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An Exploration of Four Hundred Years of Jewish History in Virginia

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Winter 1999

Commonwealth and Community: The Jewish Experience in Virginia, by Melvin I. Urofsky, Virginia Historical Society and Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, 192 Pages, 1977  

The history of Jews in Virginia is as old as the history of the commonwealth itself. Joachim Gaunse (or Jacob Gans), a Prague metallurgist, crossed the ocean in 1585 as part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ill-fated Roanoke expedition, the first English effort to colonize the New World. When the English tried again in the early seventeenth century, settlers arriving in Jamestown on the Abigail in 1621 included thirty eight year old Elias Legardo. For most of the next century and a half references to individual Jews can be found throughout Virginia’s history.  

In 1997 and 1998, the Virginia Historical Society and the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond presented an exhibit of Virginia’s Jewish history which traveled throughout the state. Early in the planning for this project, Melvin I. Urofsky, a trustee of the historical society and professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, agreed to participate as guest historian. This book is a result of that enterprise.  

He shows that the Jewish experience in Virginia is that of Virginians who happened to be Jewish, not as individuals who have been isolated as members of a distasteful sect. They have, he explains, been involved in every significant activity in the history of the state: "They have fought in all of its wars, they have served the state in various capacities, and their economic prosperity has been closely bound up with that of Virginia. They have shared the joys and sorrows, the triumphs and tribulations of the Old Dominion."  

Absolute Integration  

Urofsky has written a well-researched book in which he illustrates the manner in which Jews have been involved in every aspect of Virginia’s history. He titles one of his chapters "A Part but not Apart." This is the theme of his work — the absolute integration of Jews into the fabric of the state’s history. "What is unusual about Jewish history is how very usual it is," writes Urofsky.  

Discussing life in colonial-era Richmond, Urofsky notes that, "The Jews who lived in Richmond and other parts of Virginia seemed not to have suffered either from social anti-Semitism or legal restrictions on their political or economic rights. They participated not only in the affairs of their religious community but also on the wider public stage. Many joined the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, the Masons, and other civic groups. Zalma Rehine was a founder of the Blues, and Solomon Jacobs, who served for a time as Richmond’s mayor, also took part. Joseph Darmstadt held the office of grand treasurer of the Grand Lodge of Virginia Masons at the same time that John Marshall, chief justice of the United States, was the grand master. In 1788 sixty Richmonders formed the Amicable Society, which engaged in charitable work. John Marshall belonged, as did Joseph Darmstadt, Samuel Myers and other Jews."  

Virginia’s early leaders, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, not only had Jewish acquaintances, but were deeply committed to the idea of religious freedom.  

When George Washington led an expedition in 1754 to warn the French away from the Falls of Ohio, two Jews, Michael Franks and Jacob Myer, accompanied him. Thomas Jefferson credited a Jew, Dr. John de Sequeyra with introducing the custom of eating tomatoes, which previously had been grown only as ornamental plants.  

Revolutionary War Effort  

There were just two thousand Jews in the thirteen British colonies at the time of the American Revolution. They felt it important to prove their loyalty and were active in many aspects of the war effort. The Gratzes, Jewish merchants in Virginia, are in record books as having secured supplies for the state government and Continental forces. Many Jews served in the Continental Army, including Moses Myers of Norfolk, who was an officer.  

The religious freedom which the early Virginia patriots embraced was not that of "toleration" but, instead, a belief that an individual’s right to worship God was a matter or principle and applied to men and women of all faiths. When the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island sent George Washington their congratulations on his assuming the presidency, Washington responded in words which Urofsky reports "thrilled Jews throughout the thirteen states . . . For the Jews of Virginia, still exultant over the 1786 Statute of Religious Freedom, such sentiments reinforced their feelings of belonging . . ."  

What Washington wrote to the Jewish community of Newport was that, "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support . . . May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."  

Sage of Monticello  

"No story of the Jewish experience in Virginia would be complete," writes Urofsky, "without reference to the Sage of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson. The liberties enjoyed by all religious bodies in the Old Dominion trace directly to Jefferson’s Statute for Religious freedom, but the connection between Jews and Jefferson extended far beyond that epochal document."  

In Charlottesville, David Isaacs owned a dry goods store on Main Street, and it is said that he sold Jefferson the ball of twine the. latter used to lay out Pavilion VII, the first building of what would be the University of Virginia. In addition to providing Jefferson with meat, butter, cheese and other items, Isaacs also undertook to furnish Jefferson with books and pamphlets on Judaism. In 1841, the University of Virginia announced two appointments: the 26 year old James Joseph Sylvester of England to teach mathematics and Charles Kraitsir of Hungary to teach modern languages. Kraitser was a Catholic and Sylvester a Jew, the first Jew, in fact, hired to teach a secular subject in any American university.  

After Jefferson’s death, Monticello was purchased by an eccentric Charlottesville chemist and preacher, James T. Barclay, who allowed the building and grounds to lapse into decay. "In the meantime," notes Urofsky, "Commodore Uriah P. Levy, the man who abolished flogging in the U.S. Navy, became interested in Monticello. Jefferson had been his boyhood hero, and while in France, Levy had met the aging marquis de Lafayette, who had asked what had become of his friend Jefferson’s wonderful home. Levy promised to investigate and in the spring of 1836 made his first visit up the ‘little mountain.’ What he saw appalled him — 218 acres of overgrown fields around a once great house falling into ruin. Levy purchased the estate for $2,700 and began what he hoped would be the restoration of the property."  

The true restoration of Monticello began in 1879 when Monticello had passed to Uriah Levy’s nephew, Jefferson Levy, who served as a member of Congress from New York. In 1923, a group of public-spirited citizens formed the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation which purchased the property from Levy. "The work of the foundation in preserving Monticello," Urofsky notes, "as one of the nation’s great historical sites is well known, but had it not been for Uriah Levy and his nephew, Monticello would have fallen into ruin many years before. Rachel Phillips Levy, Uriah’s mother, is buried there . . ."  

Rallying To The Confederacy  

During the Civil War, Virginia’s Jews rallied behind the cause of the Confederacy. Myer Angle saw all six of his sons go off to fight for the South. On two occasions Robert E. Lee had to · refuse High Holiday furloughs for Jewish soldiers on the grounds that their absence would weaken his forces. Enough Jews gave their lives for the cause that the city of Richmond set aside a special Soldiers’ Section in the Hebrew Cemetery. This was the only Jewish military cemetery in the world until after World War II.  

"The most unusual part of the story of Jews in Virginia is just how common their experience was," writes Urofsky. "There is little to differentiate Jewish history from the larger context of Virginia history in the years leading up to the Civil War and continuing through Reconstruction."  

Many Jews have been business leaders in the State. Some of the most successful department stores were established by Jewish merchants, such as Thalhimers in Richmond, which began as a one-room dry goods store in 1842 and remained in operation until 1992, by which time it had expanded into a chain of stores across Virginia and several other Southern states. Other prominent businesses were opened by Anthony Rosenstock in Petersburg, Isaac and Simon Leterman in Charlottesville, Charles M. Guggenheimer in Lynchburg and many others. Philip Whitlock established the Old Virginia Cheroot and Cigar Factory which was producing thirty-three million cigarettes a year by 1889. Jews also found success in Virginia politics in the earliest days with Joseph Darmstadt and Benjamin Wolfe serving as members of the Richmond City Council in the early 19th century, and Solomon Jacobs serving as acting mayor of the city in 1815.  

Lack of Anti-Semitism  

In Urofsky’s view, Jewish success in Virginia over the past 400 years has largely been due to the lack of anti-Semitism. During the colonial period, there was legal discrimination against Jews and members of all denominations other than the established Anglican Church. However, Urofsky writes, "Although one cannot deny the existence of anti-Jewish prejudices and legal disabilities, they apparently proved neither debilitating nor of great inconvenience." These colonial barriers came down with the adoption of Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Jefferson and Madison made it clear that this law was to cover all groups, "to comprehend within the mantle of (the act’s) protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian, Mahoteman, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination." Urofsky writes that this statute "turned up fertile soil in which Jewish communities could flourish and prosper."  

There have, of course, been instances of anti-Semitism in post-Colonial Virginia: anti-Semitic literature, although uncommon, has been distributed in Virginia; nativist sentiment during the period of Eastern European Jewish immigration; discrimination in fraternities at state universities; exclusion from some country clubs and other social institutions. None of these acts have been de jure, and all have been relatively minor. They also have been isolated, and have not truly held Jews back from advancement in any professional area, or even politics, as there have been many Jewish leaders in the state. A representative of the American Jewish Committee wrote in 1940 that, "Richmond, like most Southern communities, has been extraordinarily free of the sort of (anti-Semitic) agitation with which Northern and Eastern cities have become all too familiar in the last couple of years."  

Urofsky shows that Virginia stood not for "toleration" but for freedom and equality. In many places the feelings of goodwill between Jews and their Christian neighbors were so strong that Christians provided the monetary assistance that Jewish congregations needed in order to build their synagogues. When some northern universities imposed quotas to limit Jewish admission, bright Jewish students from the North began to look for other options. One of these alternatives was the University of Virginia, where many Jews, particularly from New York, enrolled. By 1926–27, they constituted 8.5 per cent of the student body.  

Completely At Home  

As a result of religious freedom and the success which Jews enjoyed in Virginia, Jews felt completely at home and felt little yearning for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. At the 1918 meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the umbrella group of Reform rabbis, the membership adopted a resolution that declared in part that "we do not subscribe to the phrase in the (Balfour) declaration which says ‘Palestine is to be a national home land for the Jewish people.’ We hold that Jewish people are and of right ought to be at home in all lands." The chair of the committee presenting this resolution was Rabbi Edward N. Calisch of Richmond, a bitter foe of Jewish nationalism and a leader in the American Council for Judaism.  

With regard to Rabbi Calisch, Urofsky writes: "Rabbi Edward N. Calisch of Richmond’s Beth Ahabah stood as one of the most prominent members of the Council and as one of the most vociferous opponents of Zionism, which he considered ‘misrepresentative’ of Judaism . . . He did all he could to support the Council and fight Zionism. He invited the executive director of the Council to Richmond and personally solicited memberships from more than fifty congregants of Beth Ahabah."  

Opposition To Jewish Nationalism  

While the majority of Virginia’s Jews quietly supported the drive for the creation of Israel in the wake of the revelations which emerged about the Nazi period, Urofsky points out that many Jews in Virginia maintained the older Reform opposition to Jewish nationalism and that the Council "had some of its most loyal supporters and some of its most eloquent champions" in Virginia.  

Virginia’s acceptance of Jews, and the fact that it embraced religious freedom from the first years of the nation have caused Virginia’s Jews to feel truly a part of the Commonwealth, and not an entirely distinct sect, Urofsky concludes. He declares that, "The freedom that Jews sought in coming to the New World is to be found in the Old Dominion, hallowed by the efforts of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others. The Jewish experience in Virginia is not unusual. As with other groups who have come here, Virginia’s Jews have found a home."

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.