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Congregation Mikveh Israel records


Held at: Mikveh Israel Archives [Contact Us]44 N. 4th St, Philadelphia, PA, 19106

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Mikveh Israel Archives. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

Tracing its roots to 1740, Congregation Mikveh Israel is the oldest formal Jewish congregation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and one of the oldest continuous synagogues in the United States. Nicknamed "Synagogue of the American Revolution," Congregation Mikveh Israel is an active synagogue in the Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese) tradition as of 2015.

There is some evidence that a small number of Jews lived in the Philadelphia area even before 1682, when William Penn established the colony of Pennsylvania. A member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), William Penn set a precedent of religious liberty and tolerance that gave Jews the freedom to live and worship freely. In 1740, Nathan Levy, an observant Jew and import/export merchant in Philadelphia, applied to William Penn's son and Royal Proprietor of Pennsylvania, Thomas Penn, for a plot of land to bury his child. Philadelphia's first Jewish communal burial ground, known as Mikveh Israel Cemetery, was established at that time on Spruce Street between 8th and 9th Streets.

Congregation Mikveh Israel experienced an increase in membership during the American Revolution due to Jews escaping British-occupied areas. In 1780, Gershom Mendes Seixas came to Philadelphia from New York City and became Congregation Mikveh Israel's first religious leader. (Seixas was the congregation's hazan: a minister although not an ordained rabbi). Seixas, who previously served as minister of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, is considered the first native-born Jewish minister in the United States. He served as hazan of Mikveh Israel from 1780 to 1784, establishing the Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese) rites of worship at Mikveh Israel. It was also during Seixas's tenure that the congregation's first synagogue building was constructed in 1782. The next year, the first Jewish charitable organization in Philadelphia, the Society for the Relief of Destitute Strangers (Ezrath Orechim), was established. Mikveh Israel's congregants, particularly Rebecca Gratz (1791-1869), were instrumental in the establishment of many important Philadelphia charities, Jewish-affiliated and secular. Gratz was instrumental in establishing the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, and many more organizations. She is widely believed to have been the model for the heroine of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.

In the 19th century, as the congregation grew, Mikveh Israel moved twice to larger quarters. In 1825, the congregation commissioned a new synagogue building from famous architect William Strickland. In 1860, the congregation moved to a new location and synagogue commissioned from architect John McArthur, Jr. (who later would design Philadelphia City Hall). Around the same time, Mikveh Israel was under the leadership of several reverends who were extremely influential in the development of Jewish faith and practice in Philadelphia and throughout the United States. Isaac Leeser (1806-1868, hazan 1829-1850) trailblazed publication of Jewish books in America by publishing a masoretic Hebrew edition of the entire Hebrew Bible (the first of its kind to be printed in America) and founding the first Jewish publication society in America (the predecessor of today's Jewish Publication Society of America); he was also one of the first to institutionalize sermons in English as part of American Jewish religious services. After Leeser retired from Mikveh Israel in 1850, he became reverend at an off-shoot congregation, Beth El Emeth, founded in 1857. When Leeser died, Beth El Emeth dissolved and its records and property, including a cemetery in West Philadelphia, were transferred to Mikveh Israel. Leeser was succeeded at Mikveh Israel by Sabato Morais (1823-1897, hazan 1851-1897), who is known for resisting the Reform movement and for establishing the first Conservative rabbinical school, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

Nearly all of the "Philadelphia Group" of intellectuals who shaped the Jewish American cultural institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were Mikveh Israel members, including Moses Aaron Dropsie (1821-1905), Judge Mayer Sulzberger (1843-1923), Dr. Solomon Solis Cohen (1857-1948), and Cyrus Adler (1863-1940). In 1897, the first Hebrew teacher's college in America, Gratz College, was established through a trust vested in Mikveh Israel.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, Mikveh Israel developed along with changing patterns of Jewish life in Philadelphia and in recognition of its own historical significance. In 1909, the congregation moved to a new synagogue building on Broad Street and York streets, located on the same campus as Gratz and Dropsie Colleges, two Jewish institutions established by its congregants. In 1956, the 1740 Mikveh Israel Cemetery was recognized as a national shrine and became part of Independence National Historical Park. Two decades later, on the Nation's Bicentennial, Congregation Mikveh Israel moved back to a location near its original site, settling into a new synagogue building near Independence Mall. In 1976, the congregation also opened a Museum of American Jewish History, which rapidly grew over the coming decades, both in collections size and in prominence. In 2010, the museum separated from the congregation and the National Museum of American Jewish History opened in a large new building on 5th and Market Streets.


Congregation Mikveh Israel. "Our History." 2011. Accessed February 2, 2015.

Congregation Mikveh Israel. "Our Notable People." 2011. Accessed February 2, 2015.

This collection contains records of the Jewish congregation Mikveh Israel, dating from 1765 to 2011. There are a large quantity of membership and vital records, and extensive papers from several former rabbis and synagogue presidents (parnassim). Additionally, there are administrative and financial records, property-related materials, photographs, publications and ephemera, and documentation of various congregational committees and activities. There are some materials from several people and organizations associated with Mikveh Israel, including congregation Beth El Emeth and Gratz College. Many prominent Jews, of renown in the local Philadelphia or national or international Jewish communities, were affiliated with Mikveh Israel and are documented to varying degrees in this collection: Rebecca Gratz (1791-1869) and other members of the Gratz family, Rev. Isaac Leeser (1806-1868), Moses Aaron Dropsie (1821-1905), Rev. Sabato Morais (1823-1897), Judge Mayer Sulzberger (1843-1923), Dr. Solomon Solis Cohen (1857-1948), Cyrus Adler (1863-1940), Rev. Leon Haim Elmaleh (1873-1972), and Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach (1876-1952). There are also references to many other Jewish organizations active in Philadelphia and elsewhere, such as benevolent societies, education societies, and religious societies. This collection mainly consists of original, primary-source documents, although there are many photocopies and other secondary-source materials interspersed throughout. More detailed inventories, covering most of the collection, are available on-site. Note that a portion of this collection, particularly the 18th century documentation, including a 1765 circumcision record, 18th century minute books, and 18th century shohet (kosher butcher) contract, and letters from 18th to 20th century United States presidents including George Washington and William Taft, is stored off-site.

Membership and vital records in the collection include birth announcements, circumcision (bris) announcements, marriage contracts (ketubot), b'nei mitzvah (bar mitzvahs) calendars, records of deaths and burials, books of mitzvot (documenting members of the congregations who were called upon for aliyot or otherwise participated in religious services), and seat rent ledgers. Only a small quantity of these records date from the 18th century, but there are a large amount from the 19th century. Of note is a volume with birth, marriage, and death records of various Portuguese Jewish congregations in London, New York, and Philadelphia, spanning from 1776 through the early 19th century.

Administrative records include minute books from the congregators (as early as 1791), trustees (as early as 1900s), board of managers (early 1800s to present, with gaps), and committees. There are also various copies of the congregation's constitution and revisions. Of special interest is a Society for Visitation of the Sick and Mutual Assistance minute book from the 1850s.

Financial records include ledgers, bills paid/received, receipts, monthly expense records, tax records, and additional financial materials.

Buildings and grounds records, ranging in date from the early 1800s to the 2000s, include materials about the synagogue's current and previous buildings, including deeds, correspondence, dedication planning materials and pamphlets, and architectural drawings, as well as materials about its three burial grounds (1841-1946): the original 1740 Spruce Street cemetery, the Federal Street cemetery, and the cemetery in West Philadelphia that was formerly operated by Congregation Beth El Emeth. In addition to deeds and correspondence about the acquisition of these properties, there are plot plans, grave indexes, and other records of the people buried in these cemeteries. There are about a dozen rolled blueprints, plot plans, and other oversized items. Of special interest are original drawings by noted architect William Strickland for the Cherry Street synagogue, 1825.

Publications and ephemera in the collection include the newsletter, Mikveh Israel Record, 1973-2011; pamphlets from Mikveh Israel synagogue building dedications, recipe books published by the congregation, tickets to Mikveh Israel events, books of remembrance, and other publications and ephemera. There are also newspaper clippings about Mikveh Israel.

There are a small number of photographs in the collection, depicting the synagogue's buildings and cemetery grounds, Torahs and Torah decorations, administrators, and reverends (Sabato Morais and Isaac Leeser), congregants, and congregational events such as Purim and Sukkot.

The collection includes a small number of papers from many former religious leaders of Mikveh Israel, but by far the best documented is the tenure of Rev. Mr. Leon Haim Elmaleh (1873-1972). Elmaleh was the religious leader of Mikveh Israel from 1898 to 1929 and Reverend Emeritus until his death. He was a founder of Philadelphia Board of Rabbis and of the Levantine Jews Society of Philadelphia (which looked after immigrants from the Ottoman Empire), was involved with the Jewish Welfare Board during World War I, and was an avid book collector. His papers, dating from roughly 1895 to 1930, include sermon drafts, religious research, correspondence with a wide variety of Jewish organizations, and records from his book collecting hobby. The collection also includes papers from Rev. Alan D. Corre; (rabbi of Mikveh Israel from 1955 to 1963), principally typed speeches and sermons from the 1950s and 1960s; Rabbi Ezekiel N. Musleah (rabbi from 1963-1979); and Isaac Edrehi (rabbi from 1927-1978, with gaps).

There are office files from several past parnassim (chief administrative officers) of Mikveh Israel: Labron K. Shuman (1970s-1990s), Leon L. Levy (parnas from 1982-2011), Henry B. Cohen (parnas from 1977-1982), and Daniel C. Cohen (parnas from 1967-1970). The office files from the parnassim include papers relating to fundraising, events and activities, finances, strategic planning, personnel, board materials, grounds and building maintenance, relations to other groups such as the American Sephardi Association, flyers, event programs, estates and donors, the creation of the Museum of American Jewish History, and several other materials.

Congregation Beth El Emeth was founded in 1857 as an outgrowth of Mikveh Israel. Isaac Leeser (1806-1868), an influential figure in the development of Jewish traditions in the US, became Beth El Emeth's first religious leader shortly after he retired from Mikveh Israel in 1850. When Leeser died, Beth El Emeth dissolved and its records and property, including a cemetery in West Philadelphia, were transferred to Mikveh Israel. The Congregation Beth El Emeth records include membership records (births, circumcisions, marriages, burials, seat rents), correspondence, board reports, financial records, congregation charter, and other materials. There are also many documents relating to the cemetery, such as deeds, property documents, and burial records.

Gratz College, the first Hebrew teacher's college in America, was established in 1897 through a trust created by Hyman Gratz and vested in Congregation Mikveh Israel for establishing a college for the education of Philadelphia's Jews. This collection features some early records of Gratz College, including printed ephemera, treasury reports, building plans, letter copy books from Gratz College's Board of Trustees in the 1890s, and other correspondence.

Additionally, the collection contains some small donations of papers from individual congregants. A large portion of papers are from Victor Hatchwell, a former shamos (sexton) of the synagogue and war veteran, including newspaper clippings on Jews in the American military and diplomas and other family and personal papers. There is a small collection of genealogical research by Miriam Levy on her family. There are also the Jack and Emily Solis-Cohen papers, 1906-1958, which consist of personal correspondence, ephemera such as invitations, materials relating to committees she was involved with, research on Jewish culture topics, Jewish Publication Society minutes (typewritten), photographs, and newspaper clippings.

Selected materials from this collection were digitized from 2018-2021 as part of the Philadelphia Congregations Early Records project. The Philadelphia Congregations Early Records project was made possible by a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Digtized materials are viewable on the website. Some items have been transcribed, and users are invited to contribute to the transcription effort. In addition, all of the digitized records are available in the ATLA (American Theological Library Association) Digital Library, and archival copies of the scanned images are preserved on the OPenn website at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

Links to Digital Resources for this Collection:

Summary descriptive information on this collection was compiled in 2014-2016 as part of a project conducted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make better known and more accessible the largely hidden collections of small, primarily volunteer run repositories in the Philadelphia area. The Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR) was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This is a preliminary finding aid. No physical processing, rehousing, reorganizing, or folder listing was accomplished during the HCI-PSAR project.

In some cases, more detailed inventories or finding aids may be available on-site at the repository where this collection is held; please contact Mikveh Israel Archives directly for more information.

Mikveh Israel Archives
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Sarah Leu through the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories
This preliminary finding aid was created as part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. The HCI-PSAR project was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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