Sunday, May 15, 2011

Colonial-Era Synagogue in Philadelphia: Mikveh Israel

On a field trip to Philadelphia this weekend to conduct research for my book, I visited Congregation Mikveh Israel, the successor of the colonial-era congregation of that name, now nicknamed "the synagogue of the Revolution." Its current congregants are Sephardic Jews, as were its founders. The ritual remains unchanged to this day.

The site was born of the grief of Nathan Levy.

Like many Jews of the era, Levy was a merchant in the import/export trade. Originally from New York, Levy moved to Philly in 1738--long before the outbreak of hostilities between the colonies and Britain. When one of his children died, he applied to the family of William Penn, governor of the province, simply seeking a plot of ground in which to bury the child. The plot soon was enlarged in 1740 "for several Jews," evidence of a growing Jewish presence in that city.

According to the traditions of colonial Jews, synagogues could not be located near cemeteries. Actual worship took place at first in private homes and then in rented rooms until the synagogue itself was constructed in 1782. How those rented rooms must have swelled with the outbreak of the Revolution as Jews fled New York City, Charleston, Lancaster, Richmond and Savannah! Because the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777 was "peaceful"--almost welcome to the city's loyalist residents--services presumably were uninterrupted by the war. (The British eventually evacuated--peacefully--because the King was fed up with all the fun-loving ways of his British General Howe!)

Evidence suggests that a Jewish presence in the Delaware Valley dates back as early 1655.

For more about colonial-era Jews, stay tuned as I wade through various archives in New York and Philadelphia, the principal locations of the novel. I intend to be very detailed in my presentation of Jewish life during the American Revolution!

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