Researching Philadelphia in Israel

by Shalom Bronstein

Courtesy of the author as well as AVOTAYNU, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy, Vol.XXII, No. 1, Spring 2006.

Most genealogists would not think that they should research American relatives in Israel. but the wealth of information discovered seeking Philadelphia information was an eye-opener. I have come to believe strongly that what holds true for Philadelphia also must be applicable to other Diaspora communities with large Jewish populations. The following illustrates what we might hope to find.

A central tenet in genealogical research is to "leave no stone unturned." In fulfillment of this rule, long-time Philadelphia genealogist Harry Boonin contacted me a few years ago. He had begun writing a book on the history of a historic synagogue in the old immigrant section of the city. It was here on Hanukkah 1898, in an Orthodox immigrant shul, that the legendary Stephen S. Wise delivered his first public Zionist address. In these pre-typewriter days, letters were handwritten and copies were non-existent. Boonin wondered if I could find any additional information in Jerusalem. We were amazed at what I found.

Manuscript Collection

I began by checking the Stephen Wise files at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. This led to the files of the minutes of the board of the American Zionist Federation where I hoped to find the letter from Philadelphia inviting Wise to speak. File F25/2 holds numerous pages of totally unrelated extraneous material. It seems to be the detailed daily log of a rabbi. name unrecorded, from 1901. Two pages listed funerals, weddings and unveilings at which he officiated, including names and the honoraria received. A few pages had addresses I recognized as being in Atlantic City with names of synagogue seat holders. Other pages were lists of students enrolled in various Bible and history classes. The streets and some names were familiar to me.

Finally, I came across a page that bore the heading "Members of Hebrew Class Cong. Adath Jeshurun." I was reading the daily log of the person who served a rabbi of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Philadelphia in 1901. Eventually I learned that he was Rabbi Bernard C. Ehrenreich (1876-1955), who had been the secretary of the American Zionist Federation in 1898 before assuming a pulpit, first in Atlantic City and then in Philadelphia. Somehow his daily log covering a few months in 1901 ended up in the file holding the minutes of the American Zionist Federation board meetings of 1898, including the correspondence dealing with Stephen Wise's invitation to speak in Philadelphia.

I sent an e-mail to the current rabbi of Adath Jeshurun (AJ), Seymour J. Rosenbloom, a fellow student of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in the 1960s, asking if his synagogue archives had the rest of the log. He replied that that period of time was almost a tabula rasa (blank slate) for AJ, and I forwarded him copies. They contain lists of names of dozens of AJ congregants from more than a century ago.

Later, the Ehrenreich name came up in an unrelated conversation with another fellow ITS student. Professor Mayer Gruber, Chairman of the Bible Department of Ben Gurion University in Beersheva. Professor Gruber mentioned that our fellow classmate, Dr. Byron Sherwin, President of Spertus College in Chicago, had written an article on Ehrenreich. I e-mailed Dr. Sherwin who also was totally unaware of the Ehrenreich log. He sent me a copy of his article, and I forwarded him copies of the log. This was of special interest, as Rabbi Ehrenreich's late daughter was a patron of Spertus College.

Lists of names are invaluable to genealogists. Very often we have a name of an ancestor, but do not know much more. Where did they live? To what organizations did they belong? Did they contribute to charitable campaigns? Were they involved in the nascent Zionist movement? Were they concerned for the welfare of their fellow Jews in Eretz Yisrael, or were they affiliated with a synagogue? Many of these questions were answered as I came across numerous lists of names of Philadelphia Jews in various documents here in Jerusalem. Multiple lists of names, recorded by Rabbi Ehrenreich more than a century ago, will provide additional family information for descendants of members of Congregation Adath Jeshurun of Philadelphia and Beth Israel of Atlantic City.


In continuing research for Boonin's synagogue history, I also reviewed Issues of The Maccabean, the monthly journal of the American Zionist Federation. In addition to uncovering additional information for him on the Zionist activities of Kesher Israel, the synagogue he is researching, I came across additional lists of names. Kesher Israel became the center of Zionist activity for the so-called "Downtown Jews," while Adath Jeshurun played the same role for the "Uptown Jews" of Philadelphia.

 Under the heading "National Fund Day," the September 1903 issue of The Maccabean records hundreds of names of Philadelphians who participated and the amount they contributed (which ranges from one cent to $5.00). The names include both established Uptown Jews, like those at AJ, as well as Downtown immigrant Jews. Almost every issue of The Maccabean I reviewed, from the first issue in October 1901 through July 1915, had lists of names, from teenagers active in Zionist youth groups, to delegates, officers and members of various Zionist organizations in the city. Also recorded are contributions collected for the Zionist cause at the brit milah (circumcision) of newborn babies. Here one sees who attended and who contributed. The same holds true with contributions made in honor of weddings and boys becoming bar mitzvah.

In June 1905, the eighth annual convention of the Federation of American Zionists convened in Philadel­phia. The Maccabean published an eight-page guide to the city written by Dr. Henry S. Morais, son of Rabbi Sabato Morais, who served the historic Sephardic congregation, Mikveh Israel, and was looked upon as the champion of the Eastern European immigrant. In 1880, Henry Morais published Eminent Israelites of the Nineteenth Century and, in 1894, wrote The Jews of Philadelphia. Both contain invaluable information for the patient persevering genealogist.

U.S. War Refugee Board Records

Another client asked me to check at the Central Zionist Archives for information on the U.S. War Refugee Board established in 1943 by President Roosevelt. Some material is available in hard copy, but most has been digitized. Among the unanticipated discoveries was discussion of an organization I had never heard of. called the American Jewish Conference. It was created as part of a nationwide effort of American Jews to call attention to the plight of their co-religionists in Europe. This seems to contradict the generally held view that American Jews did little or nothing during these terrible years. The short-lived American Jewish Conference had branches throughout the United States. Many cities are listed. When I checked Philadelphia, I found that the organization attempted to include every functioning Jewish group including synagogues. their sisterhoods, landsmanshaftn (townsmen societies) and fraternal organizations. Each had a committee and elected delegates. All of these people, numbering in the hundreds and extending for 32 pages, are listed by name, organizational affiliation and address. I found my late father-in-law recorded as a delegate from his synagogue. I also discovered dozens of people whom I knew, many from the congregation where I grew up. For the genealogist this is an untapped resource.

Library Resources

Interestingly, in research at the Jewish National and University Library (JNUL) , I found a book titled Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel: Its First 100 Years, 1847­1947, published in 1950. It contains the following passage:

About the same time the American Jewish Conference was organized. Its claimed purpose was "to speak for all Jews." However, when the conference met, it was immediately apparent that those with strong Zionistic leanings had gained control and that they were determined to support the Zionist philosophy.

This prominent congregation withdrew its support, which was not surprising since counted among its members were the founders of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism.

Title page from the founding Charter and Bylaws of Congregation Mikve Israel of Philadelphia, a copy of which is in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem.


The JNUL catalogue of holdings is online at JNUL.HUJI.AC.IL/ENG. In it one can see a large number of Philadelphia-related items. Included is a wealth of 19th-century material, much of it donated by Ezra Gorodesky, who began collecting Philadelphia Judaica more than 60 years ago. A long-time resident of Jerusalem, he is a Philadelphia native with deep family connections to Mikveh Israel Synagogue, which was founded in 1740. The 1824 Charter and By-laws of Kaal Kadosh Mickve Israel lists some 50 officers and members. Both the 1848 Constitution and By-Laws of the Hebrew Education Society of Philadelphia and the 1858 Constitution of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society of Philadelphia include lists of names. The latter document lists more than 100 people, including not only women who are clearly the vast majority, but also some men and individuals from other cities. In this collection are invitations to synagogue dedications, one from 1847 and the other from 1849.

Both congregations still exist. I contacted the rabbi of one of them asking if they had a copy of the invitation to the 1847 dedication of their synagogue in their museum. He was quite surprised to learn not only that such an item existed but also that it was found in Jerusalem. Both invitations also list the committee members, another important genealogical find. The library will make digital copies of its rare holdings for interested parties.

The May 2006 isssue of Sharsheret Hadorot, the bilingual quarterly of the Israel Genealogical Society, will publish my article on a publication called Shemesh Tzedakah. I first became aware of this Hebrew-language periodical a few years ago when Sallyann Sack asked me to verify some references when she was working on the Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy. The first brochure appeared in 1884 and lists both donors to and recipients of the Central Committee of the United Jewish Congregations at Jerusalem. In reviewing the small numbers of brochures that are held at JNUL, I again discovered hundreds of names. Some booklets divide the donors by city, and the major cities of the United States are well represented. Philadelphians listed in the brochures up to October 1921 contain the names of many European immigrants, including those became national leaders of the Zionist movement.

Charter document from Congregation Mikve Israel includes names of initial members.


Another curiosity in the JNUL is entitled Elite Directory of Hebrews of the City of Philadelphia--1890. Published by an advertising firm with advertisements on each page, this 56-page book includes a huge number of Jews, along with their addresses. Most are Uptown Jews, indicating that the massive wave of East European immigrants that had begun to arrive a few years earlier was not yet a target for commercial exploitation. This document also lists Jewish communal organizations with their officers, as well as synagogues with their rabbis and their rabbis' addresses.

The National Library collection also holds a number of souvenir and dedication books of Philadelphia synagogues. Most are of little genealogical value as they contain few names, some history and page after page of advertisements. A few, such as the Keneseth Israel volume mentioned above and the 1949 25th-anniversary book of Har Zion Temple, stand out. Both are devoid of commercial exploitation. While the Keneseth Israel volume focuses on the history of the congregation, the Har Zion volume emphasizes the daily activity of the synagogue. In addition to a list of almost 1,000 congregants, the book includes many pictures, all captioned and identified.


One of the most surprising finds had to do with the International Tracing Service (Arolsen) microfilms at Yad Vashem. In his history of Kesher Israel, Harry Boonin reviewed the names listed on the synagogue's yahrzeit tablets. Five were members of the Blatt family, all with the same date of death, 13 Adar 1942. the synagogue had no record of the name of the donor. Boonin wrote:

From the date alone and the fact that five family members died on the same day, I got to thinking that maybe they were killed in the Holocaust and someone in Philadelphia honored them. There is no evidence of anything at the shul other than these yahrzeit boards.

Boonin wanted to know what I could learn. First I checked the Pages of Testimony database and was not surprised that there were no Pages of Testimony for any of them. Yad Vashem's first large campaign to submit Pages of Testimony in the mid-1950s focused only on Israel. In the Arolsen microfilms, I found four of the five names. Not only that, the records also listed the name of the relative in Philadelphia who inquired about his missing family members and provided his address, (just around the corner from the synagogue). Supplied with a name and address, Harry will now try to locate descendants of that family. The fate of four of the people listed on the plaques has now come to light. Further research showed that the date of death recorded was not correct, but was chosen symbolically by the donor.

Boonin felt that checking records at Yad Vashem was a long shot, but it worked out. We will now enter Pages of Testimony for these four members of the Blatt Family who did not survive.


Most of the sources discussed here that shed light on the Jewish community of Philadelphia are only available in Israel. The challenge for the thorough genealogist is to broaden one's horizon and all Israeli archives to the list of possible sources of information. I have found invaluable lists of names of Philadelphia residents dating back to the 1820s. They include not only the names of the wealthy and well known, but also the newly arrived immigrant as well as children. Hopefully, researchers of other cities will leave no stone unturned and will experience some of the same unexpected and amazing discoveries.

Shalom Bronstein, a Jerusalem resident with his family since 1986, is a native Philadelphian and a graduate of Gratz College, Temple University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he received rabbinic ordination in 1970. His articles have appeared in AVOTAYNU, Chronicles, and Sharsheret Hadorot and in the Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy.


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