What does the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania have to do with the oldest synagogue in that state?

Congregation Mikveh Israel (Originally Kaal Kadosh Mickve Israel) was founded in the 1740s by the community of Sephardi Jews then living in Philadelphia. It became an official chartered organization in 1773.

While the Jewish population of Philadelphia was, itself, not particularly large at the outbreak of the War of Independence, the city became a haven for Jews fleeing New York, Richmond, Charleston and Savannah, as well as the Pennsylvanian cities of Easton and Lancaster. Among its membership there was tremendous support for the revolution. (In fact, it was to Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel community that Revolutionary financier Haym Salomon fled when he escaped British imprisonment in New York.)   Aside from its official name, the  congregation is also referred to as “The Synagogue of the Revolution.”

By the time the Revolution was over in 1783, the congregation was in the midst of its first building campaign. As people began to return to their home cities (although many remained in Philadelphia), the members found themselves in need of funds to complete the building. It is telling that many prominent Philadelphians enlisted in  the cause (including Benjamin Franklin).

As the population settled and then slowly began to absorb newer immigrants, other Jewish organizations began to form. Rodeph Shalom, founded in 1795, catered to the Ashkenazi community.

In the 19th century, even as many local Jewish communities were just beginning to appear, others were already shifting their identities. Wishing to secure its identity, Mikveh Israel created a congregational constitution that not only established the basic membership regulations, but also decreed that the services would always be conducted according to the custom of the Portuguese Jews. The constitution was presented to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and was approved on May 14, 1824. The court noted that the synagogue constitution was an example of the new order of the times.

Written in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.

Treats Related to Members of Mikveh Israel:
Rebbeca Gratz

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