Chronology: Maryland and Israel Part 1, 1830 to 1900

Posted on August 23rd, 2017 by

Compiled by Avi Y. Decter and Dr. Deborah R. Weiner. Originally published in Generations 2007-2008: Maryland and Israel

The term “Zionism” was coined only in 1890, but for 2,000 years Jews throughout the world have yearned for a return to their ancient home in the Land of Israel. Prayers and rituals refer to Israel’s winds, dew, and rain, the fertility of its soil, and the beauty of its produce. The longing for return and redemption has helped to sustain the Jewish people. In the modern era, longing was transformed into an international movement to rebuild a Jewish homeland in Israel as a refuge and as a center for Jewish renewal.

In this movement, Maryland has played an important role. This timeline, based on research conducted by Barry Kessler for the Museum’s Bridges to Zion exhibition in 1998, calls out some of the many events and people who have participated in the Zionist project from the early nineteenth century to the present day.


Letter from Mendes Cohen to his mother, March 19, 1832. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

Letter from Mendes Cohen to his mother Judith, from Jerusalem, March 19, 1832. Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

Baltimorean Mendes I. Cohen is one of the first American citizens to visit Palestine as part of his six-year tour of Europe and the Middle East. His descriptions of life there, depicted in letters to his mothers and brothers, offer a rare glimpse of Palestine’s Jewish community through the eyes of an American Jew.



Jehiel Cohen (in 1847) and Aaron Selig (in 1849) visit Baltimore, appealing for Maryland Jews to aid the poor, the infirm, the elderly, and the scholars of Israel. Messengers and letters from orphanages, academies, and other institutions serving the Jews of Palestine represent a tradition of charity that dates back to ancient times, founded on the belief that Jews in the Land of Israel contribute to the spiritual salvation of the Jewish people by their study of holy texts and their presence in the holy cities.


Sir Moses Montefiore

Sir Moses Montefiore

Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885), a prominent English philanthropist and Jewish communal leader, donates a Torah to Congregation Shearith Israel in recognition of the Congregation’s support for the Jewish residents of Palestine. In 1879, Montefiore gives a second Torah to Congregation Chizuk Amuno.


Young, intellectual Russian Jewish immigrants form the Isaac Bar Levinsohn Hebrew Literary Society to foster cultural activity among Baltimore’s East European Jewish immigrants. With the support of Rabbi Benjamin Szold and his daughter Henrietta (1860-1945), the Society promotes a variety of cultural and educational activities and serves as an early forum for the discussion of Zionist ideas. The following year, under the leadership of its president, Solomon Baroway, the Society opens the Russian Night School in East Baltimore, one of the nation’s first night schools for immigrants. Henrietta Szold serves as superintendent.


“The very learned, although very young” Rabbi Simon Isaac Halevi Finkelstein founds a branch of Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), Baltimore’s first Zionist organization. In its first year, the organization raises $234.58, of which $48.76 is sent to Palestine, the rest being used for Zionist propaganda in Baltimore. By 1899, a branch emerges in Hagerstown, as well.



Cyrus Adler at Oxford, 1898.  Courtesy of the Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania, Cyrus Adler Collection.

Cyrus Adler at Oxford, 1898. Courtesy of the Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania, Cyrus Adler Collection.

Cyrus Adler, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Semitics Department, visits Palestine. On his return, he delivers a lecture, illustrated by stereopticon views, that enables Baltimore Jews to “see” the Holy Land, bringing Palestine close to home.

Also, Zev (Wolf) Schur publishes his Hebrew-language periodical, Ha-Pisgah, in which he espouses a strongly Zionist view as an antidote to Reform and assimilation. Schur continues to publish in Baltimore into 1892 and thereafter in Chicago.


Shavei Zion [Returnees to Zion], an organization that promotes emigration to Palestine, holds a public meeting on 26 May, which is attended by more than 1,000 people. However, calls to return to Zion are undercut by the hardships of pioneer life in Palestine and the opportunities of America.


Hevrat Zion (Zion Association) is founded at the Russian Night School with the ideal of rebuilding Palestine. The Association accepts members without regard to their “individual religious and social views.” The Association publishes Dr. Aaron Friedenwald’s lecture on “Lovers of Zion.” The next year, the Association brings to America the famous orator Zvi Hirsh Masliansky (1856-1943), who electrifies audiences with Zionist rhetoric.



Black and white carte-de-visite of Henrietta Szold when she became editor of the Jewish Publication Society, Nov. 1893.

Black and white carte-de-visite of Henrietta Szold when she became editor of the Jewish Publication Society, Nov. 1893.

Henrietta Szold publishes “A Century of Jewish Thought,” advocating the revival of the Hebrew language and a return to the Land of Israel as remedies for a divided and de-natured Judaism.



Rabbi Dr. Schepsel Schaffer, (1862-1933), made from ”The Jews of Baltimore”, by Isidor Blum. JMM 1999.121.1

Rabbi Dr. Schepsel Schaffer, (1862-1933), made from ”The Jews of Baltimore”, by Isidor Blum. JMM 1999.121.1

Shearith Israel’s Rabbi Schepsel Schaffer (1862-1933) is one of two official American delegates to attend the first World Zionist Congress in Basel, where he represents Baltimore’s Zion Association. The other American delegate is Adam Rosenberg of New York City, who was born in Baltimore. By 1910, Rabbi Schaffer presides over the five-member Council of Baltimore Zion Associations.


Dr. Aaron Friedenwald (1836-1902), an eminent Baltimore ophthalmologist, travels to Palestine with his wife, Bertha. After his return, he speaks in New York and Philadelphia on the regeneration of the land and of the Jewish spirit, predicting that the “center for Jewish thought” in Palestine would “radiate an influence” that would overturn generations of degradation and prejudice.



The Federation of American Zionists holds its second national meeting in Baltimore. When the Federation was established in 1897, immediately after the first World Zionist Congress, Baltimore’s Zion Association and Ezrat Hovevei Zion were charter members. Among the 19 local delegates are Louis Levin, Solomon Baroway, Israel Fine, and Aaron Friedenwald.


Continue to Part II: Maryland and Israel, 1900 to 1950

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Missing Mendes Cohen

Posted on August 5th, 2015 by

I love walking into the Feldman Gallery and looking at so many movie posters from the past .  I love the way that Joanna and our interns have delved into research to seek out the images of the movie theaters that actually showed the movies during the 1930-1960’s.  I have enjoyed listening to our visitors reminisce of the past but I do have to admit….I am missing the Amazing  Mendes Cohen!   I miss not seeing Mendes’ face in the Feldman Gallery, both donning a turban and also posing  as a young man in the early 19th century.  I miss not hearing the piano music of Charles -Valentin Alkan, as you enter the gallery; one of the first Jewish composers to incorporate Jewish melodies to his music.  I miss the puzzle pieces and watching groups of students working together to put puzzle pieces in place.  I see Flat Mendes every day- but I still miss the Amazing Mendes Cohen in my life at the JMM.

This past weekend- my hubby and I decided to play tourist in Baltimore in the hope that I could get “my fix” of Mendes Cohen. On Sunday we started our day at the Farmer’s Market underneath the Jones Falls Expressway.  After buying two coffees, pastry, and two kinds of string beans; we headed north to Mount Vernon.  In particular, I wanted to climb the Washington Monument which was rededicated on July 4, 2015; 200 years after the initial cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1815.  I wanted to see the building where Mendes and the famous Cohen brothers were instrumental in the state – funded lottery business that helped to raise the money to build the first monument dedicated to the first President of the United States, George Washington. I wanted to see some sort of mention of Mendes Cohen at the monument.

Washington Monument, 1890

Washington Monument, 1890

Robert Mills is credited with the design of the structure of the Washington Monument.  I understood that the citizens of Baltimore were particularly proud to erect this monument to Washington in light of their recent role in securing American liberty during the Battle of Baltimore, a turning point in the War of 1812.  Baltimoreans were also proud that the monument was built of local white marble, from quarries north of the city.

I was excited to begin my 160 foot climb to the top.   I thought it was interesting to see how the bricks were laid on their sides in a circular ring as we hiked up the steps.

Washington Monument bricks - circular staircase

Washington Monument bricks – circular staircase

I also thought it was interesting  to see how narrow the space was and I understood that the staff at the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy only allows five people to climb the monument at any given time during tours.

As we continued our climb up the narrow steps,  I was happy to see a marker dated 1818 noting that we had climbed 106 feet.

1818 marker denoting 106 feet

That’s a lot of steps!

I also noticed some graffiti where someone had written “1908” in black on the walls.  By 1829, the main column of the monument was completed, and the statue of Washington, sculpted by the Italian artist Henrico Causici, was raised to the top.  As we were getting closer to the top, I was excited to see the view- and I wondered if Mendes ever climbed the steps to the top and saw the spectacular view of Mount Vernon Place.

When you get to the top of the monument, you do get a chance to see Baltimore from all directions north, east, west and south.  However, you must stay inside and behind the glass to take your pictures….. a bit disappointing.   At the top, you begin to understand how the Washington Monument quickly became an important symbol of the city and state of Maryland.  President John Quincy Adams, who assisted in composing the text of the bronze inscriptions on the monument’s base outlining the key events in Washington’s life, dubbed Baltimore “The Monumental City.”

Images taken at the top of the Washington Monument

View From the Top

As we climbed down, I realized how lucky we were to have had the opportunity to climb to the top.  I am certain the citizens living in Baltimore  in the early 19th century  were in awe of this impressive structure built and dedicated to the nation’s first president. It was fun to imagine Mendes Cohen wandering the grounds where the monument was built in the early 19th century. The structure is a wonderful testament to the builders of Baltimore and a beautiful place for citizens to gather and enjoy all that Baltimore has to offer.

Kelly Suredam Potter poses at the Washington Monument

The wonderful Kelly Suredam Potter

I want to thank JMM Museum Educator, Kelly Suredam Potter, who also works at the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy for telling me about the opportunity to climb the monument.  It was a lot of fun to climb this iconic landmark as well as try to appease my longing to connect with the Amazing Colonel Mendes I. Cohen.  Long Live Mendes!

ileneA blog post by Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

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A False “Rosetta Stone”

Posted on December 3rd, 2014 by

Earlier this fall I had the opportunity to speak to the brotherhood of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation about the life of Mendes Cohen and the origins of Jewish Baltimore.  In preparation for the lecture, I thought it was incumbent on me to try to answer the question: “was there a connection between the Cohens and the community that built the Lloyd Street Synagogue (the original site of BHC)?”

I had the benefit of the research of Dr. Eric Goldstein, the Emory University scholar, who has been studying early Baltimore history on our behalf.  Dr. Goldstein had pointed out that the early Jewish settlement in Baltimore was highly transient.  A majority of Jews arriving between 1780 and 1820 stayed for just a few years, making it a tough environment for the establishment of permanent Jewish institutions.  There was a Jewish cemetery by 1797, but no regular minyan or congregation.  Baltimore was a frontier of Jewish world.

The Cohens were an exception to the pattern of transience.  Arriving in Baltimore from Richmond in 1808, they prospered in the lottery and banking business.  Like their close friends, the Ettings, the Cohens followed Sephardic traditions.  By contrast, new Baltimoreans after 1820 were almost entirely Germans practicing Ashkenazic rites.

Different sources give different accounts of when the first weekly minyans were held in Baltimore, some cited 1827, just a year after the passage of the Maryland Jew Bill.  Others claim that the practice of minyans in people’s homes began following the High Holidays in 1829.  Everyone seems to agree that this gathering called itself Nidche Yisrael (the “scattered of Israel”) and sought a formal charter as Maryland’s first Jewish congregation in 1830.

This is where my online research began.  Several sources, including the 1976 official history of the BHC, put the first minyan in the home of Zalma Rehine.  The Jewish Virtual Library stated that Rehine was a successful Richmond merchant (and a founding member of the Richmond Light Infantry) who moved to Baltimore in 1829.  The short article also pointed out that Rehine was the uncle of Isaac Leeser.

Now I may never have heard of Rehine, but Leeser was another story.  One of the most prominent Jewish spiritual leaders of pre-rabbinic America.  Leeser, technically the “cantor” of Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, is known today for having introduced the practice of weekly sermons and for having made the first English translation of the Torah in the United States.  Leeser was present at the opening of the Lloyd Street Synagogue in 1845.

It turns out that Leeser and his uncle carried on an active correspondence in the 1830’s.  That correspondence is now archived as part of the 2100 letters in the Gershwind-Bennett Isaac Leeser Digital Library of the University of Pennsylvania:

Image courtesy of the Leeser Library.

Image courtesy of the Leeser Library.  And that’s where I thought I found my Rosetta Stone!

Here was one letter that connected the “founder” of  BHC with the Cohens.  Moreover, it suggested that the relationship was so close that Dr. Joshua Cohen (Mendes’ brother) was among the trusted few who actually previewed Leeser’s sermons.  The story about chasing after the home robbers was just icing on the cake.

As so often happens, further research burst my bubble.  In trying to gather more detail on the relationships I ran across an article in the November 1976 issue of the American Jewish Archives.  The article by Ira Rosenswaike was entitled “The Founding of Baltimore’s First Jewish Congregation:  Fact or Fiction?”.  Rosenswaike explores in some detail the Rehine story, tracing its origins to an early 20th century lecture by Henrietta Szold.  Szold reportedly told her audience that a respected community elder had once recollected that an early minyan was held at the home of Zalma Rehine on Holliday Street.  Szold noted “this may possibly have been the beginning of Nidche Israel”.  Later accounts simply dropped the “may possibly” caution and said with certainty that the minyans began at Rehine’s home.  After noting the low likelihood that a Sephardi just arrived from Richmond would start an Ashkenazi Jewish minyan in Baltimore, Rosenswaike moves to some fairly solid census evidence that points to Rehine still residing in Richmond in 1830…at least a year after the regular minyan started meeting in Baltimore.

Although this nearly 40 year old article disproved my “Rosetta Stone”, I still remain hopeful that we’ll find a link between the Cohens and the Lloyd Street Synagogue.  I invite you to join me in this quest – the search is at least half the fun.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE. 

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