The cobblestone streets that William Penn designed between the Delaware and Schuykill rivers welcomed Jews as merchants, religious leaders and Revolutionary War supporters — so much so that, some 200 years later, their impact remains apparent in many historic architectural structures in Olde City, including homes, libraries, offices, synagogues and cemeteries.
On Sunday, Sept. 30, a guided walking tour of Jewish Philadelphia in Colonial times was offered by Landmarks Walking Tours to allow tourists and locals alike to explore the city's Judaic heritage, and learn about its importance in the growth and development of the city.
Jewish Philadelphia features some prime examples of Greek Revival, Egyptian Revival and Italianate architecture, according to Bernie Edelstein. A volunteer guide, he has escorted groups and individuals to view the sights of historic Philadelphia for more than 15 years.
The tour began at Elfreth's Alley, the quaint block of historical homes that has a number of unusual ties to Jews. This was a mixed ethnic neighborhood and part of the area where the original Jewish settlers resided, Edelstein explained, working on the first floors of their homes while living on the second. In 1737, David Levy, born in New Amsterdam, was one
of the first Jews to live in Philadelphia. The Levy home, located at 122 Elfreth's Alley, is one of the oldest on the block, built between 1725 and 1727, and still features a busybody, visible on a second-floor window. This mirror-like item helped residents stay abreast of the comings and goings along the street. Levy's neighbor, at 124 Elfreth's Alley, was Jacob Cohen, a merchant and Revolutionary War leader.
Philadelphia became the home of the most educated and respected Jews in America at the time, according to Edelstein, and most of them belonged to Mikveh Israel synagogue, the first congregation in Philadelphia. It was Levy's cousin, David Franks, a successful merchant, who was one of the founders of the second-oldest synagogue in the United States.
You might not expect a stop at a church on a Jewish tour, but there is indeed a Jewish connection to the Palladian-style Christ Church, said the tour guide, through Congregation Mikveh Israel. Church leaders were anxious to see the local Jewish community survive, and so donated $1,000 toward its building fund. The Jewish community later returned the favor — when the church campaigned to have its steeple recognized as the tallest in the city, the Jews championed the cause.
The two religious institutions continue to hold yearly fundraisers for one another, a tradition dating back to the 1920s; the church even has a set of kosher dishes, attested Edelstein. And when the church decided in 1960 to replace its stained-glass windows to allow more natural light in, a congregant of Mikveh Israel funded the project; a brass marker inside the church commemorates the donation and recognizes the friendship between the two entities, reading, in Hebrew: "And the Lord said, 'Let there be light.' "
Throughout the tour, the family names of Levy, Gratz, Franks and Cohen, and influential individuals such as Haym Salomon, were mentioned repeatedly. Though they were small in number, Jews proved to be at the forefront of development in Colonial society and instrumental in supporting the foundational institutions of America.