William Penn’s promise of religious freedom attracted many Jewish immigrants to Philadelphia. They have since thrived and contributed to the city’s development.
The first Jewish immigrants arrived in Pennsylvania in the 17th century and quickly took part in William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” of liberty of thought, and brotherly love. This small number of early Jewish immigrants sought freedom and opportunity. Later immigrants sought the same in larger numbers during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, the Philadelphia region boasts nearly 200,000 Jewish households -- the third largest Jewish population in America. Jews have been an integral part of Philadelphia’s story and American history from the beginning.
Jewish merchants like Nathan Levy and David Franks helped to establish Congregation Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia’s first synagogue, in 1740. Later during the American Revolution, the British occupation of New York City brought patriot Jews to Philadelphia. By the end of the war, an estimated 500 Jews called Philadelphia home. They contributed to the dynamic religious pluralism of the city’s biblical faith traditions and to America’s ideals of liberty and justice.
Prominent Jewish families of Philadelphia were active in philanthropy, especially the Miriam and Michael Gratz family. Their daughter Rebecca (1781-1869) became one of the most influential of Jewish women in America. In a predominantly Christian society, Gratz used her wealth and unique mix of Jewish and American identities to establish benevolent organizations that were both Jewish and American in outlook and mission. These included: the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society (1819) and the Hebrew Sunday School Society (1838), and the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum (1855).
Further immigration from Germany and eastern Europe in the 19th century brought a boom in Philadelphia’s Jewish population. While the newcomers established themselves in new neighborhoods which came to be known as the Jewish Quarter, a number of new synagogues and cultural centers were built, including the first Yiddish theater.
Through the 19th and 20th centuries European Jewish immigrants continued to contribute to the rich cultural diversity that is America. What has emerged is a vibrant American Jewish identity informed by the Hebrew Scriptures and religious tradition - an identity that has sparked the founding of religious, educational, cultural, charitable and social institutions that enrich Philadelphia’s culture and contribute to the fabric of American civil society.
How abundantly the good seed spreads when planted.
Discover Philadelphia’s hidden history and how faith has guided liberty toward justice with our curated ecosystem of trails that explore the city’s must-see sites!