Want a tour?

The historic Coming Street Cemetery is normally locked and inaccessible.

However, volunteers with Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim give regular tours there to raise money for its restoration. For more information, call 723-1090.

It may be downtown Charleston's most historic, least known site, and it turns 250 years old this year.

The Coming Street Cemetery, the oldest surviving Jewish burial ground in the South, is largely hidden from view by a 12-foot-tall brick and stucco wall across from the old Immaculate Conception School between Morris and Cannon streets.

Its gate remains locked, and a recent tour showed why.

A few years ago, drunken college-age revelers smashed several headstones, and later were required to work for a conservator who repaired them. The scars are still visible, however, as were pieces of a laptop computer someone else chucked over the fence, a change from the usual barrage of beer and liquor bottles.

But those who tend this holy ground want more people to visit here, appreciate it and ultimately help survive into the future.

Gary Zola, director of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati and a visiting professor at the College of Charleston, says the cemetery is definitely among the most significant and historic burial grounds for Jews in North America.

"Without question, it's a national treasure," he says.

It's not the oldest, an older one survives in Newport, R.I., but it contains veterans who fought in the Revolutionary and Civil wars and the War of 1812.

"From the year 1800 to 1820, give or take a few years, Charleston had the largest and wealthiest Jewish community in the United States," Zola says. "It was the leading American Jewish community for a brief period of time in the early national period, so some important figures related to American Jewish history are buried there."

Anita Rosenberg, president of the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, notes that today's cemetery actually is a combination of three separate burial sites, including KKBE's and a once separate cemetery of Jews who split off because they were less interested in reform, as well as the Lopez family plot.

While religious differences and technicalities with Beth Elohim once kept them apart, she says, "We ironically are now responsible for all three."

The cemetery's grave art simultaneously shows Charleston Jews assimilated into the Lowcountry and keeping their own identities. Many of the grave markers look as if they would be right at home in a Christian burial ground, with motifs such as a broken column, a weeping willow or an obelisk.

Other stones have uniquely Jewish symbols: the star of David, two hands forming a Rabbinic blessing, and a bowl and pitcher, a symbol of the Levites, the tribe responsible for cleaning the hands of the Temple priest in ancient days.

The cemetery contains about 800 souls, only about 500 to 600 of whom have surviving markers. It began in 1754 as the burial ground for the DeCosta family, but the Beth Elohim congregation purchased it a decade later. Unlike Christians who established cemeteries next to their churches, this burial ground was outside town at the time.

And it remained Charleston's dominant Jewish burial ground until a new one was established in 1887 on Huguenin Avenue, near Magnolia Cemetery.

The cemetery remains an active burial ground, though only about seven known plots are available to temple members who have ancestors buried there.

More, but not many more, might be found with additional study.

Rosenberg and Randi Serrins, a volunteer docent and chair of KKBE'S cemetery restoration committee, say their challenges are many.

Not only are some stones broken or in need of cleaning, but trees that have managed to sprout up over the years have caused further damage. The accrual of dirt and leaves has obscured some markers as well.

And if that weren't enough, the August 2011 earthquake centered in Virginia damaged a section of wall that is currently propped up with wooden beams, a temporary fix at best.

"If we don't repair the wall within five years, we will be fined," Serrins says.

The grandest monument also will be one of the costliest to fix. Catherine Lopez' tomb, tucked in a remote corner, needs at least $35,000 worth of restoration to repair stones that have broken off in recent years and to fix other damage.

But the temple has no endowment for the cemetery, so it's unclear when it may be able to afford to start work.

"We had to go to neighbors' yards to get the pieces (that had fallen off)," Serrins says. "We just can't let this go. We've got to restore this."

Zola says the cemetery appears better tended than when he first visited in the 1980s, but some of its stones also have eroded over that time.

Fortunately, some help is arriving. The cemetery recently received a $10,000 grant from the American Daughters of the Revolution to repair graves of Revolutionary war soldiers buried there.

The Post and Courier Foundation has contributed $3,000, and the temple has started charging adults for special tours to raise more money.

But Rosenberg says more is needed, not to make the cemetery pristine, but simply to stabilize it so it has a shot at lasting another 250 years.

"This is my passion," she says. "It's so beautiful. It's so peaceful. We are always finding new things."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.