RICHMOND, state capital of Virginia, U.S, and commercial center on the James River; 2001 population of metropolitan region 1,138,000 and within the city itself 192,000; Jewish population, 12,500.
There is evidence of Jews residing in Richmond as early as 1769. Revolutionary war veterans and business partners, Jacob I. Cohen and Isaiah Isaacs, the city's earliest known Jewish residents, were instrumental in the establishment of the state's first Jewish congregation in 1789. Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome was the sixth and westernmost congregation in the colonies, and one of the six that congratulated George Washington upon his inauguration as first president. The 1790 census shows Richmond with the fourth largest Jewish population, following only New York, Charleston and Philadelphia. The first Jewish burial ground in the state was established on Franklin Street in 1791 and, the first synagogue was dedicated on Mayo Street in 1822.
The early Richmond Jews appear to have integrated easily into the city's life, holding a number of elective and civic positions. Jacob Cohen was elected to the City Council in 1793 and served as a Master of his Masonic Lodge; Samuel Myers became alderman in 1800; Benjamin Wolfe and Joseph Darmstadt were elected to the City Council in 1816; and Solomon Jacobs was elected recorder, the second highest municipal office after that of the mayor, in 1815 and again in 1818. Gustavus A. Myers (1801–1869), known as the most prominent Jew of the city in his day, served on the City Council for nearly 30 years, 12 of which as its president. Judah P. *Benjamin, former U.S. Senator from Louisiana, lived in Richmond while serving as secretary of state for the Confederacy.
In 1841 the German Jewish community broke from Beth Shalome to establish Beth Ahabah, a new synagogue in the Ashkenazic tradition. In 1898 the two congregations merged as Beth Ahabah, which continues as Richmond's largest Reform congregation. A Polish congregation, Keneseth Israel, was organized in 1856, while an influx of Russian Jews beginning in 1880 led to the establishment of the Sir Moses Montefiore Congregation. By the 20th century such ethnic distinctions had faded away and the latter two synagogues joined with the Aitz Chaim Congregation in forming the Orthodox Temple Beth Israel.
Jews played a vital role in reviving the city's economy after the U.S. Civil War (1861–65) left the capital of the Confederacy in shambles. Philip Whitlock, a Confederate veteran, and his tobacco firm, P. Whitlock, helped establish the city as a major tobacco center. Gustavus A. Myers and Edward Cohen established the Merchants and Savings Bank in 1867, and Charles Hutzler and William H. Schwarzschild Sr. founded the Central National Bank in 1911.
A number of early Jewish firms were still owned and managed by the same families for over a century after their inception, such as the Thalhimer Brothers department store, established in 1842 and the Binswanger Glass Works. Schwarzschild Jewelers, established in 1897, remains the last of Richmond's carriage trade stores.
Richmond's first public school was founded by the Beth Ahabah Congregation. Sir Moses Jacob *Ezekiel, an internationally known 19th-century sculptor, was born in Richmond and attended the Virginia Military Institute. Gustavus Millhiser (1850–1915) of the Millhiser Bay Company and Richmond Cedar Works was greatly respected in his time. William B. Thalhimer Sr. helped to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt to legalize the deduction of charitable gifts from income tax returns. He was active on behalf of Richmond's Byrd Airport, group hospitalization, the conservation of wildlife in Virginia, and the settlement of refugees from Germany in the 1930s. Samuel Z. Troy and his wife were also active for refugees. At the end of World War II, a group of Jewish businessmen from Richmond, including Israel November and H.J. Bernstein partnered with friends from Virginia Beach to purchase and retrofit the former Chesapeake Bay ferry boat that became known to the world as the Exodus ship.
In 2006 the Jewish community continued to be heavily concentrated in various branches of manufacturing, merchandising, banking, medicine, law, real estate, and the wholesale and retail trade.
As of 2006 eight congregations continued to function: two reform – Beth Ahabah and Or Ami; three Conservative – Or Atid, Beth El, and Beth Shalom; and three Orthodox – Young Israel, Keneseth Beth Israel, and the Chabad Community Shul.
The social welfare structure of the Jewish community centers around the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, formed in 1935 to galvanize the Jewish community in raising funds to assist co-religionists seeking refuge from the Nazi regime. In 2006, member agencies include the Beth Sholom Home of Virginia, which has a nursing home, assisted living,
Richmond is the home of two Jewish museums, the Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives that chronicles over 300 years of Richmond Jewish History, and the Virginia Holocaust Museum that teaches tolerance through the experiences of local survivors. Spearheaded by Jay Ipson, the Holocaust Museum recently relocated to a 19th-century tobacco warehouse deeded to the museum by the State of Virginia. In 1997, "Commonwealth and Community: The Jewish Experience in Virginia" opened at the Virginia Historical Society and traveled through the state to The Chrysler Museum in Virginia Beach and Roanoke. Saul Viener and the Jewish Federation of Richmond partnered with the Historical Society to develop the exhibit that remains on view at the Beth Ahabah Museum & Archives. The Jewish Experience is also part of a permanent exhibition on Virginia history at the Virginia Historical Society. In 2001 a Virginia Historical Marker was installed on South 14th street marking the site of the first Beth Shalome synagogue.
Throughout the late 19th and the 20th century Richmond Jews continued to serve in a variety of elected offices and civic positions. William Lovenstein, served in the Richmond Light Infantry Blues during the Civil War and later as president pro tem of the Virginia State Senate. Alfred Moses, Julius Straus, A.H. Kaufman, Clifford Weil, Joseph Wallerstein, Lee A. Whitlock, and Nathan Forb were elected to City Council. Sol L. Bloomberg was a council president. Dr. Edward N. Calisch, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Ahabah from 1891 until 1946, was an important leader in the community. Norman Sisisky was elected as the delegate representing Petersburg in the Virginia General Assembly in 1973 and to nine terms as U.S. Representative for Virginia's Fourth Congressional District. Eric Cantor served as the chief deputy majority whip, U.S. House of Representatives, as the U.S. Representative for Virginia's Seventh Congressional District (2000); and as Henrico County delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1992 to 2000. Michael Schewel served as Virginia's secretary of commerce and trade under Governor Mark Warner.
Jewish-Christian relations in the Richmond area were characterized for many years by the indifferent Christian response to Jewish efforts to establish a meaningful religious dialogue. In the late 1990s, Congregation Beth Ahabah forged new ties with its neighbor St. James Church when it was severely damaged by lightning. St. James held worship services at Beth Ahabah for two years during the restoration, and later partnered to build shared parking facilities for the two congregations.
H.T. Ezekiel and G. Lichtenstein, The History of the Jews of Richmond 1769–1917 (1917); Richmond Jewish Community Council (1955); Through the Years, A Study of the Richmond Jewish Community. Generations, vol. 2, no. 1 (Commemorative Issue, 2005).