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Maryland’s “Jew Bill”

Posted on May 15th, 2020 by

Today we’re using our Voter Education blog to dive back into history and to talk about the Jew Bill in Maryland. This bill was a big turning point for Jewish communities in Maryland and Baltimore and changed the trajectory of Jewish involvement and engagement with public life. This bill changed the way that Jewish Marylanders could participate in government, and therefore advocate for themselves and their communities. To learn more about the Jew Bill, we need to start with the historical context of the time, and why it was so important to get it passed in the Maryland government.

Touro Synagogue, in Newport Rhode Island, is the oldest, still standing synagogue in the US. It was built in 1763.

Until the late 1700s, there weren’t many Jewish families in Maryland. The earliest Jewish immigration to the US in the colonial era was mainly Sephardic Jews or Jewish people from Spanish and Portuguese descent. This included Sephardic Dutch Jews, who settled in Newport and built Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue building in the US, as well as those who moved to South Carolina, home of the second oldest synagogue, Beth Elohim. These communities had more tolerance for non-Christians, and so Jewish people were better able to establish themselves. However, some Jewish people did move to Baltimore and Maryland, though they faced particular trouble while trying to create a community.

Looks familiar? This is actually Beth Elohim synagogue in Charleston, South Carolina! Built in 1840, this building also displays the Greek Revival Style that our Lloyd Street Synagogue has.

In 1649, in an attempt to create more religious tolerance, the assembly of the Maryland colony passed the Act Concerning Religion or the Toleration Act. This act provided freedom of religion to Christians who believed in the Trinity, including the Catholic and Protestant members of the community, especially as they exchanged power over the colony. However, those who were non-Christians or did not believe in the divinity of the Trinity could be punished by execution or the seizure of their lands. Despite that this law preceded other laws guaranteeing religious freedom, Jewish people were risking their lives even practicing their religion, so it’s not a surprise that Maryland was not an attractive place to settle down, as a non-Christian.

This image shows the heading of the Tolerance Act, which greatly affected non-Christians.

The shadow of this law continued through the 1700s, to the ratification of the Maryland State Constitution in 1776. In it, the constitution states, “No other test or qualification ought to be required on admission to any office of trust or profit than such oath of support and fidelity to the State… and a declaration of belief in the Christian religion.” Though Jewish people were no longer legally allowed to be executed for their beliefs, they could not serve in municipal or state office, join the military, or practice law. This discrimination made it less appealing for the Jewish community to live in Maryland, and so they decided to act. In 1779, Solomon Etting, who was a well-known Jewish Baltimorean, petitioned the state to amend the constitution, a bill that inspired the eventual “Jew Bill”. The Jewish community took up the cause, petitioning the legislature for the bill’s passage and writing to editors in local and national newspapers.

As this issue grew, state delegate Thomas Kennedy took up the cause, impassioned in his belief in religious freedom, despite never having met someone Jewish before. He introduced “An Act for the relief of the Jews of Maryland” which became known as the “Jew Bill.” Unfortunately, the Federalist Party, a strongly anti-immigrant party, opposed the bill enough to have it fail year after year. However, Kennedy bravely continued to fight for the passage of the bill, despite the negative effect it had on his career. Eventually, he was defeated for re-election in 1823, but he returned to office in 1825, running as an independent. This time, he was able to secure enough votes to pass the Jew Bill in 1826.

Thomas Kennedy, depicted here in profile in a black and white print, did a lot to help the Jewish community. Jewish community members regularly visit his grave to pay their respects.

This made a huge difference for the Jewish community in Maryland, allowing them to finally advocate fully in government. As we know from the history of the Lloyd Street synagogue, more Jewish people were immigrating from German-speaking countries. Having protections such as this law might have been one reason why Nidche Yisrael settled on Lloyd Street, creating Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and the start of our Museum’s story. The effects of this bill are easy to see today, as we have multiple elected officials who identify as Jewish.

This version of the Jew Bill was introduced in 1819. The bill would not become law until seven years later.

Of course, the Bill wasn’t perfect, as it only extended rights to Jews. Other religious minorities did not see legislative protection until 1867 when all religious requirements were taken out of the constitution. However, there is still work to be done to ensure all freedoms for people in our country. Educating yourself about current laws and elections, as well as learning about the past, are all important as your role as a citizen of our country. Tune in next Friday for another opportunity to further your Voter Education!


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Jewish Marylanders, Both Born and Made, Breaking Barriers in History

Posted on September 27th, 2019 by

This post was written by JMM School Program Coordinator Paige Woodhouse. To read more posts from Paige, click here!

What is a barrier? Barriers can be physical – a material that blocks or inhibits movement. Barriers can be natural – such as oceans, rivers, or mountains. They can be immaterial – ideas, laws, or attitudes. The 2020 National History Day theme is “Breaking Barriers in History.”

National History Day, a non-profit that “creates opportunities for teachers and students to engage in historical research” (National History Day 2020 Themebook, pg. 4). This program begins in the Fall as students select their topic and begin researching. The program culminates with students presenting their work in original papers, exhibits, performances, websites, or documentaries and entering in local, regional, and potentially the national competition hosted at the University of Maryland at College Park.

This year, students in Baltimore and across the country will be researching individuals, communities, organizations, engineering and technologies, medicines, legislations, and more throughout history that have broken barriers.

JMM’s exhibits and collections tell stories of Jewish Maryland. This includes a variety of stories of individuals or communities breaking barriers. The Maryland Jewish community has produced many leaders who have made lasting contributions on a local, regional, national, and international scale. Issues range from labor relations and civil rights to helping the vulnerable to refugee resettlement to eliminating poverty, and much more. Below are three examples to get you started!

Henrietta Szold

Henrietta Szold was a Jewish Marylander whose leadership and ingenuity helped improve the lives of people in the United States and Israel.  JMM 1992.

Born in Baltimore in 1860 to Jewish immigrants Benjamin and Sophie Schaar Szold, Henrietta would spend her young adult life in Baltimore, teaching at her alma mater, Western Female High School. In the 1870s, Henrietta and her father would go to the Baltimore docks to greet new Jewish immigrants, mostly arriving from Eastern Europe and Russia. In 1889, Szold worked with the Isaac Baer Levinsohn Literary Society to form a night school for these immigrants to teach them English and American history.

In 1907, Henrietta joined the organization in which she would truly make her mark. Szold joined the Hadassah Study Circle, a Zionist women’s organization. Two years later, she traveled to Palestine with her mother. Horrified by the lack of medical supplies, Henrietta returned home determined to improve the conditions there. She founded the Hadassah organization to raise money to send nurses to Palestine. While serving as Hadassah’s president, she also became involved with the American Zionist Medical Unit, and later helped establish the Rothschild-Hadassah Hospital in Palestine and the Hadassah School of Nursing. Eight years later, Szold retired from Hadassah, but continued her work in Israel, serving as an elected official on the Yishuv’s National Council.

With the rise of Nazi power in Germany in 1933, she became the director of yet another organization, Youth Aliyah. She oversaw the resettlement and training of 11,000 refugee Jewish children for life in Palestine. On February 13th, 1945 Szold died at the age of eighty-five in the hospital that she helped build.

Inspire your students with the true story of Henrietta Szold through JMM dramatic living history performance. Performances can take place in your classroom. We are happy to provide a school discounted rate of $100 for the performance. Book Henrietta Szold today.

The Jew Bill

With the passage of An Act Concerning Religion, or the Toleration Act, in 1649, Maryland Jews and other non-Christians lost the ability to serve in municipal or state office, join the military, or practice law. However, there were very few Jews in Maryland at that time. Not until the late 1700s did Jewish families begin to appear in the growing port city of Baltimore.

When it was ratified in 1776, the Maryland State Constitution stated “No other test or qualification ought to be required on admission to any office of trust or profit than such oath of support and fidelity to the State … and a declaration of belief in Christian religion.” Even after the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, the State of Maryland did not change its practices as the provisions of the First Amendment were considered to apply only to the Federal government.

In 1779, Solomon Etting, a prominent Jew in Baltimore, petitioned to have the state constitution amended to end discrimination of Jews. The Jews of Maryland did not sit idly by. They actively petitioned the legislature in 1824 for the bill’s passage. They wrote to editors in local and national newspapers, which began to run editorials in favor of the Jew Bill. Many people were offended to learn that such religious discrimination still existed in the government, nearly fifty years after the Constitution was established.

Thomas Kennedy of Hagerstown took up the cause of Maryland’s Jewish community.

State delegate Thomas Kennedy, a representative from Hagerstown, took up the cause of Maryland’s Jewish community in 1818. When he started the fight, he had never met someone Jewish, but he believed fiercely in religious freedom. He introduced “An Act for the relief of the Jews of Maryland,” also known as “The Jew Bill.” With heavy opposition from the anti-immigrant wing of the Federalist Party, his bill failed year after year. Kennedy continued pressing for the Bill even at the risk of his political career. In 1823 he was defeated for re-election by Benjamin Galloway running on a “Christian Ticket.” Two years later he was reelected to office as an independent and helped secure enough votes for the passing of the Jew Bill in 1826.

The Cover of “The Jew Bill” from JMM’s collection. JMM 1987.82.1.

Though the Jew Bill extended rights to Jews, other religious minorities would have to wait until 1867 for all religious requirements to be extinguished from the constitution.

Explore the JMM’s collection online for more primary and second sources about the Jew Bill here.

Experience a past program on the Jew Bill here.

Morris Schapiro & Boston Metals Company

For over 200 years, discarded metals, rags, paper, and animal hides have provided economic opportunities for immigrants and native-born Americans who collected, stored, brokered, and sold them – scrappers. The work was grueling, scrappers were stigmatized, and the industry was criticized as a source of social and environmental ills. Still, generations of individuals and families gravitated toward the work—including many Jewish scrappers. Our upcoming exhibit, Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling, shares stories of Jewish families who broke barriers – overcoming socio-economic barriers and stereotypes – while building one of America’s largest industries and innovating technologies and processes within it.

On such story is that of Morris Schapiro who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 16, on the S.S. Pennsylvania. He traveled in steerage and was seasick nearly the entire journey, during which he was pickpocketed, which left him with 25 cents to his name when he landed. Though several of his cousins were already in the business in Baltimore, Schapiro struck out on his own Within a week, he had made over $100 – a fortune at the time and more than he had ever possessed. Schapiro immediately established the Boston Iron and Metal Company, collecting scrap metal from blacksmiths, machine shops, and chemical companies.

Boston Metals Company in Baltimore.

By the 1920s, Boston Metals Company had moved from a small warehouse in Fells Point to a large, waterfront yard breaking down Navy and civilian ships. In 1919 the S.S. Pennsylvania was seized by the U.S. Navy and renamed the USS Nansemond. It was put up for scrap in 1924. Schapiro identified the vessel as the very same one that brought him to United States on that dreadful journey. He bought and scrapped the ship at his Boston Metals Company in Baltimore. The fortune that Schapiro eventually built through scrap led him to other enterprises, including whiskey distilling, a “near beer” brewery during Prohibition, and the Laurel Park Racetrack in Laurel, MD.

Interested in more stories of the individuals, companies, and communities behind the scrap industry? Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling is on display October 27, 2019 to April 26, 2020. Bring your students to explore the stories of immigrant families who built the scrap industry in America.

JMM’s staff are huge supporters of National History Day and can often be found volunteering in Baltimore at school competitions and as judges at the City, State, and National Competitions. Let us take our support a step further. Our exhibits and educational programs can support your students as they practice critical inquiry and historical research – examining primary and secondary sources. We are delighted to provide complimentary admission and a complimentary bus for any Maryland Public School visiting the Museum.

Learn more about our education programs here.

Book a visit with your class today here.


Posted in jewish museum of maryland