appears to have led to a rebirth of the Sunday school in the late 1980s and a return to regular Sabbath services.
Sons and daughters of immigrant families who stayed in Anderson tended to operate their own businesses and take seriously their civic duties. Reuben Siegel, who had left the livestock business and gone into finance, was a charter member of the Anderson Sertoma Club, served as its president, and was influential in creating its Scholarship Awards Program. In appreciation of his years of service to the community, the Club established the Reuben Siegel Scholarship Award in 1983.
Inspired by the struggles of one of his brothers, Reuben devoted much of his time to improving the quality of life for people suffering with mental illness. He served as president and vice president of the Anderson County Mental Health Association, and helped to establish the Anderson-Oconee-Pickens Mental Health Center and the Patrick B. Harris Psychiatric Hospital. In 1986, Reuben was recognized by the Anderson mental health community for his leadership in fundraising and advocacy. A gymnasium at the Harris Hospital was named in his honor, marked by a dedication ceremony at which Rabbi Israel Gerber, one of B’Nai Israel’s visiting rabbis, offered the invocation.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, Alvin Fleishman returned to Anderson to join the family business and, in the 1960s, opened a second location. When his department store closed in 1984, he kept busy working in Fleishman’s Liquor Store and teaching business courses at Tri-County Technical College in neighboring Pendleton. In the 1990s, he established the Alvin Fleishman Scholarship at the college.
A number of Jewish-owned businesses continue to operate in Anderson and neighboring towns today. They include manufacturers, retailers and wholesalers, and a music company. Most Jews living in the area, however, work in professions such as education, medicine, and law.
in 1998 Temple B’Nai Israel’s official affiliation with the Reform movement was brief. The congregation did not maintain its relationship with the national organization and today its practices are not explicitly aligned with either Conservative or Reform traditions. In the 1990s, the Sunday school closed and the classrooms were converted into a second social hall. While the B’nai Brith chapter has not been active in decades, the sisterhood continues to function. Currently, 36 families—few with young children, however—belong to the congregation. They meet Friday evenings for Sabbath observance led by members. On the High Holy Days, the temple fills up for services conducted by Robert Kimmel and his son, Brian. While the congregation is small, membership losses are offset by newcomers, mostly retirees, and B’Nai Israel is optimistic about its future.