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Jewish American Historical Places: Mikveh Israel Congregation

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Earliest Jewish Settlement

Scattered records indicate that there were Jewish traders in the Delaware Valley before William Penn took possession of his colony in 1682. They lived in trading posts and wooden forts as protection from hostile Indians. In 1784, a German traveler listed the presence of Jewish families among the religious sects of early Philadelphia . Nathan Levy , observant Jew, established himself in the import/export trade with his cousin David Franks in the busy Philadelphia port by 1735.

In an atmosphere of tolerance, without hostility and repression, the Jews of colonial Philadelphia were free to meet openly with fellow Jews in group-worship. They met in the heart of a busy city, their meeting places surrounded by churches. They were able to fulfill their spiritual need to practice traditional religious rites.

1740 Spruce Street Cemetery between 8th & 9th Streets

Nathan Levy applied to Thomas Penn , Royal Proprietor of Pennsylvania, for a plot to bury his child in accordance with Jewish ritual. It became a Jewish communal cemetery, the first evidence of Jewish communal life in Philadelphia . Mikveh Israel dates its beginning from the establishment of the cemetery.

Early Minyan

Religious services were first held in private homes, including that of Nathan Levy . Later, rented quarters were obtained, first on Sterling Alley (presently Orianna Street ) then around the corner on Cherry Street . A commemorative marker stands on Cherry Street, between Arch and Race, Third and Fourth Streets.

1765 Non-Importation Resolutions

To pay for the French and Indian War, the British imposed a stamp tax on her American colonies. In 1765, the Non-Importation Resolutions were drawn up with signatures of many citizens who agreed “not to have any goods shipped from Great Britain until the repeal of the Stamp Act.” Signers included the merchants Mathias Bush , Moses Mordecai and Barnard Gratz , members of Mikveh Israel .

1775-1783 Synagogue of the Revolution

During the War of Independence, Jews from New York , Richmond , Charleston , Savannah , Lancaster and Easton fled to Philadelphia seeking refuge from the British. In 1780, Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas , Hazan (Minister) of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York , came to Philadelphia and became its religious leader. During his tenure, he established the form of prayer and organizational structure in the Spanish-Portuguese tradition which remain today.

1782 First Building

Because of increased membership as well as financial help from those who sought refuge in Philadelphia , the congregation established a permanent religious home. A lot was purchased on Cherry Alley. A carpenter and bricklayer were hired to build a two-story brick building, hardly distinguishable by style from those around it. Space on the lot was approved for a home for the hazan , a school and a mikvah . Close by were the Old Reformed Church of the United Church of Christ and the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church

1783 Society for the Relief of Destitute Strangers (Ezrath Orechim)

The first Jewish charitable organization in the city was established by Mikveh Israel. Officers: Jacob I. Cohen president, Isaiah Bush secretary, Haym Salomon treasurer.

1783 Protest of Religious Test Oath

On December 23, 1783, a committee including Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas , Simon Nathan parnas/president, Asher Myers , Barnard Gratz and Haym Salomon , addressed the Pennsylvania Council of Censors to protest the declaration required of each member of the Pennsylvania Assembly that the Old and New Testament were given by divine inspiration. This oath deprived Jews of the right to be representatives. The protest was not accepted but influenced the United States Constitution which does not provide a religious oath for holding of office.

1788 Subscription List

Members of the congregation, including Rev. Seixas , returned to New York , Charleston and other locations when British occupation ceased. Left with debt incurred by synagogue construction loans, a subscription list was addressed to “worthy fellow Citizens of every religious Denomination.” Among the contributors were Benjamin Franklin ; David Rittenhouse , astronomer; Hilary Baker , city councilman (later mayor); Thomas McKean , a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Chief Justice and later Governor of Pennsylvania; William Bradford , Attorney-General of Pennsylvania; and Thomas Fitzsimmons , a drafter of the U.S. Constitution, first president of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the city's leading Catholic layman.

1790 Josephson & Washington Letters

On December 13, 1790, Manuel Josephson , parnas/president of Mikveh Israel , personally presented a letter of homage and congratulations to President George Washington on behalf of “the Hebrew Congregations in the Cities of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston and Richmond ” for his “elevation to the chair of the Federal Government.” Facsimiles of that letter and the reply of Washington can be seen in the display table below the tapestry.

1825 Second Building

When the 1782 building became inadequate, the Board of Adjuntos (Managers) voted to build a larger synagogue on the same site. William Strickland , leading architect, designed a structure of white stone from the “Falls of the Schuylkill ,” one of the most dignified buildings of its kind in the country. The interior and exterior of the building are portrayed on the right side of the tapestry.

1840 Protest of the Damascus Blood-Libel

On August 27, 1840, a public protest was held at Mikveh Israel of this international incident in which seven Jewish men were tortured and 63 Jewish children held hostage. Several influential Christian ministers spoke at the meeting. A committee consisting of John Moss , David Samuel , Rev. Isaac Leeser , J. L. Moss and L. J. Levy sent a letter of protest to President James K. Polk. They received a reply from Secretary of State John Forsyth on September 2.

1860 Third Building

Prior to the Civil War (1861-1865) as the Jewish population grew and prospered, an elegant building was constructed on 7 th Street, north of Arch. It was designed by John McArthur Jr. (later, architect of City Hall of Philadelphia ). The interior and exterior of the building are portrayed on the left side of the tapestry.

1897 Gratz College

A $130,000 trust created by Hyman Gratz vested in the congregation “for the establishment and support of a college for the education of Jews residing in the city and county of Philadelphia .” Gratz College became the first Hebrew teacher's college in America . Officers: Moses A. Dropsie president, David Sulzberger secretary, Charles J. Cohen treasurer.

1909 Fourth Building

Many Jews moved to the area between Broad and 16 th Streets, north of Girard Avenue . A new building was constructed at Broad and York Streets, flanked by Gratz and Dropsie Colleges . Samuel Elkin and Henry G. Freeman, Jr. donated $100,000; $40,500 for the site, $59,000 for the building in memory of Abraham and Eve Elkin . (picture of plaque) The interior and exterior of the building are portrayed in the center of the tapestry.

1956 Act of Congress

The Spruce Street Cemetery is declared a national shrine and park of Independence National Historical Park.

1976 Fifth Building

The congregation moved to Independence Mall, close to its original site, together with the National Museum of American Jewish History. The building opened on July 4,1976, the Nation's Bicentennial. A plan for renovation is in progress.

Sources: Mikveh Israel