Engaging Pennsylvania's Historic Jewish Community

April 17, 2008


Source: The Jewish Post


Before the pealing Liberty Bell could announce the historic signing in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence, it had to be ferried across the Atlantic Ocean and brought to preside over Independence Hall here, in the City of Brotherly Love.

In 1752, that task fell to Nathan Levy, the city's first Jewish inhabitant and the proprietor of a shipping company. Thus did Jewish history become entwined with Philadelphia history, which in turn became entwined with the history of the United States.

Like Abraham, a sojourner who first established a Jewish toehold in Canaan by procuring a burial plot for his wife Sarah, Levy, a New York merchant seeking business opportunity in the colony to the south, obtained the first Jewish property in the colony of Pennsylvania in order to bury his young son.

Like Abraham, Levy was offered the plot for free, but unlike Abraham, Levy accepted the gift without payment; the land he received in 1740 ended up becoming a communal Jewish cemetery that still exists today.

Levy received the parcel from the family of William Penn, who had received the rights to all of the Pennsylvania colony's land from the British monarchy and had tried to set up a colony based on Quaker principles. Those principles included tolerance of different faiths, including the Hebraic one, which created a colony more diverse and welcoming than most. And that made the few Jews who had settled in Pennsylvania by the time of the Declaration of Independence particularly patriotic.