To learn more about the history of Jewish Philadelphia see "Living in America: The Jewish Experience: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania." www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/mfh-philadelphia.htm.
Jewish History in Philadelphia
The Colonial Period
Almost from the time of Philadelphia's founding there was a Jewish presence. The early history of the Jews in Philadelphia starts with the Jewish traders who operated here at the time of William Penn (1682). Supposedly, the first Jewish resident was Jonas Aaron whose name appears in 1703 ("American Historical Register," April 1895). However, according to historian and author, Maxwell Whiteman, Jonas was not a resident and may not have been a Jew. Isaac Miranda was the first Jew in the English colonies to hold a judicial position (1727) and own property. He arrived in Philadelphia about 1710. Some other Jews who settled in colonial Philadelphia are Haym Salomon (1740-1785), the most prominent Jew in the American Revolutionary War. Born in Poland, he is believed to have come to Philadelphia in 1778 and was one of the main financiers of the Revolution. For more information about Colonial Jewish life in the city, see The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson, by Edwin Wolf, 2nd and Maxwell Whiteman (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1956).
In the War of Independence, the Jewish community played a prominent role. Haym Salomon and Aaron Levy made loans to the Continental Congress which never were fully repaid.
At the close of the War, the Jewish population in Philadelphia amounted to almost 500. When George Washington was elected President of the United States, the congregation of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia as well as congregations in New York, Charleston, Savannah, Newport, Rhode Island and Richmond sent congratulatory messages. Washington replied to the congregations.
Philadelphia has several historic synagogues, among them are Congregation Mikveh Israel (Sephardic, 1745), Congregation Rodeph Shalom (Askenazic, Reform, 1795), and Temple Keneseth Israel (Reform, 1847).
Nathan Levy (1704-1753) bought ground as a burial site for his family which has been the Cemetery of Congregation Mikveh Israel for more than a century. Mikveh Israel Cemetery, located on Spruce Street between 8th and 9th Streets, is the oldest tangible evidence of Jewish communal life in Philadelphia. It was established in 1740. Among those Jews interred in Mikveh Israel Cemetery are Nathan Levy; Aaron Levy (1742-1815), a close friend and financial supporter of Haym Salomon; Haym Salomon (1785); and Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869). Rebecca Gratz was one of the better-known Jewish women who took part in many charitable organizations in the city. She was a founder and officer of social and educational institutions managed by women.
Mikveh Israel Cemetery ceased to be a regular place of burial in 1886 with the exception of the interments of Josephine Etting in 1913; Fanny Polano Elmaleh, wife of Reverend Leon H. Elmaleh, in 1966; and Reverend Leon H. Elmaleh in 1972.
Early settlers were of Portuguese, Spanish, German and Polish descent. Some of those from Germany formed Rodef Shalom (originally named The Hebrew German Society Rodef Shalom). It was one of the earlier German Jewish congregations in America. Mikveh Israel was known as the Portuguese and Spanish congregation.
The 19th Century
Other early well-known Jewish Philadelphians were Isaac Leeser (1806-1868) from Congregation Mikveh Israel, founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary in America and the Jewish Press in America; Hyman Gratz, founder of Gratz College in1886, which became operational in 1893; and Moses A. Dropsie, president of the Gratz College board of trustees. Gratz College started with a faculty of three; and by 1904, it had 24 students. At that time, the college had an endowment of nearly $200,000.00. For the best book about the Jews of Philadelphia in the 19th century and earlier, see The Jews of Philadelphia, by Henry S. Morais (Philadelphia, PA; The Levytype Company, 1894.
The Immigrant Experience: 1880-1924
Although Jews had been in Philadelphia since the Colonial days, there was a large influx of Jews from Eastern Europe from the late 1800's to the early 1900's. Between 1880 and 1920, some two million Russian Jews migrated to the United States. Philadelphia became the second largest port for immigration of Jews. The Blitzstein Bank, central to the business life of the Russian immigrants for two generations, was one of three Philadelphia Jewish banks which aided the immigrants in their efforts to bring relatives from Eastern Europe to these shores. Many of these Jewish immigrants settled in the Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia, the area from Spruce Street on the north to Christian Street on the south and from South 2nd Street to South 6th Street on the east and west. Many synagogues, bathhouses, dance halls, Jewish institutions, and Yiddish newspapers were located in the South Street area. The Jewish Quarter "was the heart of immigrant Jewish Philadelphia for two generations."
Congregation Kesher Israel, founded at the end of the 19th century and located at 412 Lombard Street, is a synagogue where one can still pray as their ancestors did. The story of Kesher Israel "chronicles the lives of the east European Jewish immigrants who prayed at the synagogue and lived and worked in nearby streets and alleys." Located one block away from Congregation Kesher Israel is Congregation B'nai Abraham at 527 Lombard Street, the first Russian-Jewish congregation in the city, founded in 1883. The congregation today prays in a building constructed in 1910, the oldest structure built as a synagogue and still operating as a synagogue in Philadelphia today.
After working long days in the sweatshops or peddling their wares, the Jews sought diversion from the tedium of every-day life. They found this relief in the Yiddish theater which thrived in the late 1880's with such beloved actors as Boris Thomashevsky, the Thomashevsky family, and Jacob Adler. Yiddish drama was available at five locations in early immigrant Jewish Philadelphia prior to 1890: two halls within the Jewish Quarter, and three theaters just outside the Jewish Quarter. For more information about the Yiddish theater in Philadelphia, see The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia by Harry D. Boonin (pages 42-56).
Life was difficult for the immigrant Jews, many who had settled around the South Street area and opened shops there and on surrounding streets. The 1920's, however, were prosperous years and many immigrants started to move out of the original settlement in mass, first to Strawberry Mansion and West Philadelphia, and later, after World War II to other more distant neighborhoods, the counties contiguous to Philly and across the Delaware River to New Jersey. The stock market crash hit the immigrants hard in 1930 with the run and eventual closure of the Blitzstein Bank, on the corner of 4th & Lombard Streets. Like the rest of the nation most the new Jewish population struggled during the Depression years in the 1930's. Many poor Russian Jews during the early 1930s who owned small shops throughout the city hung on, but others had to go through formal bankruptcy or closed their doors and walked away.
From their mass arrival in Philadelphia in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Philadelphia Jewish immigrants went on to play a major role in all aspects of American social, economic, scientific, and political life.
*Highly recommended reading:
The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia: A History and Guide 1881-1930 by Harry D. Boonin (1999) (http://www.boonin.com/book.htm)
The Life and Times of Congregation Kesher Israel: The Story of the Synagogue at 4th & Lombard Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the Surrounding Neighborhood by Harry D. Boonin (2007)