Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Virginia is for Lovers… of Israel

While cities like Charleston, Philadelphia and New York contained Jewish communities during the pre-revolutionary period, Virginia, the largest of the colonies, did not. Individual Jews lived in Virginia during this period, but there were no communities. Joachim Gaunse, a metallurgist from Prague, arrived to Roanoke with Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585. Elias Legardo moved to Jamestown in 1621. Michael Franks and Jacob Myer joined George Washington’s expedition over the Allegheny Mountains in 1754. Dr. John de Sequeyra settled in Williamsburg in 1745, serving as one of Williamsburg’s physicians. (He is also credited by Thomas Jefferson as introducing the tomato to Virginia). Michael and Sarah Israel bought land near the mountain pass between North Garden and Batesville, west of Charlottesville, which is known today as “Israel’s Gap.”

For various reasons, Virginia never attracted a critical mass of Jewish citizens during colonial times. Virginia did not have a major port city, which would have drawn Jewish businessmen to the state. Others note that Virginia had a policy that non-Christians were taxed to support its official church, the Church of England, which repelled non-Christians from settling there. In 1786, when Thomas Jefferson authored Virginia’s Statute of Religious Freedom, granting religious liberty to all Virginians, Jews began moving to “Old Dominion.”

While Virginia’s first synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome, was incorporated in Richmond in 1789, most of Virginia’s Jewish communities developed and grew only later in the 19th century, when Jewish Germans immigrated to the state. In 1790, Virginia’s Jewish population grew from 200 to 2,000 by the Civil War. These immigrants established synagogues in Norfolk (1848), Petersburg (1858) and Alexandria (1859). Many Jews joined the cause of secession, and more than 100 Richmond Jews fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Some blamed the Jews for the Confederacy’s woes, which led to some growing anti-Semitism. In response, the Richmond Jewish community donated $2,000 to help care for the sick and wounded Confederate soldiers.

Of note, Uriah P. Levy and family purchased and restored Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, to assure that the home of the nation’s third president be available as a national historical landmark for years to come. In 1923, title to Monticello was transferred to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation. Three Jews have represented Virginia in Congress: Norman Sisisky, who represented Petersburg from 1983 to 2001, Eric Cantor of Richmond, who became House Majority Leader in 2011, and Elaine Luria, who currently represents Virginia’s second congressional district.

By 1927, with immigration from Eastern Europe reaching a peak, 25,000 Jews lived in Virginia, 75% of them living in Richmond and the Norfolk/Newport News area. Virginia’s Jewish population grew to 31,000 in 1960 and had grown to over 95,000 in 2017, most of whom had moved to northern Virginia’s DC suburbs, an area that has attracted many Jews since the post-World War II period.

On June 25, 1788, Virginia became the tenth state to ratify the United States Constitution. As such, June 25th is celebrated as Statehood Day in Virginia.

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