Congregation Mikveh Israel, known as the "Synagogue of the American Revolution," is the oldest formal congregation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the oldest continuous synagogue in the United States.
A Memorial to David Arons
Connoisseur of synagogues
Keen student of history
President of Congregation Mikveh Israel 1956-1963
Donated by his wife, Gladys Arons and Children, 1977
... by basing themselves on the three pillars of fundamental Hebrew Tradition: Torah (Learning), Avodah (Service), Tzedakah (Justice and Mercy) can Jewish men and women involve themselves deeply in the complexities of the dynamic American Society yet retain the wholesome strength of Jewish self-identity and self-acceptance. David Arons, March 17, 1961
The tapestry at the synagogue entrance reflects both the religious and historic framework of the congregation. As we walk through the Mikveh Israel sanctuary, we tie the objects and furnishings there to historical events and places of worship and we summarize the activities of its men and women. Thus, we gain insight into the development of the Jewish community in Philadelphia and beyond.
Scattered records indicate that there were Jewish traders in the Delaware Valley before William Penn took possession of his colony in 1682. They lived in trading posts and wooden forts as protection from hostile Indians. In 1784, a German traveler listed the presence of Jewish families among the religious sects of early Philadelphia. Nathan Levy, observant Jew, established himself in the import/export trade with his cousin David Franks in the busy Philadelphia port by 1735.
In an atmosphere of tolerance, without hostility and repression, the Jews of colonial Philadelphia were free to meet openly with fellow Jews in group-worship. They met in the heart of a busy city. Their meeting places surrounded by churches. They were able to fulfill their spiritual need to practice traditional religious rites.
In 1740, Nathan Levy applied to Thomas Penn, Royal Proprietor of Pennsylvania, for a plot to bury his child in accordance with Jewish ritual. It became a Jewish communal cemetery, the first evidence of Jewish communal life in Philadelphia. Mikveh Israel dates its beginning from the establishment of the cemetery.
Religious services were first held in private homes, including that of Nathan Levy. Later, rented quarters were obtained, first on Sterling Alley (presently Orianna Street ) then around the corner on Cherry Street. A commemorative marker stands on Cherry Street, between Arch and Race, Third and Fourth Streets.
To pay for the French and Indian War, the British imposed a stamp tax on her American colonies. In 1765, the Non-Importation Resolutions were drawn up with signatures of many citizens who agreed "not to have any goods shipped from Great Britain until the repeal of the Stamp Act." Signers include the following members of Mikveh Israel: the merchants Mathias Bush, Moses Mordecai and Barnard Gratz.
During the War of Independence, Jews from New York, Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, Lancaster and Easton fled to Philadelphia seeking refuge from the British. In 1780, Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas, Hazan (Minister) of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, came to Philadelphia and became its religious leader. During his tenure, he was instrumental in establishing the form of prayer and organizational structure in the Spanish-Portuguese tradition which remain today.
An increase in membership as well as financial help from those who sought refuge in Philadelphia, allowed the congregation to establish a permanent religious home. A lot was purchased on Cherry Alley. A carpenter and bricklayer were hired to build a two-story brick building, hardly distinguishable by style from those around it. Space on the lot was approved for a home for the Hazan, a school and a mikvah, in addition to an oven for Matza baking for Passover. Close by were the Old Reformed Church of the United Church of Christ and the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church. A commemorative marker stands at that place.
The first Jewish charitable organization in the city was established by Mikveh Israel. Officers: Jacob I. Cohen, president; Isaiah Bush, secretary; Haym Salomon, treasurer.
On December 23, 1783, a committee including Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas, Simon Nathan Parnas/President, Asher Myers, Barnard Gratz and Haym Salomon, addressed the Pennsylvania Council of Censors to protest the declaration required of each member of the Pennsylvania Assembly that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures were given by divine inspiration. This oath deprived Jews of the right to be representatives. The protest was not accepted but influenced the United States Constitution which does not provide a religious oath for holding of office.
Members of the congregation, including Rev. Seixas , returned to New York , Charleston and other locations when British occupation ceased. Left with debt incurred by synagogue construction loans, a subscription list was addressed to "worthy fellow Citizens of every religious Denomination." Among the contributors were Benjamin Franklin; David Rittenhouse, astronomer; Hilary Baker, city councilman (later mayor); Thomas McKean, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Chief Justice and later Governor of Pennsylvania; William Bradford, Attorney-General of Pennsylvania; and Thomas Fitzsimmons, a drafter of the U.S. Constitution, first president of the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the city's leading Catholic layman.
On December 13, 1790, Manuel Josephson, Parnas/President of Mikveh Israel , personally presented a letter of homage and congratulations to President George Washington on behalf of "the Hebrew Congregations in the Cities of Philadelphia, New York, Charleston and Richmond" for his "elevation to the chair of the Federal Government." Facsimiles of that letter and the reply of Washington can be seen in the lobby.
When the 1782 building became inadequate, the Board of Adjuntos (Managers) voted to build a larger synagogue on the same site. William Strickland, leading architect, designed a structure of white stone from the "Falls of the Schuylkill," one of the most dignified buildings of its kind in the country. The interior and exterior of the building are portrayed on the right side of the tapestry.
On August 27, 1840, a public protest was held at Mikveh Israel of this international incident in which seven Jewish men were tortured and 63 Jewish children held hostage. Several influential Christian ministers spoke at the meeting. A committee consisting of Rev. Isaac Leeser, John Moss, David Samuel, J. L. Moss and L. J. Levy sent a letter of protest to President James K. Polk. They received a reply from Secretary of State John Forsyth on September 2, 1840.
Prior to the Civil War (1861-1865) as the Jewish population grew and prospered, an elegant building was constructed on 7th Street, north of Arch. It was designed by John McArthur, Jr. (later, architect of City Hall of Philadelphia). The interior and exterior of the building are portrayed on the left side of the tapestry.
A $130,000 trust created by Hyman Gratz vested in the congregation "for the establishment and support of a college for the education of Jews residing in the city and county of Philadelphia." Gratz College became the first Hebrew teacher's college in America . Officers: Moses A. Dropsie, President; David Sulzberger, secretary; Charles J. Cohen, treasurer.
Many Jews moved to the area between Broad and 16th Streets, north of Girard Avenue. A new building was constructed at Broad and York Streets, flanked by Gratz and Dropsie Colleges. Samuel Elkin and Henry G. Freeman, Jr. donated $100,000; $40,500 for the site, $59,000 for the building in memory of Abraham and Eve Elkin. The interior and exterior of the building are portrayed in the center of the tapestry.
The Spruce Street Cemetery is declared a national shrine and part of Independence National Historical Park.
The congregation moved to Independence Mall, close to its original site, together with the National Museum of American Jewish History. The building opened on July 4,1976, the Nation's Bicentennial.
In August 2010, the National Museum of American Jewish History moved from our building to a new building at 5th and Market Streets. The synagogue is now the sole inhabitant of the current building. There is also an exhibit in our lobby.