Pennsylvania has nearly 30 cities and towns numbering over 100 Jews each, nine of which have over 1,000. (Some of these communities include geographically larger areas than in earlier decades.) About 88% of the Jews live in either greater Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. Approximately 197 congregations existed in Pennsylvania in 2002. More than a dozen colleges offered majors in Jewish studies, and many more offered minors and courses. Jewish educational institutions included Gratz College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies in Philadelphia as well as Judaic Studies program at many of the major colleges.
Following the first permanent European settlement in Pennsylvania in 1643, the colony passed through Dutch (1655) and English (1664) rule until 1681, when William Penn acquired the territory. By 1656 New Amsterdam Jews traded along the Delaware River on Pennsylvania's eastern border, and by 1681 several Jews probably settled in the southeastern area. While most of these Jews were of Spanish-Portuguese origin, during the 18th century many came from Central Europe. Isaac Miranda (d. 1732) of Tuscany, a prominent Philadelphia landowner and public official, was the first Jew to settle in Lancaster , where he died a convert to Christianity. His son George traded with the Shawnee Indians along the Allegheny River. By 1747 – when ten Jewish families lived in Lancaster – a cemetery was purchased by Isaac Nunez Ricus (Henriques) and Joseph Simon, the leading merchant who had a trading outpost at Fort Pitt (later Pittsburgh). An early Jewish resident of Lancaster, Isaac Cohen, was Pennsylvania's first physician.
Jews settled at an early date in the port of Philadelphia, where many of them, such as the traders David Franks and Nathan Levy , engaged in shipping by the 1750s. Michael Gratz arrived in 1759 from London and joined the mercantile enterprises of his brother Barnard. Franks, Levy, Andrew Levy, and Joseph Simon speculated in western land, suffering damages from Indian raids. Franks, Barnard Gratz, and Aaron Levy were among the purchasers of land from the Illinois Indians in 1773. Levy became a landowner in nearly every county and founded Aaronsburg, which he named for himself, in 1786. Another early Jewish settlement was at Easton, north of Philadelphia on the Delaware. The merchant Myer Hart de Shira (Texeira) was among its founders, and by 1750 11 Jewish families lived there. Some lived in Reading from 1753 and in York from 1758. By the end of the American Revolution (1783), in which Jews played military and financial roles, about 800 Jews lived in the state. They enjoyed political rights, except that of membership in the General Assembly, although before the revolution David Franks (1748) and Benjamin Cohen (1755) sat in that body. Rebecca Gratz founded the Hebrew Sunday School Society (1838) and other organizations in Philadelphia.
There were many areas of the state in which few Jews lived until numbers of German Jews arrived after 1825. Jews arrived in Pittsburgh, Reading, Pottsville, and Wilkes-Barre during the 1830s, in Harrisburg, Scranton , Erie, and Allentown during the 1840s, in Honesdale from 1849, and in Hazelton, Altoona, and Uniontown during the 1860s. In some of these areas, real communities did not emerge for decades. In Lancaster, where Jews had lived during the colonial and early federal eras, a new community was not re-established until the latter part of the 19th century. In Harrisburg, the first congregation formed in 1853. In Hazelton, a traditional synagogue opened in 1893, and a second Reform congregation in 1906. Women played a leading role in organizing social welfare and educational organizations.
There were only nine congregations in Pennsylvania in 1856, which grew by 1877 to 26 for approximately 17,000 Jews. Daughters of Israel, the first national Jewish women's organization, was founded in Pittsburgh in 1872. Between 1889 and 1910 over 100,000 East European Jews immigrated to the state, so that by 1917 there were 320,000 Jews. New Jewish communities arose in Bethlehem, Greensburg, Johnstown, McKeesport, Mt. Carmel, New Kensington, Shamokin, Sharon, Sunbury, and Washington during the 1880s, and in Braddock and West Chester during the next decade. By 1927 there were 405,000 Jews, the number growing moderately thereafter.
Several demographic and occupational trends influenced Jewish communities. As early as the 1920s, children raised in smaller towns tended to move to cities with larger Jewish populations. Particularly after World War II, both boys and girls were encouraged to pursue higher education and often did not return to the small family businesses. The children of merchants relocated to larger cities and to other regions of the country. Thus many smaller towns included only one or two generations of a family. Braddock, an extreme example, a mill town near Pittsburgh, was estimated to have 1,350 Jews in 1942 and 250 in 1975. Hazelton, estimated to have 1,700 Jews in 1942, had 900 in 1974, and 300 in 2004. In Johnstown, where the estimated Jewish population declined from 1,350 in 1942 to 980 in 1974, had 275 in 2004, three congregations had merged into one by 1976. The Jewish populations of these towns continued to decline.
Medium-sized communities such as Allentown and Harrisburg, with more diverse economic possibilities, often grew or were stable in the decades following 1950. Although some cities, such as Scranton, declined in Jewish population, other communities expanded. Harrisburg opened a Jewish Community Center in 1958 and a home for the aged in 1977. These medium-sized communities were usually large enough to sustain a variety of congregations, a day school, and a Jewish community center.
In addition, from the mid-1950s Jews tended to move from the large cities to developing suburbs. Thus, many Jews left Philadelphia for the western, northeastern, and northwestern suburbs of the city. On the other hand, Pittsburgh, second in size and importance to Philadelphia, was suburbanized very little.
Some small towns with Jewish communities founded by Jewish workers and merchants and their families became part of growing suburban or exurban communities. Coatesville, a declining community about 40 miles (64 km) from Philadelphia (estimated Jewish population 305 in 1975), by the 1980s had a shrinking Conservative congregation, Beth Israel, founded in 1916. In 1994 they relocated to Uwchland (about 10 miles or 16 km away) in an exurban area, growing significantly as a result. The small Chester County Jewish federation and three other suburban county federations became regions of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia by the early 1990s. In a small town in Delaware County, Beth Israel of Media, a formerly Orthodox congregation founded in 1929, was in decline when it joined the Reconstructionist movement in 1972. With new leadership, the congregation grew as suburban Philadelphia expanded, opening a new building in 1997 in Media.
A final demographic trend was the movement of Jews from the northeastern states to the Sunbelt, particularly California and Florida. Pennsylvania Jewish population declined significantly after 1970, despite significant immigration from the Soviet Union and its successor states.
By the 1990s 30 colleges offered courses in Jewish studies. In 1994, 29,000 Jewish students were estimated to be studying in Pennsylvania colleges. By 2005, many colleges had active Hillels or Jewish student centers, among them the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University, Dickinson, Lehigh, Muhlenberg, Bucknell, Temple, and the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University, which shared a joint Hillel.
Jewish communal life centralized during the 20th century, and Jewish welfare federations were organized in Allentown (1948), Altoona (1920), Butler (1938), Easton (1939), Erie (1946), Harrisburg (1933), Johnstown (1938), Lancaster (1928), Levittown (1956), New Castle and Norristown (1936), Philadelphia (1901), Pittsburgh (1912), Pottsville (1935), Reading (1935), Scranton (1945), Sharon (1940), Uniontown (1939), Wilkes-Barre (1935), and York (1928). Most federations in communities with fewer than 1,000 Jews were no longer functioning in 2004. Jewish federations in the largest cities joined to create a representative office in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, in 1981. In 2005, Jewish newspapers were published in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Pennsylvania played a major role in Jewish camping in the 20th century. Camp Emma Farm opened near Pittsburgh in 1908, eventually becoming Camp Emma Kaufman, affiliated with the local Jewish Community Center. Jewish summer camps under a wide range of religious and community sponsorship operated in northeast Pennsylvania in the Poconos. Many were established in the decade and a half after World War II, including Camp Ramah (Conservative), B'nai B'rith Perlman camp, Camp Harlam (Reform), and camps serving Jewish community centers in New Jersey and New York as well as Pennsylvania. At the Habonim (Labor Zionist) movement's Camp Galil in Bucks County, explosives were hidden in 1947 before being smuggled to the Haganah in Palestine.
A number of Jews with Pennsylvania backgrounds achieved national or international prominence. Binyamin Netanyahu (later prime minister of Israel) and his brother Yonatan (killed in the Israeli raid at Entebbe in 1976) both attended Cheltenham High School outside Philadelphia while their father was teaching in the U.S. Both Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, the first woman Reconstructionist rabbi, and Amy Eilberg, the first woman Conservative rabbi, were from the Philadelphia area.
Jews in Pennsylvania have held high federal, state, and local offices. Representatives in the U.S. Congress have included: Lewis Charles Levin (1845–51), Henry M. Phillips (1857–59), Myer Strouse (1863–67), Benjamin Golder (1925–33), Henry Ellenbogen (1933–38), Leon Sacks (1937–43), Samuel A. Weiss (1941–46), Earl Chudoff (1949–58), Herman Toll (1959–67) Marc Lincoln Marks (1977–1983), Joshua Eilberg (1967–79), Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinzky (1993–95), Jon Fox (1995–99), and Allyson Y. Schwartz (2005– ). Milton Shapp served as
As of 2017, Pennsylvania's Jewish population was approximately 291,140 people.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. J.R. Marcus, Early American Jewry (1955), 3–164. AJYB (1918–2004), passim; H.S. Linfield, Statistics of Jews and Jewish Organizations (1939); J. Feldman, The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania: A History: 1775–1945 (1986); D. Ashton, Jewish Life in Pennsylvania (1998); M. Coleman, The Jews of Harrisburg: An Informal History by a Native Son (ca. 1978); J.F. Miller, Voices of Hazelton: A Century of Jewish Life (1993); E. Morawska, Insecure Prosperity: Small Town Jews in Industrial America 1890–1940 (1996); R. Perlman, From Shtetl to Milltown: Litvaks, Hungarians, and Galitzianers in Western Pennsylvania 1875–1925 (2001); J. Trachtenberg, Consider the Years; The Story of the Jewish Community of Easton, 1752–1942 (1944); L. Winograd, The Horse Died at Windber: A History of Johnstown's Jews of Pennsylvania (1988); D. Brener, Lancaster's Gates of Heaven: Portals to the Past: The 19th Century Jewish Community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Congregation Shaarai Shomayim, 1856–1976. (1976); M. Levin, The Jews of Wilkes-Barre, 1845–1995: 150 Years in the Wyoming Valley (1999).