By: Cyrus Adler
Capital of Virgina, and, during the Civil war, of the Confederate States of America. By 1785 it had a Jewish community of over a dozen families, of Spanish-Portuguese descent. In 1791 a Sephardic congregation was organized, called K. K. Beth Shalome. Its roster contained the names of twenty-nine heads of families, prominent among which were the Isaacs, Cohens, Mordecais, Levys, and Judahs. This congregation remained the representative Jewish organization till the outbreak of the Civil war. After the war it became weakened by deaths and removals. In 1898, after one hundred and seven years of corporate existence, its few surviving members joined the Congregation Beth Ahabah in a body, and Beth Shalome ceased to exist. The first place of worship the Congregation Beth Shalome had was a room in a house owned by one of its members, on Nineteenth street. It then built a small brick synagogue on the corner of Nineteenth and Main streets, and later a handsome structure on Mayo street, where it worshiped for over three-quarters of a century. Its pulpit had been occupied successively by Isaac H. Judah, Jacques J. Lyons, Isaac Leeser, Isaac Mendes de Sola, Henry S. Jacobs, and George Jacobs.Beth Ahabah.
At the very beginning of the nineteenth century German Jews began to arrive in Richmond, singly or in small groups. They affiliated for a while with K. K. Beth Shalome. But in 1839 they organized a ḥebra—the Ḥebra Ahabat Yisrael, which, two years later, was changed into the Congregation K. K. Beth Ahabah. This congregation first worshiped in a room on Marshall street, between Fifth and Sixth streets, which was consecrated May 15, 1841. The first minister, called to its pulpit in 1846, was the Rev. M. J. Michelbacher of Philadelphia. In 1848 the congregation built its first synagogue, on Eleventh street, between Marshall and Clay streets, and this was followed by a second building, on the same site, dedicated Sept., 1880. The growth of the congregation necessitating a larger synagogue, a new one was dedicated in 1904, in West Franklin street, between Lombardy and Harrison streets. The ministers of Beth Ahabah have been M. J. Michelbacher (1846-67), J. Wechsler (1867-69), A. S. Bettelheim (1869-75), A. Hoffman (1876-1878), A. Harris (1878-91), and the present (1905) incumbent, Edward N. Calisch (since 1891; born at Toledo, Ohio, June 23, 1865; B. A., University of Cincinnati; rabbinical diploma, Hebrew Union College; M. A., University of Virginia), who has published a "Child's Bible" and a "Book of Prayer," as well as some essays and poems, and has been prominently identified with the circuit-preaching work of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.Beth El and Keneseth Israel.
At the close of the Civil war, owing to differences arising in the readjustment of the congregation's affairs, a number of members seceded from Beth Ahabah, formed a new congregation, and called it Beth El. From 1867 to 1871 Dr. A. L. Mayer occupied its pulpit. Upon his departure the differences were adjusted, the members returned to Beth Ahabah, and Beth El ceased to exist.
In 1856 an Orthodox Polish congregation, Keneseth Israel, was organized. It built, and still worships in, a synagogue in Mayo street. It has consistently maintained its Orthodox standard, and its spiritual guides have been "ḥazzanim," and not preachers. Among them were N. Brinn, L. Jacobi, J. Berg, A. N. Coleman, H. Block, M. J. Brill, L. Harfield, J. Sapir, I. Koplowitz, E. Phillips; the present incumbent is J. Lesser.
The wave of Russian immigration, which began in 1881, reached Richmond, and in 1886 a Russian congregation was organized and called the Sir Moses Montefiore congregation. It first worshiped in a room in East Main street, but in 1887 obtained possession of the synagogue of K. K. Beth Shalome, on Mayo street, where it now worships. Among its leaders have been Rabbis Alperin, Gordon, Newel, Nutokoff, Jaeger, Grafman, and Cohen. In addition to the foregoing congregations there are a few "minyanim," which meet only during the chief holy days.Other Organizations.
The Hebrew Home for the Aged and Infirm, chartered in 1891, has at the present time six beneficiaries, who are maintained in the homes of private families. The Ladies' Hebrew Benevolent Society was reorganized in 1866. The Ladies' Hebrew Memorial Association, organized in 1866, for the care of the graves of Jewish soldiers, holds a memorial service annually on the third Wednesday in May. The Jefferson Club (social and literary) is the result of the consolidation in 1892 of the Mercantile Club and the Jefferson Literary and Social Circle.
The first Jewish cemetery in Richmond was a plot of ground on East Franklin street, between Nineteenth and Twentieth streets, deeded by Isaiah Isaac, in 1791, to the Jews of Richmond. In 1816 Benjamin Wolfe, a member of the city council, secured from the city a grant of land known as Shockhoe Hill, on the northern edge of the city. This land was given to K. K. Beth Shalome, and was used jointly by it and Beth Ahabah. It is now the sole possession of Beth Ahabah. Some of the bodies in the old cemetery in East Franklin street were reinterred in the new one. A handsome mortuary chapel was built in the cemetery in 1898, in which all funeral services are conducted. Congregation Keneseth Israel has a section adjoining the general Oakwood Cemetery and known as Oakwood Hebrew Cemetery. It was purchased in 1866. The Sir Moses Montefiore congregation has a plot of ground four miles east of the city, on the National Road.
The Jews of Richmond have been prominent in public service both in war and in peace. Many of them fought in the Civil war. In civic life also they have served with credit. Benjamin Wolfe was a member of the city council in 1816; Jacob Ezekiel served in the council priorto 1860. Other members of the city council have been: M. L. Straus, Julius Straus, Joseph Wallerstein, Marx Gunst, S. L. Bloomberg (president of the council), and Clifford Weil. Marx Gunst is at present (1905) vice-president of the board of aldermen and Charles Hutzler of the School Board. Isaac Held is deputy treasurer of the city. William Lovenstein served twelve years as state senator. L. Z. Morris was one of the most efficient presidents the chamber of commerce has had.
The public-school system was established in Richmond in 1870. Before that time each congregation had its own parochial school, that of Beth Ahabah being a particularly excellent institution, attended by Christian children as well as Jewish. When the school system was about to be established, Beth Ahabah volunteered to discontinue its school and place its schoolrooms, rent free, at the disposal of the city until proper school buildings could be built. The offer was accepted, and the first public school of Richmond was conducted in the rooms of a Jewish synagogue.
In commercial life the Jews are engaged in manufacture and in the jobbing and retail trades, being especially prominent in the shoe and in the drygoods business. The Jewish population of Richmond approximates 2,500, the total population being 85,050.
- Publications Am. Jew. Hist. Soc. No. 4, pp. 22-24;
- Hist. of Congregation Beth Ahabah (published on its sixtieth anniversary, 1901).