Mikveh Israel: “Synagogue of the Revolution”

— by Mark I. Wolfson

Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel, “The Hope of Israel,” is the oldest Jewish congregation in the city of Philadelphia, and the second oldest congregation in the United States. It dates its roots back to 1740 when Nathan Levy, upon the death of his child, applied for a grant of land at 9th and Spruce Streets from Thomas Penn, Proprietor of Pennsylvania, to consecrate as a Jewish burial ground.

More after the jump.
At the time of its founding, the only other Jewish congregation in the United States was Kahal Kadosh Shearith Israel in New York City. That congregation was formed by Dutch Sephardic Jews who were descendants of Spanish and Portuguese refugees of the Inquisition. A number of the early founding members of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia were from prominent Sephardic families in New York, Charleston, Richmond and Savannah, and though another large number were Ashkenazi Jews, there was broad agreement to adopt the Spanish and Portuguese customs and rite that prevailed in the country at the time. The service and customs remain largely unchanged up to the present time.

Mikveh Israel is called “Synagogue of the Revolution” because the early founding members of the congregation were very involved in the activities that led up to the war, with many of them signing the Non-Importation Act of 1765. Many of the members were very active in the war effort itself, either directly fighting on the American side, supplying the army with food, ammunition, equipment, and clothing, or contributing funds that made the war itself possible and ensured an American victory. After the war, members of Mikveh Israel remained in regular contact with Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and the other leaders who wrote the constitution and shaped the country in its earliest days.

Still Remembered: Reverend Abraham Lopes Cardozo of Mikveh Israel

— by Mark I. Wolfson

We remember Hazzan Abraham Lopes Cardozo. Rev. Cardozo was Hazzan of Shearith Israel From 1946 until his retirement in 1984. He was the embodiment of the Western Sephardic liturgical tradition that was brought to North America from Amsterdam via Recife, Montreal, and the Caribbean, among other places. He was the spiritual and musical teacher of the present Rabbi of Mikveh Israel, R. Albert Gabbai, bringing some of his rich influence to Philadelphia. Rabbi Gabbai would often invite Rev. Cardozo to come to Philadelphia for High Holidays and other occasions after his retirement.

Rev. Cardozo was born on September 27, 1914. His father, Joseph Lopes Cardozo, was the leader of the boys choir at the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. He was also a violinist, and along with Cardozo and his two brothers, the foursome formed a band that played at various gatherings and communal holiday celebrations. They all could play keyboards and also string, reed, and brass instruments. Of course, Bram, as Abraham Cardozo was known, grew up completely immersed in music of all kinds and had a natural talent. He even played piano as a toddler. As he grew, he could play any piece he heard by ear.

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At 18, “Bram” Cardozo earned his degree as a Hebrew teacher from the Ets Haim Seminary in Amsterdam. A few years later in 1938, he answered an advertisement for a Hazzan who was needed for a congregation in Surinam, Zedek Ve-Shalom. The ad was placed by his future father-in-law, Judah Robles, who was Parnas of the synagogue at the time. After much deliberation over different candidates, Bram Cardozo was chosen because of his credentials and also because the salary, paid for by the Dutch government, and living conditions were appropriate for a single young man. He arrived in Paramaribo, Suriname on September 9, 1939. As it turned out, this appointment saved his life. All of the rest of his family in Holland perished in the Holocaust. Throughout his life, he observed Tisha B’Ab as the Nahalah (anniversary) for all of his relatives that were murdered, as this is the national Jewish day of mourning.

In 1945, Rev. Cardozo took a six-month leave of absence from his job as Hazzan in Suriname, and headed to New York. The Suriname community was declining in the wake of the war, and he wanted to expand his horizons and look for other opportunities. New York City provided the perfect vibrant Jewish community for him to spread his wings. Of course, Rev. Cardozo found his way to the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, Shearith Israel. There, as a visiting Hazzan of a sister synagogue, he was invited to lead services. This led to an offer to join the congregational staff as an Assistant Hazzan, which he accepted. After returning to Suriname to give notice to a very disappointed Mr. Robles, be began his long tenure at Shearith Israel on January 1, 1946.

Immediately on starting as Hazzan, Rev. Cardozo reunited with the daughter of his former Parnas in Suriname, Irma Miriam Robles, who was working in New York and attending Shearith Israel regularly. They shared many of the same friends and grew close over the next few years. In December of 1950 they became engaged, and had a beautiful wedding on March 11, 1951, officiated by Rev. Dr. David de Sola Pool of Shearith Israel, assistant minister Rev. Dr. Louis Gerstein, and Rev. David Jessurun Cardozo, the Rabbi of sister congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. Of course, the first piece of furniture they acquired for their new home was a piano — a Baldwin Acrosonic upright. The Cardozos had two daughters, Debby and Judy, born in 1952 and 1955.

Rev. Cardozo was devoted to and strictly upheld the Spanish and Portuguese minhag, though in his private life he also appreciated other traditions. In many ways he was a living bridge between the Old World, represented by the Amsterdam Sephardi community, which was made up of descendants of refugees from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, and the New World, in the first congregation in America. As the Amsterdam community was being decimated by the Nazis, Cardozo escaped just in time and continued the traditions in the New World. Rabbi Marc Angel, long time Rabbi of Shearith Israel speaking at his funeral in 2006, said that Rev. Cardozo was an ember that survived the ashes of the Holocaust.

Rev. Cardozo’s passion in life was Hazzanut, and there was nothing he enjoyed more than leading the congregation in prayer using the tunes he knew and loved so well. Sadly though, as he was required to strictly maintain the Shearith Israel minhag, he was prevented from introducing some of the other Spanish and Portuguese melodies from the mother synagogue in his native Amsterdam that he so eagerly wanted to keep alive. Though he was not given the title of Minister of the congregation until late in life, he performed weddings, funerals, and gave eloquent eulogies.

After he retired, he wrote two books, each with an accompanying CD of music. The first was Sephardic Songs of Praise, followed a couple of years later by Selected Sephardic Chants. Many of his friends collaborated to present a petition to Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, nominating Rev. Cardozo for the title of “Knight in the Order of Orange Nassau” for his service during World War II, his preserving the traditions and minhag as practiced for hundreds of years in Amsterdam, and his loyal and proud representation of the Dutch Jewish Heritage. He was officially knighted in the year 2000.

In March 2005, Rev. Cardozo fell and broke his hip. Unfortunately, he never fully recovered and passed away on February 21, 2006 (23 Shebat 5766) at the age of 92. Hundreds of people came to the synagogue to attend his funeral and pay their respects to this great and humble man and leader of the community for 60 years. Eulogies were given by dozens of leaders, rabbis, colleagues, close friends and family. Rabbi Angel led the hakafot (circuits) around the coffin in a very moving ceremony, after which the coffin was draped with his talet (prayer shawl).

I just want to share one very small personal anecdote: I used to lead the Friday night Shabbat service at Mikveh Israel. One time, when Rev. Cardozo was visiting for Shabbat at the invitation of Rabbi Gabbai, he led the Friday night service faster than I have ever heard it done. It was so fast, I could hardly follow along. After the service, as I was wishing him a Shabbat Shalom, I remarked on the speed with which he read the service. He replied, with a twinkle in his eye, “they don’t call me the Flying Dutchman for nothing!”.

Mark I. Wolfson is the creator of Mikveh Israel History. The goal of the blog is to provide articles on the people and events of Mikveh Israel over the past few hundred years. Mikveh Israel and its members helped shape the Jewish community in Philadelphia and the rest of the country, and established the educational and charitable institutions that set the example for social responsibility in all communities.

An Odyssey From Amsterdam to Philadelphia

By Hannah Lee

As a companion program to the Rembrandt and the Faces of Jesus exhibit now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) hosted a lecture on the journey taken by Sephardic Jewry from the Old World to the new one.  William Pencak, Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, gave the standing-room-only audience (many at the NMAJH for the first time!) a historical tour that featured the role of the Dutch in Amsterdam and in Philadelphia.

More after the jump.

Painting of Mikveh Israel, 1775-1783, Synagogue of the American Revolution.

Rembrandt’s Jews in the Synagogue, The Jewish Museum

First, Professor Pencak wanted to rebute “The Jewish Rembrandt” exhibit held in Amsterdam a few years ago that attempted to deny a Jewish influence on Rembrandt’s works.  In Rembrandt’s “Jews in the Synagogue” of  1648, the people depicted in the painting are garbed in robes and hats as did the Ashkenazic Jewish refugees to Amsterdam, not like the cosmopolitan Sephardic Jews who sought to blend into upper class Dutch society, as in the “Portrait of Jan Six” of 1654.  In “Balthazar’s Feast” of 1635, there is Hebrew inscription on the upper right corner, but the words are written erroneously in a vertical instead of horizontal direction.  In “Moses Smashing the Tables of the Law” of 1659, the two tablets are depicted according to Jewish tradition, not the Christian imagery of the time.

Next, Professor Pencak gave a brief overview of the Jewish expulsion from their homes in Spain, Portugal, and England.  Of the Dutch nation of the Netherlands, then comprising of Holland and Belgium, Amsterdam in Holland became the center for Jewish life.  The Ashkenazic Jews started arriving about 30-40 years after the Sephardic Jews, and by the 1670’s  there were separate synagogues for Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry.  

The Jewish community was tight-knit, with the Sephardic synagogue documented exacting a tax of ½ of 1% of a family’s income.  Of some 3,000 Jews who lived in Amsterdam by the end of the 17th century, over half of them received relief from the community.  The Netherlands was not uniformly tolerant of Jews, with the rural states less so than the urban centers, including Antwerp in the Belgian half.

The Jews thrived in Amsterdam, with the first synagogue established in 1618.  The first Jewish play and the first book of poetry were written there.  The heretical philosopher Spinoza was excommunicated along with 766 other Jews in the 17th century for immoral behavior, which later included intermarriage with the Ashkenazic Jews.

The Dutch’s main economic interests were in the New World colonies of Brazil, Curaçao, and Surinam (formerly the Dutch Guyana) that focused on sugar plantations, which brought Jews into involvement with the African slave trade.  Enjoying equal rights, Jews comprised up to a third of the population in Brazil at the time.  In 1654, Jews were chased out of Brazil and many went back to Amsterdam, but one ship of 23 Jews got diverted and landed in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (later renamed New York).  

Director-General Pieter Stuyvesant was a Calvinist (Dutch Reform Protestant) and a former soldier who banded with the Dutch clergyman to protest the arrival of the Jews.  However, their appeal to the Dutch West Indies Company was denied and the Company insisted that the Jewish refugees stay, in part because they were Dutchmen and in part because Jewish investors had influence in the company, and the Company even offered to support the new arrivals if they proved unable to support themselves, according to Jewish communal values.  

New Amsterdam became the colony of the Duke of York (the brother of the British King Charles II) in 1664 and being a Catholic, he extended religious freedom to all, including the Jews.  When Asher Levy asked for burgher rights as a freeman, it was a right enjoyed by Jews in the Netherlands, and when freemen got the right to vote in 1664, so did the Jews.

In the 1730’s, the Jews started coming to Philadelphia, with the German Jews —  the Levys and the Franks — being prominent.  Nathan Levy built the first cemetery at Mikveh Israel on 8th and Spruce Streets, although they found that in colonial America, they had to build walls for their cemeteries in an attempt to preserve the headstones.  These German (Ashkenazic) Jews adopted Sephardic rites of worship.  When Mikveh Israel built its first synagogue (after the cemetery, because Nathan Levy’s young child had died) in 1782, its location was moved because of protest that its proposed site next to a church would offend the Dutch Reform Protestant congregants.  Prominent Philadelphians such as Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris contributed to its building fund.  

Whereas the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, experienced split loyalties during the American Revolution, there were no Jewish Loyalists (loyal to the British crown) in Philadelphia and Jews served prominently in financing and otherwise supporting the revolutionaries.  Haym Solomon was especially appreciated for his skill in converting foreign currencies into a form usable by the colonists, but he did not stand up in his synagogue on Yom Kippur to raise funds for the Revolution.  This myth was raised by an audience member and refuted by both the Professor and Rabbi Albert Gabbai, the current spiritual leader of Mikveh Israel, the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in this nation.

An audience member asked about the role of the Mennonites, who are known to be a very tolerant group, but the Professor pointed out that the Mennonites were never in a position of political power.  Jews, in fact, were never in a position of political power, so they were so often slandered as scapegoats for the ills of society.

The President and CEO, Michael Rosenzweig, then invited the members of the audience to tour the new museum, which highlights the journey of Jews who’d fled from turmoil and travail in the Old World to earn stability and prominence in this New World of ours.