When America was born as a nation, Charleston, South Carolina, had the largest Jewish population in the U.S. The city had been the main receiving point for Sephardic refugees for more than a century. Many of Charleston’s Jews were merchants, and amid a burst of post-Revolution prosperity they wanted to share their good fortune with others.
In 1784 they formed the oldest Jewish charitable society in the United States, which led in 1801 to the creation of a dedicated group “for the purpose of relieving widows, educating, clothing, and maintaining orphans and children of indigent parents.” The constitution of the Hebrew Orphan Society cited the good fortune of Jews living “in the United States of America, where freedom and equal rights, religious, civil and political, are liberally extended to them,” and stated that the aim of the society’s charity was to “qualify” recipients to exercise “those blessings and advantages to which they are entitled” as they “freely assume an equal station in this favored land.”
Orphans were mostly placed in private homes and provided with money, clothes, and education by society members, though for several decades before the Civil War a group home and school for orphans was also operated. Today the society still exists, and funds medical needs in Charleston, gives grants to schools and nonprofits, and awards ten to 20 annual college scholarships.