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Virtual Jewish World: Kentucky, United States

A receipt with a Yiddish notation surviving from 1781 reveals that the firm of Cohen and Isaacs in Richmond, Virginia, paid Daniel Boone for surveying land on its behalf in Kentucky, and other evidence of early Jewish involvement in the area exists as well. The first Jewish settlers in Kentucky arrived at the very beginning of the 19th century, but they were unable to maintain a Jewish life on the frontier. The Baltimore-born John Jacob was apparently resident near Louisville as early as 1802, and Benjamin Gratz , scion of the famous Philadelphia merchant family, settled in Lexington in 1819; both married gentile women not once, but twice. Gratz's family were slave-owners in the South. Another early American Jew, Henry Hyman, settled in Louisville Kentucky in the early 1800's. He owned a tavern known as the “Western Coffeehouse,” where he served food as well as alcoholic beverages.

Jewish individuals who settled in Kentucky found themselves heavily involved in the liquor trade, especially whiskey. In order to ensure their food and drink was Kosher, Jewish individuals had to be present at every point in the production process, and they eventually formed a small monopoly over whiskey production in the area for a short time. Thousands of Jewish individuals owned slaves and fought for the South during the civil war, and Jefferson Davis' Secretary of State was a Jew named Judah P. Benjamin. Jewish communal life began in Kentucky in the 1830s, first in Louisville and a little later elsewhere. Communal organizations appeared in Owensboro and Paducah, both on the Ohio River, in the late 1850s, and in Lexington just after the Civil War. Supreme Court Justice, and one of the most famous American Jews, Louis Brandeis, was born in Louisville in 1856. By the 1870s there were lodges of B'nai B'rith in Louisville, Owensboro, Paducah, and Lexington. In 1880, four synagogue buildings stood in Louisville, one in Owens-boro, one in Paducah, and one in Henderson, and the Jewish population of Kentucky was reported to be 3,600, with 2,500 Jews in Louisville, 213 in Owensboro, 203 in Paducah, 140 in Lexington, and the rest in other small towns. By the turn of the 19th century, aside from Congregation Adas Israel in Henderson, Congregation Adath Israel in Owensboro, Temple Israel in Paducah, and a variety of Jewish institutions in Louisville, there was a multi-purpose Spinoza Society in Lexington (founded 1873) as well as Jewish social clubs in Henderson (the Harmony club, founded 1873), Owensboro (the Standard Club, founded 1889), Shelbyville (the Jewish Literary and Social Club, founded 1895), and Paducah (the Standard Club, founded 1903).

East European Jews arriving in Kentucky around the turn of the 19th century reinforced existing communities and also established additional Jewish centers. These immigrants founded Congregation Agudath Achim in Ashland in 1896, the United Hebrew Congregation in Newport in 1897, and congregations in Covington, Hopkinsville, and Harlan in the early part of the 20th century. By the time of World War I, Lexington had two congregations: the Reform Adath Israel (founded 1904) and the Orthodox Ohavay Zion (founded 1912).

Immigrants established new ethnic and cultural institutions in several small towns as well. In Newport, for example, the Jewish community had created a Free Hebrew School offering programs for both children and adults as early as 1907. By that year, Newport's Jews also were supporting a branch of the Zionist Po'alei Zion and a Jewish Protective League, demanding better police protection for their community. In Lexington, the poet Israel Jacob Schwartz (1885–1971) completed his epic Yiddish poem cycle Kentucky in 1922. In 1927, Kentucky's Jewish population was reported to be 19,500, with 12,500 Jews in Louisville and triple-digit communities in Ashland, Covington, Lexington, Newport, and Paducah. Henderson, Hopkinsville, Owensboro, and the area around Harlan each was home to between 65 and 90 Jewish individuals.

Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, Jews were involved in civic affairs not only in Louisville, but also elsewhere. For example, Abraham Jonas (1801–1864), brother of Joseph Jonas , settled in Williamstown in 1827 and was elected several times to the state legislature. Meyer Weil (1830–91) served as mayor of Paducah between 1871 and 1881, and at about the same time the presiding officers of both chambers of the Lexington town council were Jews. Morris Weintraub of Newport (1909–96) was speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives in the 1950s.

In the second half of the 20th century, Kentucky's Jewish population declined and, as elsewhere in the U.S., many small-town Jewish communities deteriorated. By the end of the century, fully functioning congregations and communal institutions could be found only in Louisville and Lexington, although tiny congregations holding occasional services still existed in Owensboro and Paducah. Kentucky's Jewish population was reported as 11,000 in 1960, 13,000 in 1984, and 11,500 at the turn of the 20th century.

American Pharoah, the horse that won the Kentucky Derby in 2015 and went on to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown of Horseracing in almost 40 years, is owned by an Orthodox Jew from Egypt.

In 2021, Kentucky became the first state to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of Anti-Semitism.

As of 2020, Kentucky’s Jewish population was approximately 12,500.


L.S. Weissbach, The Synagogues of Kentucky: Architecture and History (1995); idem, "Kentucky's Jewish History in National Perspective: The Era of Mass Migration," in: The Filson Club Quarterly, 69 (July 1995), 255–74; idem, "Stability and Mobility in the Small Jewish Community: Examples from Kentucky History," in: American Jewish History, 79 (Spring 1990), 358–60; L.N. Dembitz, "Jewish Beginnings in Kentucky" in Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1 (1898), 99–100.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.