Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA, fifth largest city in the United States, in the State of *Pennsylvania. The area's Jewish population (2001), sixth largest in the nation, was estimated at 206,000.

Origins of the Jewish Community

Jews came from New Amsterdam to trade in the Delaware Valley area as early as the 1650s, long before William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1682. Several individual Jews were transient in Philadelphia by 1706. Permanent Jewish settlement began in 1737 with the arrival of Nathan *Levy (1704–53) and his brother Isaac (1706–77), who were joined in 1740 by their young cousins David *Franks (1720–93) and Moses (1718–89). Nathan Levy and David Franks established a successful mercantile firm known for its shipping and import-export activity. Barnard *Gratz (1738–1801) arrived in 1754 and went to work for David Franks. Gratz, with his brother Michael *Gratz (1740–1811), the two best known Philadelphia colonial Jews, created a prosperous business enterprise which specialized in western trade. Jewish communal life may be dated from 1740, when Nathan Levy secured a grant of ground on Spruce Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets for Jewish burial. Informal services were undoubtedly conducted early in the 1740s, but it is probable that no organizational structure existed until about 1761, when a Torah scroll was borrowed for the High Holy Days from Shearith Israel Congregation of New York City. At first, services were conducted in a rented house on Sterling Alley; after 1771, in a building on Cherry Alley. The oldest extant document utilizing the name Mikveh Israel Congregation is dated 1773, although the name was probably adopted prior to that.

Revolutionary Period

Nine or 10 Jewish merchants, led by the Gratz brothers, signed the Non-Importation Resolutions of Oct. 25, 1765. While a majority of Philadelphia's Jews supported the Revolutionary cause, a few were Tories, among them David Franks, who served as deputy commissary of prisoners and was expelled by the Continental authorities in 1780 for his pro-British sympathies. During the war Jews were active as suppliers to the troops, as brokers for the government (e.g., Haym *Salomon), and as military figures. The highest commissioned rank achieved by Jews was that of lieutenant colonel, held by both Solomon *Bush and David S. Franks, the latter having had the misfortune of serving as aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold at the time of his treachery, but innocent of complicity. After the evacuation of the city by the British in 1778, Philadelphia became a center for Jewish refugees from Charleston, Savannah, and New York City. Gershom Mendes *Seixas became the community's hazzan in 1780. The city's first real synagogue building, 30 × 36 feet, was erected on the north side of Cherry Street between Third and Sterling and dedicated in 1782. After the end of the war, many of the out-of-towners returned home, including Seixas, who went back to his New York City congregation, and the Philadelphians were left holding a large mortgage, resulting in public appeals for funds in 1788 and 1790. Among the contributors were Benjamin Franklin, scientist David Rittenhouse, and political leader Thomas McKean, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1783 the leaders of Mikveh Israel Congregation unsuccessfully attempted to change the requirement in the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 that officeholders take an oath swearing belief in both the Old and New Testaments. Another effort led by Jonas *Phillips in 1789 was successful, and the 1790 state constitution prohibited only atheists from holding state office. Phillips was also the author of a communication to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 urging the recognition of full legal equality for members of "all Religious societies," later guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The fact that both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were adopted in Philadelphia gave the Jews of the community a sense of close relationship to the founding of the nation which was the first in the modern world to grant the full range of rights and prerogatives of citizenship to Jews. President George Washington, answering a letter of congratulations sent to him in 1790 by Philadelphia's Manuel *Josephson on behalf of Mikveh Israel and its sister congregations of New York City, Charleston, and Richmond, also recognized that "the liberal sentiment toward each other which marks every political and religious denomination of men in this country stands unparalleled in the history of Nations."

Early 19th Century

The growth of the Jewish community of Philadelphia, like that of other major cities, was comparatively slow until about 1830. There may have been as many as 1,000 Jewish men, women, and children in the town at the time of Cornwallis' surrender, but this swollen population swiftly scattered, and so large a number was not again reached until about 1830. It is estimated that at the time of the 1820 census there were about 500 Jews in Philadelphia, of whom a little less than half were immigrants. Some of these foreign born felt uncomfortable at the Sephardi services of Mikveh Israel and in about 1795 instituted their own Ashkenazi form of worship, under the name German Hebrew Society. In 1802 they formally organized themselves as Rodeph Shalom Congregation. Philadelphia thus became the first city in the Western Hemisphere to break the unitary pattern of one congregation in each community. In 1819 Rebecca *Gratz and women from Mikveh Israel established the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, the first non-synagogue charity in the country, which is active today. By 1825 these two congregations had spawned a handful of independent benevolent societies. Rebecca Gratz, Simha Peixotto, Rachael Peixotto Pyke, and other women in response to Protestant missionaries founded The Hebrew Sunday School Society in 1838. In 1848 there were about 4,000 Jews in the city, a figure which probably doubled by 1860, when Mikveh Israel and Rodeph Shalom had been joined by five more congregations: Beth Israel (1840, merged into Beth Zion in 1964); Keneseth Israel (1847); Bene Israel (1852, disbanded 1879); Beth El Emeth (1857, dissolved about 1890); and Adath Jeshurun (1858).

National Influence of the Community During the 19th Century

Beginning with the election of Isaac *Leeser to the pulpit of Mikveh Israel in 1829, and continuing until about 1906 when the *American Jewish Committee was formed in New York City in partnership with Philadelphia Jews, the Philadelphia Jewish community was innovating, pioneering, and, in many ways, the most influential Jewry in the U.S. Religiously, the dominant pattern was a moderate traditionalism. In spite of New York City's numerical superiority – and perhaps because New York's Jewry was so immense and diverse as to be unmanageable, uncontrollable, and diffuse – it was in Philadelphia that new ideas for the shaping of U.S. Jewish communal life were tested. Such creative religious and lay leaders of Philadelphia as Leeser, Sabato *Morais, Abraham *Hart, Moses Aaron *Dropsie, Mayer *Sulzberger, and Joseph *Krauskopf were as concerned with the future and fate of Jewish life throughout the country as they were with developments on the local scene. Other factors which contributed to the achievements of Philadelphia's Jews were the city's tradition of intellectual and cultural excellence, which spurred its Jews to match the activity of their non-Jewish neighbors; the geographical location of the city and its commercial and financial links with the South and Midwest, which brought it into frequent and instructive contact with Jews in other parts of the country; and a less frenzied pace of life than New York City's, which perhaps granted the leisure and perspective necessary for intelligent assessment of current and future needs. At any rate, it was in this community that Leeser's Occident, prayer book, and Bible translations were published – sources of incalculable Jewish cultural and religious enrichment throughout the country. It was in Philadelphia that Leeser issued a call for an organized U.S. Jewish community in 1841. In 1845 he organized the American Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia, and, upon its failure, and that of a New York-based successor organization, the present Jewish Publication Society was formed in 1888. Leeser's Hebrew Education Society high school, the first in the land, was founded in 1849. He also opened the first Jewish theological seminary in the country, Maimonides College, in Philadelphia in 1867. The first U.S. Jewish teachers' college, Gratz College, established under the provisions of the will of Hyman *Gratz (1776–1857), began in 1897. In Philadelphia, too, *Dropsie College (later University), the first postgraduate institution for Jewish learning in the world, was opened in 1907, bringing to Philadelphia as its president the learned Cyrus *Adler, who for several decades was the representative of U.S. Jewry. In New York the Jewish Theological Seminary was founded by a Philadelphia rabbi, Sabato Morais, who was its first president.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

E. Wolf and M. Whiteman, History of the Jews of Philadelphia (1957). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: D. Ashton, Rebecca Gratz: Women and Judaism in Antebellum America (1997); L. Sussman, Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism (1995); M. Friedman (ed.), Jewish Life in Philadelphia, 1830–1940 (1983); idem (ed.), When Philadelphia Was the Capital of Jewish America (1993); idem (ed.), Philadelphia Jewish Life, 1940–2000 (20032); G. Stern (ed.) Traditions in Transition: Jewish Culture in Philadelphia, 1840–1940 (1989); Summary Report: Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia, 1996–1997; J. Schwartz, "Census of U.S. Synagogues," in: AJYB 2002; A. Harrison, Passover Revisited: Philadelphia's Efforts to Aid Soviet Jews, 1963–1998 (2001): R. Tabak, "The Transformation of Jewish Identity: The Philadelphia Jewish Experience, 1919–1945" (Ph.D. diss., Temple Univ. 1990); R. Peltz, From Immigrant to Ethnic Culture: American Yiddish in South Philadelphia (1998); D. Ashton, The Philadelphia Group and Philadelphia Jewish History: A Guide to Archival and Bibliographic Collections (1993); H. Boonin, The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia: A History and Guide, 1881–1930 (1999).