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.
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."
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).
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.
Philadelphia's concern for national Jewish undertakings was virtually overwhelmed by the East European immigration, which began to pour into the city toward the end of the 19th century. A fairly homogenous community of approximately 12,000 in 1880 was inundated by 15 times its number within 35 years: There were upward of 200,000 Jews in the city by 1915. A majority of Philadelphia's Jewish immigrants came from the Ukraine. East European Jews were the largest immigrant group in Philadelphia by 1920. The process of Americanization, adjustment, and integration began all over again, accompanied by a vast proliferation of lodges, landsmannschaften, synagogues, and societies, numbering more than 150 in 1904 and twice that in 1920. Most of the community energy was channeled into social welfare and personal aid. The Jewish Foster Home (1855) and the Jewish Hospital (1866), formerly fairly modest institutions, struggled to keep pace with incessant need. Jewish women formed the Jewish Maternity Hospital in 1871. Another Jewish medical institution, Mt. Sinai Hospital, was created in 1900 to serve the immense Jewish population in south Philadelphia. The Jewish Sheltering Home (1882) developed into the Home for the Jewish Aged (1899). Single middle-class women led by Fanny Binsingwanger established the Young Women's Union to assist the new immigrants, opening what eventually became the Neighborhood Centre, a settlement house at 4th and Bainbridge in 1900. In 1901, with Jacob Gimbel of the department store family as its first president, the new Federation of Jewish Charities was formed through the merger of a number of societies, including the United Hebrew Charities (founded in 1869) which had been supported by the proceeds of an annual Hebrew Charity Ball since 1855.
Federation of philanthropic endeavor did not, however, connote communal unity. As wide a gulf as anywhere in the
nation existed between German and East European Jews, between Reform and Orthodox, and between Zionists and anti-Zionists. Within the field of philanthropy itself, family and business associations of the German Jews, and anti-, or at least non-Zionist views continued to dominate the Federation of Jewish Charities (FJC) until the end of World War II. The German Jews kept aloof from the newer immigrants in the Mercantile Club (1853) and Philmont Country Club (1906), where their social gatherings were held; only in the Locust Club (1920), beginning in the 1940s, were social distinctions overlooked and, ultimately, ignored. In religious life, leaders such as Orthodox Rabbi Bernard L. Levinthal and Reform Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf were personally friendly. However they rarely joined together except for specific causes as when they sold war bonds together during World War I, stood for election in the American Jewish Congress campaign of 1917, or supported expansion of Jewish education. Philadelphia, essentially a conservative city, preserved traditional characteristics dating back to colonial times; it also maintained social barriers that excluded Jews longer than in most other cities.
After the war, Jews from the immigrant neighborhoods of Port Richmond, Northern Liberties, and South Street, relocated to heavily Jewish areas including South Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion, and West Philadelphia. Organized Jewish education, largely community-sponsored, expanded after the war. The Associated Talmud Torahs, founded by the short-lived Kehillah (1911–early 1920s) in 1919 educated mostly boys and the Hebrew Sunday School Society enrolled mostly girls. In addition, numerous Yiddish supplementary schools, including Zionist, socialist, and communist branches opened by the 1920s.
The Reform and Orthodox movements were relatively weak. By the mid-1930s there were about more than 100 Orthodox congregations (many quite small); over 30 Conservative, and two Reform synagogues. English-speaking traditional synagogues, as well as some fairly liberal ones, identified as Conservative. With the exception of Mikveh Israel, few English-speaking Orthodox congregations existed until the late 1930s.
Overseas events provided the catalyst for cooperation. In June 1919, tens of thousands of Jews demonstrated against pogroms in the new state of Poland. In the 1930s under the impact of the depression, of overseas needs provoked by Hitlerism, and of the simultaneous rise of U.S. antisemitism, the Philadelphia Jewish community began to coalesce. In 1937, the first Allied Jewish Appeal campaign was conducted for funds to assist the yishuv and the victims of German oppression, supported by 9,000 donors raising $258,000. In 1938 the second AJA drive, just after Kristallnacht , reached 37,000 donors, including many working class and lower-income Jews able to give small amounts, raising $741,000. In 1939, there were 48,000 donors to the AJA, 74% of whom contributed less than $10. A total of $902,000 was raised that year.
Overseas needs drove the expansion of Jewish fundraising during and after World War II. For the first time, a community structure with mass participation was established on an ongoing basis. A council of local defense agencies was organized, resulting in the establishment of the Jewish Community Relations Council in 1938. Zionism, long only a small part of the Jewish scene, was growing in influence. Judge Louis Levinthal became head of the national Zionist Organization of America in 1943. Rose Bender (1895–1964) became the first woman executive director of a ZOA office in 1945. In the same period, the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism (ACJ; 1943) was founded by Philadelphia rabbis and laymen, among them leaders of the Federation.
Throughout the postwar period, Philadelphia Jewish life centered on Jewish neighborhoods and the dominant pattern of moderate traditionalism. Unlike some American cities, even at the close of the century close to half the Jews lived in the city of Philadelphia itself, with others living in contiguous innerring suburbs. In these neighborhoods, informal interactions reinforced synagogues and Jewish organizations.
Following World War II, many Jews relocated to newer Jewish neighborhoods in the city (West Oak Lane, Mt. Airy, Overbrook Park, and especially the Northeast) or to inner ring suburbs such as Elkins Park–Old York Road and Lower Merion. Established synagogues moved, and new Jewish institutions were founded. Older Jewish neighborhoods, including Strawberry Mansion and South Philadelphia, declined due to the attractions of newer housing and in the former case racial conflict.
The merger in 1944 of several children's agencies into the Association for Jewish Children, was the first of a number of steps in the gradual restructuring of the community. The three Jewish hospitals merged into the Albert Einstein Medical Center in 1951. At the same time, many leaders were ambivalent about religious expression. The hospital's Frank Memorial Synagogue, opened in 1901, was closed in 1957. (An increased interest in Jewish identity led to its restoration in 1984.) Old hostilities and loyalties were overcome through the final merger of the Federation of Jewish Charities and the Allied Jewish Appeal into the Federation of Jewish Agencies (FJA) in 1956.
Jewish education began to shift from communal auspices to congregational ones, still largely neighborhood-based. Akiba Hebrew Academy, a community secondary school, opened amid controversy in 1946. An Orthodox day school opened the same year and a Solomon Schechter day school (Conservative) opened in 1956. Gratz College reorganized and moved from North Philadelphia into a new building in Logan in 1962.
The Young Men's Hebrew Association and the Neighborhood Center were united in 1965, with a projected network of leisure time agencies throughout the metropolitan area. By 1970 most of the old institutional rivalries had been forgotten.
The younger leaders did not know whose grandmother had been Ukrainian, or whose great-grandfather had been German. Money for Israel was raised and bonds for Israel were sold in the very synagogues whose former rabbis had created the anti-Zionist ACJ. Although a local Synagogue Council had failed in the 1950s, a flourishing Board of Rabbis testified to increased cooperation among Conservative, Orthodox, Reform and from the 1970s, Reconstructionist rabbis. The FJA itself had moved far beyond its conceptual origins as a fund-raising agency and was functioning vigorously in broad areas of social planning.
Philadelphia Jewish life continued to be neighborhood-based, even with increasing dispersion. By 1970, the Jewish population was concentrated in the Center City, Greater Northeast, Old York Road Suburban, West Oak Lane–Mt. Airy, Wynnefield, and Main Line sections, with growing centers in Levittown and Norristown.
There were over 100 congregations in the Philadelphia area of which approximately 50 were Conservative, 45 Orthodox, and 15 Reform. Some of the Orthodox congregations were quite small, and some were served by Conservative rabbis. While two of the largest Reform congregations in the country were located in Greater Philadelphia, the dominant religious thrust of the community was Conservative. Since most Reform congregations were formed after the war, they had fewer internal struggles regarding modifying the more radical reforms instituted by some older Reform congregations. Several Conservative congregations (including Adath Jeshurun, Beth Hillel-Beth El, and Germantown Jewish Centre) include participatory ḥavurah minyanim led by members, established in the 1970s and early 1980s. A resurgent interest in Orthodoxy was stimulated through work of branches of the Lubavitch movement and by a nationally known talmudic yeshivah established in Philadelphia by students of Rabbi Aaron Kotler in 1952.
By the late 1960s, barriers to Jewish participation in civic and professional life were declining. Representative Jews were appointed to the boards of practically every bank in the city, as they had long served on the boards of the community's cultural and educational institutions. Many major corporations were actively soliciting applications for employment as executive trainees from young Jews, and almost every major law firm included a few Jews. In law, medicine, and other prestigious Philadelphia professions, Jewish leaders and pioneers were numerous. For example, in 1971, Martin Meyerson was named president of the University of Pennsylvania, the first Jewish head of an Ivy League college. Marvin Wachman served as president of Temple University from 1973 to 1982. Arlen Specter served as district attorney (1966–74) and later as U.S. senator from 1981. His wife, Joan Specter, was a city council member (1980–1996.) David Cohen (1914–2005) was a formidable liberal member of city council from 1968 to 1971 and 1980–2005.
Although Jews occupied a significant place in the political and economic life of the area, Jews themselves were still rigorously and consciously excluded from most of the town and country clubs which represented the last strongholds of old Philadelphia "society."
By the 1980s, declining social boundaries meant that Jews no longer needed to affiliate with Jewish social clubs or charities. Increasingly, a challenge was to bring younger participants and potential donors into Jewish life.
Philadelphia continued national leadership in several areas. Local Holocaust survivors established one of the first outdoor public monuments in the U.S. in Center City in 1964. Local Jews played leading roles in the Soviet Jewry movement, and an annual rally each year was a prominent event in the 1970s and 80s.
The Jewish Renewal movement created one of its centers from the 1970s, stimulated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi as well as by Rabbi Arthur Green and Arthur Waskow , all of whom lived in West Mount Airy. Other new organizations, including the National Havurah Committee, the Shomrei Adamah Jewish ecology movement, and the Shalom Center were based there. The Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot joined the rabbinical college in Philadelphia in 1987.
By the 1980s, Jewish population had shifted again. In 1986, the Federation opened Mandell Education Campus in Melrose Park, including Gratz College (about 2 miles (3 km) north of its former home), the new Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education, day care, a Conservative day school, and other agencies.
A 1984 study estimated that about 53 percent of area Jews lived within the Philadelphia city limits. Sixty percent of the area's Jews were concentrated in four areas: Northeast Philadelphia, Center City, the City Line area, and the northern suburbs. The dominant religious group remained Conservative. Amy Eilberg, the first woman Conservative rabbi, was from the city and served in Philadelphia congregational and chap-laincy positions in the 1980s.
Geographic dispersion increased by the 1990s. In 1996–97, 48 percent of Jewish households were within the city, a number in decline. A few urban neighborhoods such as Mt. Airy and Center City, and some inner suburbs such as Lower Merion and Elkins Park-Old York Road, maintained significant Jewish populations, as did the Orthodox enclaves in the city's Northeast and Overbook Park. These were a declining percentage of the region's Jewish population. Outside these neighborhoods, most Jewish movement was to suburban areas marked by commuting synagogues rather than neighborhood synagogues – only a few members lived within a mile or two (1.6–3 km) of the congregation.
Philadelphia Jewish life has been neighborhood-based. Increasing population dispersal meant that fewer Jews had
neighbors or classmates who were Jewish. The Jewish community struggled to define itself with less geographic concentration. The Federation structure was changed to include four quasi-autonomous suburban regions, serving Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware counties. The Jewish Community Centers determined that building new physical structures was no longer efficient after the 1980s and established four JCCs without walls in suburban counties. The Philadelphia Geriatric Center, renamed the Abramson Center for Jewish Living, relocated from urban Logan adjacent to Albert Einstein hospital, to suburban North Wales in 2002.
In 1990 the Federation of Jewish Charities adopted the name Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The Federation and some of its agencies began to place greater emphasis on Jewish values, education, and observance. The Jewish Exponent, founded 1887, is the official organ of the Federation, which also publishes Inside, a quarterly magazine.
The community showed continued vitality. Since 1990, several new Reconstructionist and Orthodox congregations opened in the city itself and in the suburbs. Existing congregations in the suburbs from all movements expanded, although there were closures and mergers, particularly in Northeast Philadelphia. Six neighborhoods had eruvim (Sab-bath boundaries) in 2005. Both one Reform and one Conservative congregation opened mikva'ot after 2000. The Conservative movement continued a major role, with 38% identifying as Conservative, 28% as Reform, 12% as no denomination, 5% traditional, and 4% each as Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and secular humanist in 1997. Philadelphia was the only major U.S. city where the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly played a major role in kashrut supervision. Almost all Conservative congregations were formally egalitarian by the 1990s, but only a handful of women rabbis served that movement locally, unlike the Reconstructionist and Reform movements. There was a low level of formal affiliation. In 1997 only 37% of the population was affiliated with a synagogue.
A 2002 survey found 97 synagogues (excluding 8 in Chester county): 33 Orthodox, 28 Conservative, 21 Reform, 8 Reconstructionist, and 7 "other." Many of the synagogues and Jewish community centers have day care or nursery school programs. There are six elementary Jewish day schools, a middle school, and three high schools. Most children received their education in supplemental congregational schools. The Community Hebrew Schools, descendant of the 1838 Hebrew Sunday School Society, announced plans to close in 2006.
Jews were prominent in the wider community and government, particularly from the 1990s onward. Judith Rodin, president of the University of Pennsylvania from 1994 to 2004, was the first woman to head an Ivy League university. Stefan Presser (1953–2005), a forceful advocate for the poor and disabled and for church-state separation, served from 1983 to 2004 as legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union. Christie Balka served from 1997 as executive director of the Bread and Roses Community Fund, an umbrella group raising funds for local social change organizations. Shelly Yanoff, an advocate for health care for children, was executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth from 1986.
In the 1990s, Jews held the city's three highest elected offices, as well as serving in Congress, the state legislature, and as leaders in suburban communities. Edward Rendell served as the first Jewish mayor of Philadelphia (1992–99), and later as governor. Lynne Abraham, a former judge, was district attorney of the city from 1991 and Jonathan Saidel was elected city controller four times from 1990. Allyson Y. Schwartz was a state senator representing the city and suburbs from 1991 to 2005, when she took office as a U.S. congresswoman for a city-suburban district. Businessman Sam Katz was the unsuccessful Republican candidate for Philadelphia mayor in 1999 and 2003.
Jewish population declined from an estimated 240,400 (256,100 people living in Jewish households, including non-Jews) in 1983–84 to 206,100 in 1996–97 (241,600 in Jewish households.) The decline (including some movement to Southern New Jersey) would have been greater had not some 30,000 immigrants arrived from the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine. In 1996–97 12% of Jewish residents (15,200 people) lived in "poor" households with incomes under $15,000. Including these, almost 23% of the population (57,000 people) lived in low-income households. There were many elderly Jews, new immigrants, and single parents among the poor and near poor.
Philadelphia remained a center for Jewish studies. In addition to Gratz College and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, opened in 1968, several other centers were established. Dropsie University, affected by the rise of Judaic studies in secular universities, closed in 1986, eventually becoming the University of Pennsylvania Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. Temple University established the Feinberg Center for American Jewish history in 1990. The Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center opened in 1972. The National Museum of American Jewish History, opened on Independence Mall in 1976, planned a major expansion in 2005.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
>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