Although Jewish fur traders were in the territory that became Delaware as early as 1655, only a handful of Jews, including Jacob Fiana, Abraham Judah, and Jacob and Daniel Solis,
settled in the area before the middle of the 19th century when Jewish retailers from families in Philadelphia and Baltimore began opening stores in Wilmington. In 1879, 18 Jewish merchants formed Delaware's first Jewish organization, the Moses Montefiore Society, as a religious, educational, and charitable organization. Delaware became the last of the original colonies to have an organized Jewish community and worship services for the High Holidays.
Given Wilmington's prosperity and the influx of Jews from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Wilmington grew quickly reaching some 4,000 by 1920. The Jews formed numerous service organizations, including the Young Men's Hebrew Association (today's JCC), the Hebrew Charity Association (today's Jewish Family Service), and the Bichor Cholem Society (today's Kutz Home). By 1929, they had established three Orthodox synagogues, Adas Kodesch, Chesed Shel Emeth, and Machzikey Hadas; a Reform synagogue, Temple Beth Emeth; and a Conservative synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom. These organizations and synagogues (Adas Kodesch and Chesed Shel Emeth merged in 1957) continued to serve the Wilmington population in 2005. Chabad-Lubavitch began conducting Sabbath services and educational activities in Wilmington and Newark in 1987.
A few Jewish students attended Delaware College, today's University of Delaware, at the end of the 19th century, but Jews did not settle in the college town of Newark until the early 20th century. The Hillel Foundation began activities at the university by 1948. In the early 21st century Hillel served some 800 students a year. The Newark Jewish Community, later known as Temple Beth El, the state's only Reconstructionist synagogue, was organized in 1954.
In the mid-19th century, a small number of Jewish retailers opened businesses in Dover, the state capital, and in several towns in southern Delaware. Jewish growth in the area was slower than in Wilmington, but by the early 20th century, Jewish retailers, peddlers, canners, distillers, and hotel-keepers lived in many towns of southern Delaware including Dover, Lewes, Georgetown, Milford, Millsboro, Seaford, and Smyrna. In 1897, with the aid of HIAS, the Isaac Benioff family settled in Kent County, becoming Delaware's first Jewish farmers. The Jewish Agriculture Society helped an additional 24 Jewish families establish farms in southern Delaware, primarily in Kent County, between 1912 and 1929. Religious services were held informally in homes until 1939 when the Jewish Congregation of Lower Delaware, a predecessor of today's Conservative synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom, was incorporated.
In 1997, Jewish vacationers and retirees from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and Wilmington along with Jews from Lewes, Rehoboth, and the surrounding Delaware beach communities formed the Seaside Jewish Community. The group, which numbered more than 150 families in 2005, held religious services, educational programs including a Hebrew school, and social events.
Throughout the 20th century, most Delaware Jews continued to live in the Wilmington area, the focal point of Jewish life in Delaware. One Jewish federation, located in Wilmington, served the entire state. However, by the end of the 20th century, the demographics had shifted. A 1995 study estimated that 56% of Delaware's Jews lived in the Wilmington area, 32% in the Newark-Hockessin area, and 12% in southern Delaware.
Jews have become an integral part of life in all parts of the state. They have contributed to the arts, science, business, medicine, journalism, law, and public service. Irving *Shapiro became CEO of the Dupont Company in 1973 and chair of the Business Roundtable in 1976, Roxana Arsht became Delaware's first female judge in 1971, Daniel Herrmann became chief justice of the Delaware Supreme Court in 1973, and Jack Markell was Delaware's state treasurer in 2005.
As of 2013, Delaware's Jewish population was approximately 15,100.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. Ukeles Associates, Inc., 1995 Jewish Population Study of Delaware, Summary Report; T. Young, Becoming American, Remaining Jewish: The Story of Wilmington, Delaware's First Jewish Community 1879–1924 (1999); D. Geffen, Jewish Delaware 1655–1976: History, Sites and Communal Services (1976); T. Young (ed.), Delaware and the Jews (1979).