A blog post by Intern Erika Rief.
It is no coincidence that I chose to intern at the Jewish Museum of Maryland during my winter break. Over the past six months, I have been on an incredible journey discovering parts of my family history. My internship at the Jewish Museum of Maryland is extremely fitting considering how large of a role Baltimore plays in my family’s history. As one of the Education and Programming interns, I have been given the opportunity to lead tours of the two historic synagogues on either side of the museum, the Lloyd Street Synagogue and B’nai Israel. Telling the story of the Jews who lived on the surrounding streets and worshipped in these synagogues is extremely personal to me. Unbeknownst to me when I began my internship, it is in fact part of my own family’s history.
Simon Rief, my great-great grandfather’s brother (my great-great grand uncle), played a very large role in my search for answers about my family’s past. He was the first Rief to come to the United States. Arriving in America in 1880, he was already established by the turn of the century. Therefore, he was the sponsor for my great-great grandmother and great-grandfather who immigrated to the United States in 1904. Before I started conducting family history, I was aware of my great-grandfather’s uncle, Simon Rief. However, besides his name, I didn’t know much more about him. I knew even less about his descendants’ whereabouts.
My first major accomplishment of the family research indirectly involved Simon Rief. While failing to find my great-grandfather’s naturalization papers, I discovered that my great-grandfather, Nathan Rief, changed his name after he arrived in the United States. My whole family knew my great-grandfather as Nathan Rief. Aware that Nathan had come to this country, I was frustrated because I couldn’t find a ship manifest or naturalization papers with his name. Between a vague memory that my great aunt Beatrice recalled and inspecting Nathan’s Hebrew name, I realized that his name was originally Simon Nathanial Rief. He switched it to Nathan Simon Rief to avoid confusion with his uncle, Simon Rief, whom he was obviously very close with. Knowing Nathan’s original name, I was able to locate his naturalization papers, which provided many more details about his origins and journey to the United States.
Moving on in my search, I started tracking Simon Rief’s family using the U.S. Census records. Since he was the first Rief in the United States, I thought studying him might provide me with more insight. I spent many hours tracking Simon Rife in the 1900 Census, Simon Reif in the 1910 Census, and Simon Rief in the 1920 Census.
Then, through a very big coincidence which needs a blog post to explain in itself, I discovered that one of Simon Rief’s descendants happened to go to high school with me. Even though Rob Rosenberg lived in Harrisburg, we both attended Beth Tfiloh for four years together and never knew we were related. He also happened to be engaged and getting married right around the corner from Emory, in Atlanta Georgia, where I go to school. I had already planned on attending the wedding. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a friend from high school getting married; it was mishpacha! Our great-great grandfathers, Simon Rief and Moshe Rief were brothers.
Rob’s aunt, Janet Abromowitz, who lives in Baltimore informed me that Simon Rief was instrumental in founding the Hebrew Free Loan Society. She also told me he was president of B’nai Israel Congregation. However, back in October when I spoke to her, that didn’t really mean anything to me. As I began my internship here, and started to learn more about B’nai Israel, I became more curious as to my family’s connection with the synagogue.
From the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s online archives search, I knew that there was a printing block and glass slide with a picture of him. So, last week I ventured downstairs and with the help of one of my fellow interns, Ginevra, I located the printing block and slide. I had never seen a picture of Simon Rief before and had no idea what to expect. Looking at Simon Rief’s picture, I saw a reflection of my grandfather who passed away this past June. I couldn’t have been more excited with my newly found treasure. However, I wondered what the printing block had been used for. To try and figure it out, I started digging through the B’nai Israel archives. As I opened the first folder, I found a pamphlet from the celebration of B’nai Israel’s Diamond Jubilee in 1948. Inside the pamphlet was a page with all of the faces from the printing blocks. In the upper right corner was the picture from the printing block. Underneath was labeled ‘Simon Rief, president.’ It must have been a copy of an old newsletter that they used for the Diamond Jubilee celebration.
Assuming that I had found all that there was to find, I skimmed through the rest of the folder. But, I stopped for a moment when I came across the translation of the original by-laws and names of the members of the congregation. Perhaps Simon’s name would be listed. The names were listed alphabetically by Hebrew first name. As I began scanning the names, my jaw dropped. I saw ‘Yishayahu Nachum ben Moshe Michal HaLevi Reif,’ also known as Simon Nathanial Rief, also known as Nathan Simon Rief, my great-grandfather. Sure enough, I found Nathan’s brother, along with Simon Rief and his wife. Afterwards, I found the original book and found all of their names, handwritten in Hebrew over 100 years ago. It never crossed my mind that my great-grandfather might have attended the same shul as his uncle. Here I am, over 100 years later, giving tours of what is most likely the first synagogue that my great-grandfather ever attended in the United States.
…just another typical day at the Jewish Museum of Maryland!