Jewish American Heritage Month: Philadelphia congregation has a place in history

Mikevah Israel was founded in 1740 and was housed in several other locations before moving to its current home.

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Friday, May 10, 2024
Philadelphia's Congregation Mikveh Israel has a place in history
Jewish American Heritage Month: Philadelphia congregation has a place in history

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Philadelphia is known as the birthplace of America. It also has a rich Jewish-American history.

One congregation has been a part of that history from the very beginning.

"We are the oldest continuous synagogue in the United States," said Rabbi Yosef Zarnighian of Congregation Mikveh Israel on Fourth Street in Old City.

It's an area surrounded by historic sites that often attract tourists who walk right past the congregation not realizing its significance.

"People often overlook what is hiding in plain sight," said Zarnighian.

Mikevah Israel was founded in 1740 and was housed in several other locations before moving to its current home. It maintains a tradition that only one other congregation in New York also has.

"Mikveh Isreal retains the Spanish and Portuguese rite of Jewish worship," said Zarnighian of the practice which dates back centuries.

The congregation also has more than a dozen ornate scrolls, each with a unique story. The oldest dates back to around 1805.

The lobby of the synagogue is filled with artifacts significant to the congregation. Visitors are welcome to stop in to see the items and read about Mikveh Israel's history.

"Our congregation has an open-door policy," said Zarnighian. "We've been open and welcoming to people of all backgrounds."

Zarnighian notes that the congregation remains steadfast in that open-door policy even during uncertain times.

"The recent rise of antisemitism has many synagogues on guard," he said. "We do not let persecution and hate dictate our lives."

Instead, the congregation shares their story, which is deeply rooted in the earliest American history.

"Jewish history is very much a part of American history," said Zarnighian before pointing out a glass case with letters to the congregation from presidents, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

The congregation's founding father, Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas, also had a friendship with one of the nation's founding fathers.

"Rev. Seixas was the only representative of the Jewish community at President Washington's inauguration," said Zarnighian. "He corresponded with the president to advocate for the First Amendment.... These values tell you they are not just important to us as Americans, they are deeply rooted within Jewish tradition."