This Day in Jewish History |

1788: Benjamin Franklin Helps Save Floundering Philly Synagogue

Gentile neighbors, including the future Pennsylvania governor Thomas McKean, were responsible for rescuing the debt-ridden Mikveh Israel before it could default.

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Benjamin Franklin depicted in a painting by David Martin (1767)Credit: The White House Historical Association/Wikimedia Commons

On April 30, 1788, the leadership of the debt-ridden Mikveh Israel synagogue in Philadelphia, made an appeal to their enlightened gentile neighbors for financial assistance. A written request for donations went out -- and met with a generous response. Among those who remitted funds to the Sephardi synagogue were statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin, astronomer and inventor David Rittenhouse, and future Pennsylvania governor Thomas McKean.

Mikveh Israel synagogue today.Credit: Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia Commons

Kehilat Kadosh Mikveh Israel, as it is formally known, had its beginnings around 1740 when a Jewish father, Nathan Levy, received permission from authorities to bury his child in a plot on Spruce Street between Eighth and Ninth streets. By 1745, a synagogue began to function in rented space, and in 1761, as the Jewish community grew with an influx of immigrants from the West Indies, its members decided to construct a proper building of their own.

Escaping the British invader

After the start of the Revolutionary War in 1776, the British army occupied New York and other towns on the Eastern seaboard. This led to large numbers of Jews seeking refuge in Philadelphia. Among them were Gershon Mendes Seixas, the minister of Manhattan’s Shearith Israel synagogue, who lived out part of the war years in Philadelphia, serving as rabbi of Mikveh Israel.

The increase in the membership led to a demand for yet additional space, and in 1782, a new two-story building on Cherry Street was dedicated. But soon after, apparently, the congregation found itself in bad financial straits. Especially after the end of the war, as many temporary residents returned to their permanent homes, Mikveh Israel was unable to pay back the loans it had taken out for the construction.

Specifically, the community needed to raise 800 pounds sterling or face default.

So it was that on April 30, 1788, an appeal went out to some of the leading non-Jewish citizens of the City of Brotherly Love. The letter included a brief history of the synagogue, and explained that the departure of so many Jews at war’s end had left “the remaining few of their Religion here, burthen’d with a considerable Charge,” such that, “unless they are speedily enable to pay the sum of about £8oo,” there was a real danger that “a judgment will actually be obtained against their House of Worship,” and the synagogue’s home would have to be sold.

Hence this appeal to “their worthy fellow Citizens of every religious Denomination” – who, believed the members of Mikveh Israel, though they may worship in a “way & manner different from other religious Societies,” would not be deterred “from generously subscribing towards the preservation of a religious house of Worship.”

Among the first to respond favorably was Franklin, who pitched in a generous sum of £5. Others who offered assistance were Thomas Fitzsimmons, a leading Catholic citizen, who a short time later was one of the drafters of the U.S. Constitution (£1, 15 shillings), statesman Charles Biddle (£3), and future mayor Hilary Baker (£1, 2 shillings, sixpence).

The appeal was successful, and Mikveh Israel survived, so much so that in 1825 the congregation decided to build itself a new home, at the same site on Cherry Street.

Today, nearly two centuries later, Kehilat Kadosh Mikveh Israel continues to function as a synagogue, and is still situated in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood, not far from Christ Church, the Episcopal congregation founded in 1695, with which Mikveh Israel has had a warm relationship from its earliest days, and to which many of those who contributed to the synagogue in 1788 belonged.