Wednesday, June 5, 2013 is the annual Fellowship Dinner between Christ Church and Mikveh Israel. Christ Church was founded in 1695. It was one of the first religious institutions in Philadelphia, and the first parish of the Church of England in Pennsylvania. Mikveh Israel is known as “The Synagogue of the Revolution” because of the active role played by many members of Mikveh Israel in the activities leading up to the Revolution, the Revolutionary effort itself, and the formation of the United States after the war was over. Similarly, Christ Church is known as “The Nation’s Church” because of the famous Revolution-era leaders who worshipped there. Among the parishioners of Christ Church were Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross, George Washington and John Adams.
The friendly relationship between Mikveh Israel and Christ Church goes back to pre-Revolution days. Benjamin Franklin organized 3 lotteries to raise money for the construction of Christ Church. Members of Mikveh Israel were among the people who purchased tickets and contributed money.
Later, in 1788, when Mikveh Israel was suffering financially after the Minister, Gershom Mendes Seixas, and several other members returned to New York after the revolution, the congregation sent out a solicitation to members of all faiths for support. The sum of 800 pounds needed to be raised, and after obtaining permission from the City, a lottery was established. Many of the members of Christ Church stepped up to help. One of the first contributors was Benjamin Franklin, who gave 5 pounds, a large sum for an individual donation at the time.
The close relationship between the two congregations was brought to public display on Independence Day, July 4th 1788. Philadelphia was the largest city in the country and where the Continental Convention had spent the last three years drafting the US Constitution. Though the Constitution was accepted by the Convention on September 17, 1787, it was finally binding on all the states when the ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified it on June 21, 1788, just two weeks before Independence Day.
Time for a parade! The morning of the 4th dawned to the peal of the steeple bell of Christ Church, followed by a cannonade from the ship Rising Sun, which was anchored off Market Street. Seventeen thousand onlookers gathered to watch successive troops of marchers. Each group were represented – professionals, artisans, farmers, and more. The military companies were first, then the ministers. The Pennsylvania Packet of July 9, in its account of the parade, reported, “the clergy of different Christian denominations, with the rabbi of the Jews, walking arm in arm”. Benjamin Franklin, though at 82 too sick to attend the parade, watched as it passed beneath his window. He had overseen, with the chair of the committee on arrangements, Francis Hopkinson, who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence, “the clergy of almost every denomination united in charity and brotherly love”. This was nowhere more evident than when, at the end of the parade where people gathered at tables heaped with food and drink, the Jewish Patriots were escorted to their own separate table of kosher food.
Benjamin Rush, also a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a delegate to the Pennsylvania ratification convention, on watching the scene, wrote, “The clergy formed a very agreeable part of the procession. They manifested the sense of connection between religion and good government. Pains were taken to connect ministers of the most dissimilar religious principles together, thereby to show the influence of a free government in promoting Christian charity. The Rabbi of the Jews, Jacob Raphael Cohen of Congregation Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia’s only synagogue, locked in arms of two ministers of the gospel was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived of that section of the new Constitution, Article VI, prohibiting religious qualifications for holding office, which opens all its power and offices alike not only to every sect of Christians but to worthy men of every religion”.
Rush noted that the prohibition of a test oath was a true symbol of religious freedom in the Republic. It was a prominent member of Mikveh Israel, Jonas Phillips, who appealed to the Continental Convention as they were drafting the Constitution. In his letter dated September 7, 1787, he voiced his concern that all office-holders in the new government were to be required to swear allegiance over the Christian Bible. He wrote, “to swear and believe that the New Testament was given by divine inspiration is absolutely against the religious principle of a Jew and is against his conscience to take any such oath”. In his eloquent and impassioned letter, he argued that, “during the late contest with England [the Jews] have been foremost in aiding and assisting the States with their lives and fortunes, they have supported the Cause, have bravely fought and bled for liberty which they cannot enjoy”. He wrote the letter for “my children and posterity and for the benefit of all the Israelites throughout the 13 United States of America
Fast-forward to 1938. After the retirement of Minister Louis Washburn, the Christ Church vestry (board) chose Reverend Edward Felix Kloman to take over as the Minister of the congregation. Kloman was an extremely energetic and personable man dedicated to Public Services and the betterment of the community. He immediately made friends with many local businessmen, as the residential neighborhoods near the church had largely disappeared. The Old City section of downtown was very run down in those days, having just endured the Great Depression and still suffering its aftereffects.
Kloman established volunteer groups to take care of the needs of boys, girls, young families, and older residents. The groups welcomed participants from all races and creeds. Kloman believed strongly that the Church should play a role not only in the spiritual development of the neighborhood residents, but also in the general well-being of the neighborhood. He was very much bothered by the filthy streets and unpleasant environment of the Old City area.
In 1941, Kloman, along with a group of local businessmen, formed the Old Christ Church Neighborhood Businessmen’s Association. Foremost among the members was the Treasurer of Mikveh Israel, David Grossman. Grossman was a local businessman who owned a furniture and rug warehouse at Second and Market Streets, where it remains today. Though Grossman was Jewish and was somewhat reluctant at first to serve, he soon became a great friend to Christ Church and did a lot to foster fellowship and cooperation between the church and Mikveh Israel. Grossman served as Secretary of the Association, whose stated purpose was, “the bringing together of the businessmen of the oldest business district in America for the better acquaintance with each other and cooperation for the good of all in the neighborhood”. The group met monthly for lunch and by 1945 had grown to 250 members from all walks of life and a variety of religions.
Aside from the social gatherings, the accomplishments of the Association included cleaning the streets, finding jobs for the unemployed, co-signing loans for those in need, and raising money for the war effort. They increased direct contributions from their district as well as raising the sale of war bonds. Since the effort was led by businessmen of all faiths, it did much to encourage participation in other church efforts in the area.
Largely in response to the atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II, Kloman reached out to the Jewish Community, many of whom were already friends of Christ Church through their membership in the Neighborhood Businessmen’s Association. He established a special and long-lasting friendship with Mikveh Israel. Every year, on Armistice Day, the Association would sponsor a “prayer for peace”, led jointly by Kloman and Reverend David Jessurun Cardozo, Minister of Mikveh Israel. In 1943, Kloman, along with David Grossman, Rev. Cardozo, and other members of both institutions who were active in the Association came together to establish an annual Fellowship Dinner that is alternately hosted by Christ Church and Mikveh Israel to this day.
Mikveh Israel began its effort in the 1950’s to move from its location at Broad and York Streets to its present location on Independence Mall. In 1961, it officially announced that would move to Center City, and established a building fund to raise money for the new synagogue building. The very first contributor to the fund was Christ Church, who donated $1,000 in May, 1961, presented at the annual Fellowship Dinner, held to commemorate and celebrate the close friendship between these two great and historical Philadelphia institutions.
- Wolf, Edwin, II, and Maxwell Whiteman, The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson. 1957
- Gough, Deborah Mathias, Christ Church, Philadelphia, The Nation’s Church in a Changing City, 1995
- Jaher, Frederic Cople, The Jews and the Nation, Revolution, Emancipation, State Formation and the Liberal Paradigm in America and France, 2002
- Henry Samuel Morais, The Jews of Philadelphia, 1894