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Abraham Sulzberger and the Jewish Hospital

Sulzberger Plaque

This week we remember the Hashcabah of our dear friend and lifetime member of Mikveh Israel, Berthold Levy who passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 97.  Levy was the great grandson of Abraham Sulzberger, who was the first of Bert’s ancestors to come to Philadelphia and begin a long legacy of outstanding and influential members of Mikveh Israel, the wider Jewish community in Philadelphia, and the broader secular society in Philadelphia in general.

Abraham Sulzberger was born in Heidelsheim in Baden, Germany on May 20, 1810.  His father, Solomon (Meshullam) Sulzberger, had been a Rabbi there and Abraham followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a scholar in Jewish texts as well as serving as Hazan, reader, shohet (slaughterer) and teacher in his local congregation.  He married Sophia Einstein and had six children, including the famous Judge Mayer Sulzberger who was born on June 22, 1843, and was destined to be the most prominent and influential Philadelphia Jew of his generation, and in 1894 was the first Jew to sit as a judge of the Court of Common Pleas.

During the uprising of 1848 in Germany there were reprisals against the Jews, and Sulzberger decided to relocate his family to America.  His older brother Leopold had already settled in Philadelphia in 1838, so Abraham prepared the family for the long journey to join him there.  The journey began with a trek that lasted for months across Germany and France in a wagon, eventually reaching the French port city of Le Havre.  There they boarded a transatlantic steamer called the Splendid, and arrived in New York Harbor on August 11, 1849.   From there they made their way to Philadelphia and established themselves in the city and joined Mikveh Israel.  The following year, Sulzberger was one of 8 charter members who founded the Har Sinai Lodge of District No. 3 of the B’nai B’rith.  Sulzberger served as its president for the next 25 years.

During the Civil War, Rev. Isaac Leeser, the former Minister of Mikveh Israel, was very concerned about the wounded Jewish soldiers in the army hospitals.  He obtained a hospital pass from his friend General Charles Collis, who was married to Septima Levy, formerly of Charleston.  Sulzberger would accompany Leeser on hospital visits to the Jewish wounded.  It was just after the Battle of Gettysburg in early July of 1863 that Sulzberger and Leeser began discussing a plan for a hospital. By this time, Leeser had already separated from Mikveh Israel on somewhat unfriendly terms and had become the minister of a new congregation Beth El-Emeth. Because Leeser was a major force behind this initiative, Mikveh Israel was reluctant to work directly with him on the project.

They turned next to the new Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, confident that they find support for the project given the many denominational Christian hospitals that had been built over the previous generation by the Catholic (St. Josephs) and Episcopal Churches, and by the German Christian population (Lankenau).  Keneseth Israel was founded in 1847 as an Orthodox synagogue, and in the years just before the first synagogue building was dedicated in 1854, Abraham Sulzberger had helped the congregation as one of the hazanim (readers).  Both Rev. Isaac Leeser and Rev. Sabato Morais had taken part in the dedication ceremony of the new building.  Within a few years however, the congregation, under the leadership of Rev. L. Naumburg, adopted some of the “innovations” of the Reform Movement such as a mixed choir and the introduction of an organ into the service.  Under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Solomon Deutch, who became the Rabbi in 1857, and Rev. Dr. David Einhorn who took over in 1861, the congregation fully became a Reform Congregation.  As such, the congregation objected to the strict observance of Kashrut insisted by Sulzberger and Leeser for the new hospital and refused to help.

Out of options with the religious institutions, they turned to the B’nai B’rith.  Sulzberger was the past President of the local lodge, and Leeser, after initially resisting and opposing the order during its early years as secret society, had joined and moved up through the ranks to a top influential position as Vice-President of the Elim Lodge. During the annual meeting of the Grand Lodge No. 3 of the B’nai B’rith on August 14, 1864, Sulzberger, in calling attention to the fact that three Jews within the previous six months had died in various area Christian hospitals without the option of being fed kosher food or being administered Jewish rites, offered resolutions asking for the appointment of a committee to consider the subject of organizing a Jewish Hospital.  He further noted that both New York City, Cincinnati, and the larger cities in Europe had seen the need and built hospitals for their Jewish populations.  It was a discredit, they argued, to the Jewish population of Philadelphia to allow their brethren to be cared for and possibly die in the care of strangers who did not understand or approve of the obligations of Jewish law.

That committee was established and included Sulzberger, Rev. Isaac Leeser, Samuel Weil and others.  Within a few days a circular was sent to every B’nai B’rith Lodge and all of the congregations and Jewish societies in the area requesting appointments for committees.  On December 4, the first meeting of this joint convention was held during which a plan was prepared, and a constitution and by-laws were framed and presented.  On Sunday February 19th, 1865, these were ratified by a large meeting of the area Jews at a meeting held at the National Guard’s Hall on Race Street below Sixth.  Officers and managers were appointed, including President Alfred T. Jones, Vice President Isadore Binswanger, Treasurer Samuel Weil, and Secretary Mayer Sulzberger.  Abraham Sulzberger’s home at 977 North Marshall Street became the temporary headquarters of the provisional committee for the hospital.

The Association was incorporated on September 23, 1865 and a lot was soon purchased at 56th Street and Haverford Road in West Philadelphia for $19,625.  The Jewish Hospital opened the on August 6, 1866 along with a home for the aged.  It started with 22 beds and linens donated by philanthropist Moses Rosenbach.  During the first year 71 patients were treated and 5 people were admitted to the old-age home.  In 1873, the hospital moved to greatly expanded facilities at Old York Road and Olney Avenue.  In 1952, after merging with Northern Liberties Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospital to form a single medical center, it evolved into the Albert Einstein Medical Center.  It was very appropriate that Einstein granted permission to use his name for the non-profit organization, as Abraham Sulzberger’s wife Sophia was an ancestor of Albert Einstein.

  • www.geni.com
  • www.ancestry.com
  • Wolf, Edwin, II, and Maxwell Whiteman. The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson. 1957
  • Lance J. Sussman, Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism, 1995
  • Maxwell Whiteman, Mankind and Medicine: The making of Albert Einstein Medical Center, 1966
  • Robert P. Swierenga, The Forerunners: Dutch Jewry in the North American Diaspora, 1994
  • Henry Samuel Morais, The Jews of Philadelphia, 1894
  • Arthur Kiron, The Mayer Sulzberger Collection, Biography, Library of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, 1994
  • Hasia R. Diner, A New Promised Land: A History of Jews in America, 2000
  • Fifty Years’ Work of the Hebrew Education Society of Philadelphia 1848-1898
  • Samuel Hazard, Hazard’s United States Commercial and Statistical Register, Volume 3, Philadelphia, 1841
  • Wikipedia
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