Though few in number, Jews were a part of the European colonization of Virginia. Expelled from Spain in the very year that Columbus encountered America, they tried to re-establish their communities in northern and central Europe, North Africa, Palestine, Turkey and the city-states of Italy. These Spanish and Portuguese Jews, called the Sephardim, were among the first to settle the Americas, hoping to find places where they could maintain their distinctive Jewish traditions. By the 1640s Sephardic Jews had established trade networks connecting New York, Charleston, Newport, Philadephia, the Caribbean, and Brazil. Many quickly became prominent and respected professionals.

Ashkenazic Jews, with a style of worship typical of the Germanies and Russia, also sought the New World as a refuge. During the 16th to 18th centuries in Europe, Jews were living as a barely tolerated minority in Germany, Austria, and Poland, and somewhat less precariously in Holland and Italy. Eager to find a safe foothold in the New World, Jews participated in the exploration and settlement of the Atlantic coast of the Americas. A Jewish metallurgist from Prague, Joachim Gaunse (or Jacob Gans), was in Virginia as early as 1585 as part of the first English attempt to settle North America at Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke Colony. Early Sephardic settlers of Virginia included Dr. John de Sequeyra, a specialist in the treatment of the mentally ill, who arrived in Williamsburg in 1745; in his role as a general practitioner, he was the physician of George Washington's stepdaughter Martha Parke Custis. Also prominent were members of the aristocratic Cardozo and Seixas families. 4

On the eve of the American Revolution there were still just a handful of Jews in Virginia, mainly in Richmond. Jacob Cohen (from Oberdorf, Germany) and Isaiah Isaacs (from Frankfort-am-Main, via England) became business partners who sold merchandise and real estate. They helped to finance Daniel Boone's surveys of Kentucky, were ardent patriots, and though they were slaveowners they both freed their slaves in their wills. In addition to their commercial ventures, both were committed to their religion; Isaacs signed all his deeds in Hebrew. He was a founder of Beth Shalome, Richmond's first synagogue, in 1789, and also helped to fund the first Jewish cemetery, on Richmond's Shockoe Hill. He was a man of prominence, elected to Richmond's Common Hall (forerunner of the City Council), just two years after the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom made it possible for a Jew to hold elective office. He later moved to Charlottesville and died there in 1806.

 

 

Early Jewish settlers were an impressive part of colonial society, not least for their reputation as learned people, who participated in the international exchange of ideas. Marcus Elcan, for example, was known for his extensive library of 200 volumes, boasting works of Paine, Rousseau, Lessing - all representative of the Enlightenment. Isaac B. Seixas, "minister" of Beth Shalome in Richmond, taught Hebrew grammar and vocabulary to George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson's mentor at the College of William and Mary. Through their intellectual abilities, their business acumen, and their commitment to civic life, these early families distinguished themselves as people of culture and prominence. 5

Early Jewish Charlottesville: A Place of Tolerance

 
The first Jewish family to settle in Albemarle County arrived in 1757. Michael and Sarah Israel patented 80 acres in the area of North Garden, just south of Charlottesville. Michael was a member of the Border Rangers, the county militia. Israel's Mountain and Israel's Gap are named for this family.

Several Jews established households and businesses in early 19th century Charlottesville, including merchant Isaac Raphael, lawyer Nathaniel Wolfe, D.H. Stern, a boot and leather dealer, and A.B. Heller. Raphael was described by Jefferson in a letter of 1825 as the person who "holds my little bank here". 6

David Isaacs

David Isaacs, younger brother of Isaiah Isaacs, ran a store on Main Street. Born in 1760 in Frankfort-am-Main, Germany, David followed Isaiah to Richmond, where he became an active member of the Jewish community and a trader with the firm of Cohen and Isaacs. In the late 18th century he moved to Charlottesville.

David Isaacs traded all kinds of goods from his Main Street shop. He earned a footnote in the history of the University of Virginia by selling Jefferson's overseer a ball of twine that was used to lay out the first of the University's buildings, Pavilion VII. More importantly, he undertook to educate Jefferson about the Jewish faith. Correspondence from Isaacs to Jefferson shows him offering books and pamphlets on Jewish topics in addition to books Jefferson had asked him to obtain. Isaacs sold Jefferson meat, butter, and cheese (the very last purchase of Jefferson's life was cheese from Isaacs), wax, fish, hop's, and a horse, Tecumseh, "a bright bay." 7

The affairs of the Isaacs were entwined with those of the West family. Thomas West was Isaiah's landlord, and David bought his Main Street store and residence (now the site of the Williams Corner Book Store) from Thomas West's executor, Francis Taliaferro. Nancy West, a young mulatto woman connected with the households of the Wests and Taliaferro, established a shop next to David Isaacs. Nancy West and David Isaacs lived in a long-term common law marriage until David's death in 1837. They could not marry under Virginia law, since she was not white, nor under Jewish law, since she was not Jewish.

Their relationship seems improbable under antebellum Virginia law and social mores, but shows the relative tolerance of Charlottesville. The pair were taken to court in 1826 on the serious charge of fornication, but it was argued (in the General Court of Virginia) that their relationship was as man and wife, sharing bed and board, and not openly promiscuous; the charges were dropped. 8

Nancy West was a skilled businesswoman and bought considerable property in town. They raised seven children together, acknowledged by David in his will. The children grew up as part of the local free black community. Daughter Jane was a milliner, son Frederick started a newspaper, son Tucker was a carpenter. David, however, always considered himself a part of the Richmond Jewish community, and asked to be buried there in the Hebrew cemetery on Shockoe Hill. He left money in his will to Beth Shalome, the Richmond congregation of which he remained a member.


Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society

David Isaacs best respect to Mr. Jefferson and informs him that he has at last obtained the Book requested to get. Also a Pamphlet entitled, the Elements of Jewish Faith which Mr. Jefferson will welcome to Peruse and return it, or keep it if he Pleases, as i have another for myself of the same - the Ground of Christianity examined Cost 1$. the other Gratis. Sunday 1st Feby. 1818

Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society

David Isaacs returns Mr. Jefferson many thanks for the kindness he has just bestowed on him and in return, he will accept I hope of the Perusal of a Sermon which is just come to hand from a freind in Baltimore - Preached to the congregation in Philadelph on the same subject by the reverd. Mr. Carvalho with his best wishes for Mr. Jefferson's long life and a happy one. Septr. 5th 1816

The books Isaacs gave to Jefferson were: The Elements of Jewish Faith, translated from the Hebrew by Rabbi S. I. Cohen, published in Richmond, 1817; and The Grounds of Christianity Examined by comparing the New Testament with the Old, by George Bethune, Boston, 1813.

Will of Isaiah Isaacs, probated in Albemarle County, 1806 Isaacs asked that his minor children be brought up in the families of "respectable Jews to the end that they may be brought up in the religion of their fore Fathers", and went on to state: "Being of the opinion that all men are by Nature equally free and being possessed of some of these beings who are unfortunate[ly] doomed to slavery as to them I must enjoin upon my executor a strict observance of the following clause in my will. My Slaves, hereafter named are to be and they are to be [sic] and they are hereby manumited and made free so that after the different periods hereafter mentioned they shall enjoy all the priviliges and immunities of freed people .... "

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