Mikveh Israel Online Archives
(Please click the image at left to begin exhibit)
Congregation Mikveh Israel (officially Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel) is one of the most historic Congregations of Jews in the United States. The oldest Congregation in Philadelphia, Mikveh Israel was informally established by religious minded Jews in British America during the 1740s, and has become the second-oldest surviving Congregation in all of the United States. In Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia in particular, Jews found an environment of tolerance for their religious beliefs and traditions made possible by William Penn's 'great experiment'. The possibilities of economic and religious liberties in Philadelphia drew many Jews to the area, and by 1775 a community 300 strong existed in a city of 35,000.
It was during the Colonial and Revolutionary periods that many of Philadelphia's most prominent and influential Jewish citizens such as the Gratz's, Jonas Phillips, Joseph Simon, and Haym Solomon established themselves as the 'founding fathers' of Philadelphia's Jewish community. The early Jewish pioneers of the city initially met informally in private residences, but by July of 1771 the Pennsylvanische Staatsbote reported "On last Saturday in Cherry Alley in this city was opened the first Jewish synagogue, and Jewish divine services were held there."
Congregation Mikveh Israel would grow in prosperity from there, counting among its friends and benefactors the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, and many other national heroes. The Congregation eventually outgrew its space and in September 1782, the Congregation dedicated a new building on Cherry Street that sat 200 persons and had accommodations for the clergy adjoining it. In 1829 the congregation built an Egyptian Revival synagogue on Cherry Street. Designed by William Strickland, it is notable for having been one of the earliest Egyptian Revival buildings in the United States.
After moving out of Center City, along with much of Philadelphia's population in the first half of the 20th century, the Congregation announced in 1961 that it would return to construct a new house of worship. A modest building, at the time shared with the Museum of Jewish History, the Synagogue was dedicated and opened in August 1976. The Museum of Jewish History in time also outgrew the space provided at Mikveh Israel, and in 2010 opened on a new site a block away on the Independence Mall under a new name as the "National Museum of American Jewish History."
Mikveh Israel and the city of Philadelphia have a long-standing relationship dating from the founding of the first synagogue to the present day. Other Colonial houses of worship were supportive of Mikveh Israel in its beginnings and special relationships developed, especially with Christ Church. When Mikveh Israel's synagogue burned in 1872, Christ Church contributed funds to the construction of a new building, and the congregations have a historic custom of sharing a fellowship dinner once a year which alternates between the two congregations. We also hope that you will find Mikveh Israel as welcoming and enduringly fascinating as a significant piece of American history as we do. Please view our online exhibit for some images and histories of the most prized artifacts from our past.