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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 178-180

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Becoming American, Remaining Jewish: The Story of Wilmington, Delaware's First Jewish Community, 1879-1924. By Toni Young. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999. 388 pp.

Toni Young has written a comprehensive account of the Jews of Wilmington, Delaware, one of America's lesser-studied Jewish communities. Presenting her subjects as models of how immigrant Jews became American Jews without sacrificing their religious identity, she integrates their histories with those of organizations and businesses and emphasizes that people make things happen.

Becoming American, Remaining Jewish begins in 1879, when a few of Wilmington's Jews organized a Moses Montefiori Society and a congregation, Ohabe Shalom. Delaware was the last of the original colonies to have an organized Jewish community. The city's industrial nature and the propensity of Jewish immigrants to focus on petty trades, such as peddling and tailoring, apparently stymied earlier development, as did the attraction of Philadelphia, just 27 miles north of Wilmington and then the Jewish capital of America. Although some of Philadelphia's Jewish merchants did open branches in the Delaware city, apparently few settled there permanently.

Typical of American Jewish history, most of Wilmington's earliest Jewish immigrants hailed from Germany. But late to the scene and few in number, they could not dominate once a steady stream of Eastern European (mostly persecuted Russian) Jews began to arrive. Ten years after the Central European Jews had established their first congregation, the East European Jews already outnumbered them. By 1890, some 68 percent of Wilmington's Jews were Eastern European, and some had already founded a more traditional congregation, Adas Kodesch, in 1885. As more Jews came, a second Orthodox congregation, Ahavah [End Page 178] Achim, appeared. Thus, in less than ten years, three synagogues were established. The latter two merged in 1890 to form Adas Kodesch Knesseth Israel, and in 1893 they established a Hebrew school for children.

The city's local newspapers first became acquainted with its Jewish citizens through the establishment of the Moses Montefiori Society and Ohabe Shalom congregation. The press spoke highly of Wilmington's Jews. Young often mentions that the broader populace failed to see the diversity within the Jewish community. The Jews, who worked in numerous occupations, were well received in Wilmington and experienced little anti-Semitism.

Wilmington's Jews, however, understood the need for mutual dependence. The various groups recognized and appreciated that what they had in common overrode their differences. As more immigrant and often destitute Jews arrived, the more established Jews combined their efforts to help them assimilate, creating half a dozen Jewish organizations.

In 1898, Adas Kodesch became the first Wilmington Jewish congregation to have its own building. While this synagogue continued to grow, the Reform congregation Ohabe Shalom fared less well. Formed in 1879, it failed once, and was reestablished in 1895; in 1906 it was reorganized yet again as Temple of Truth. Many Wilmington Jews, seeking to promote Jewish life in whatever form, held memberships in two or more congregations. Later more observant Russian Jews founded yet another Orthodox congregation, Chesed Shel Emeth. (It would be helpful to anyone unfamiliar with Hebrew if Young had translated such names.)

Wilmington's Jews, who were less than 1 percent of the population in 1890, had grown to 3.5 percent by 1920. As a group, the Jews helped the community at large, both by promoting the Americanization of new immigrants and by joining the war effort during World War I. Moreover, during the war, when the enormity of Jewish suffering in Eastern Europe became known, the Jewish War Relief committee chose Wilmington as an experimental site to appeal to non-Jews to raise funds for Jewish war relief. Whereas the fundraising goal for the entire state of Delaware was set at $75,000, together Wilmington's Jews and Christians raised $125,000, earning the city the encomium "the model city of charity and good will" (p. 229) .

The author succeeds in integrating congregational histories--why and how they...


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