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Silhouette of Isaac Harby (1788-1828)
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Silhouette of Isaac Harby (1788–1828)
Artist unknown
From Charles Reznikoff and Uriah V. Engleman,
The Jews of Charleston: A History of an American Community

In the early decades of the 19th century, Jewish Charlestonians were prominent among the city’s intellectual elite. A notable example is Isaac Harby. Journalist, playwright, and teacher, Harby is remembered today primarily as a founder of the Reformed Society of Israelites, the first effort to reform Judaism in America.

Harby opened a private academy in Charleston in 1810, and another in 1819. “His love of knowledge was extravagant,” a friend recalled. “He might be said almost to devour books.” During these years Harby published a newspaper and wrote plays. When his wife died in 1827, he moved to New York City with his sister Caroline, who helped him run a school on Howard Street. Within a year, just five weeks after his 40th birthday, Harby died of typhoid fever and Caroline became “little mother” to his six orphans.

A Federalist in politics, in 1816 Harby had written a letter to Secretary of State James Monroe protesting the removal of the American consul to Tunis, Mordecai Manuel Noah, because he was a Jew. Harby reminded the future president that Jews and other religious minorities were not sects deserving toleration; rather, he said, ‘they constitute a portion of the People.’

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Last updated: Wednesday, September 18, 2019