In historic Philadelphia, just blocks from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, stands a modest red brick building. Unlike the better-known historic sites, Congregation Mikveh Israel, a Sephardic Congregation at 44 North 4th Street, tells the history of a miniscule group of refugees who arrived in America not long after the Pilgrims.
After Portugal re-conquered Brazil from the Dutch in 1654, twenty-three men, women and children fled Recife, Brazil for New York City, becoming the first Jews to set foot on American soil. All were descended from the victims of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions that, in 1492 and 1497, expelled the Jews, and charged that certain conversos –forced converts to Christianity --were “Crypto Jews,” who secretively practiced Judaism. Many conversos escaped. Their primary destination was Amsterdam, Dutch-occupied Brazil and the Dutch West Indies. Others settled in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire; still others in England and other European countries.
Over the next half-century, more of the “the Sephardic Diaspora” –sometimes vaguely referred to as the “Portuguese Hebrew Nation” --joined their fellows in America. But by 1700, their migration ceased. The American Jewish demographic changed, as Jews from Germany, Poland and other parts of eastern and central Europe –Ashkenazim--set sail for America shores. By 1720, they outnumbered Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. Still, the Ashkenazim observed the traditions of the Spanish-Portuguese until 1801 when a group broke off to form the first Ashkenazi synagogue in America, Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom.
Led by Nathan Levy, scion of a prominent New York merchant clan, in the 1730s Jews from New York began to migrate to Philadelphia, then the largest city in the American colonies, pulsing with commerce. By 1740, as recounted in Jacob R. Marcus’ three-volume work, “The Colonial American Jew,” about a dozen Jews began to worship in a private home; by 1770, Philadelphia’s Jewish community had grown to about 300, less than one percent of the city’s total population. With the outbreak of the American Revolution, as refugees from other cities flooded Philadelphia, the congregation, now formally named Mikveh Israel, grew to at least 500. The congregation had no rabbi—rabbis did not come to America until 1840 -or officiator until the arrival in 1780 of its first hazzan, Gershom Mendes Seixas, formerly of New York.
Though the congregation adhered to the Spanish Portuguese tradition, Mikveh Israel’s most notable congregants were Ashkenazim. Bernard Gratz, born in Silesia (now Poland), became its parnas (president). Prominent members included Polish-born Haym Salomon, financier of the American Revolution and the philanthropic Rebecca Gratz, daughter of Michael Gratz. They are buried in Mikveh Israel’s Spruce Street synagogue, a national historic site, along with Jewish patriots of the American Revolution.
Today, the Spanish-Portuguese are a dwindling subset of the Sephardic community, itself a sliver of American Jewry, representing between 4 and 8 percent of the Jewish population, according to the American Sephardi Federation. “Once used exclusively to refer to Jews from Spain and Portugal and their descendants, the term ‘Sephardic’ today encompasses Jews from North Africa, the Middle East and Asia—basically anyone who isn’t Ashkenazi,” says Devin Naar, professor of history and Jewish Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Although there are some variations, Sephardic synagogues are generally similar in layout. Seating is divided, with each half facing the other. The women are separated in the Orthodox tradition, seated behind the mechitza in the back rows or on a balcony. The reading desk rests in the middle or back of the room, rather than in the front. Most Sephardic synagogues use the prayer book of the Spanish Portuguese, but absent from the Spanish-Portuguese liturgy is any reference to the Kabala, used generally by the Eastern Sephardim.
Mikveh Israel’s furnishings reflect the majesty of its traditions. The chandelier is a replica of the many that hang from the ceiling of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue, the “mother congregation” of the Spanish Portuguese. The reading table is perched on a white marble platform, bordered on each side by two tall silver candlesticks. Nineteen Torah scrolls are wrapped in cloth, adorned with silver breastplates, crowns and bells, some crafted in the 1770s by Myer Myer, the great silversmith.
The congregation’s current membership, about 250 families, reflects the growing diversity of American Jewry. Most are Ashkenazim, drawn to the congregation because, “its unchanged traditions are lovely,” says member Betta Kolansky. Among the Sephardim, most hail from Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Gibraltar and Cuba; few, if any, are Spanish Portuguese. A number are African-American who were either born to Judaism or have converted.
Despite the changing demographic of the American Jew, Mikveh Israel remains faithful to the customs and liturgy of Spanish-Portuguese. That tradition, says its rabbi, Albert Gabbai, represents the “nobility of the Sephardim,” using the best Hebrew pronunciation, adhering to practices that are “exact, correct, orderly, on time, striving for perfection, dignity, and gravitas.”