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  • A New Resting Place for the Scattered Sons of IsraelA History of the First Jewish Cemetery West of the Allegheny Mountains
  • Carrie Rhodus (bio)

This special issue of Ohio Valley History celebrates two hundred years of Jewish community in Cincinnati. The founding of this community is traced to the 1821 establishment of Chestnut Street Cemetery in the city's West End neighborhood. Per Jewish custom, a cemetery is often the first institution the community establishes. As David Harris, executive director of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati, explains, "it shows the primacy of the commandment to honor the dead. That if you can't do that, you don't have the makings of a community."1 All other matters of the religion can be practiced without an organized space, but a cemetery must have land. Strict laws regarding burials and the care of cemeteries form an essential religious and social responsibility. These burial customs also make it necessary to establish a cemetery and avoid the lapse in tradition that would occur if a secular cemetery were the only burial ground available. As Barnett Brickner wrote in his 1935 study of Jewish Cincinnati, "several instances have occurred where deceased persons belonging to our persuasion had died in the Central Hospital, and then been buried without the presence or knowledge even of the Jews, without a brother or sister in faith being present to repeat a prayer, or to do the least office of kindness and affections."2 In 1821, when the founders of Cincinnati Jewry discovered that a previously unknown member of their community was dying, establishing a cemetery became a priority.

Joseph Jonas (1792–1869) was the self-professed first permanent Jewish resident of Cincinnati. Jewish traders had visited the area as early as 1814, but none of these travelers seem to have settled in the Ohio Valley.3 Jonas arrived in Cincinnati on March 8, 1817, after spending a cold winter in Pittsburgh waiting for the frozen Ohio River to thaw. He hailed originally from Plymouth, England, which calls to mind the often mythologized original pioneers of America, as he embarked on a similar journey to create "a new resting place for the scattered sons of Israel."4 Jonas held quite lofty views of his role in the "Great West." Before emigrating and setting his sights on Cincinnati, much to the disapproval of his family and friends, he read many especially impressive descriptions of the Ohio River in various accounts of America. One Levi Philips wrote of the new world: "In the wilds [End Page 4]


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In 2021 Cincinnati celebrated the 200th Anniversary of the founding of the Chestnut Street Cemetery in the West End. Celebrants gathered at the new plaza at the corner of Central Avenue and Chestnut Street. Courtesy of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati.

of America, and entirely amongst gentiles; you will forget your religion and your God." Such descriptions only seem to have furthered Jonas's mission: "that he might be a nucleus around whom the first congregation might be formed, to worship the God of Israel in this great western territory."5 While Jonas quickly established himself as a silversmith and watchmaker, he remained isolated from other Jews except for the occasional visit from traders at the posts of Brookville and Connersville, Indiana, then the westernmost trading posts in American territory.

One of these visitors was David Israel Johnson (1795–1842) who moved to Brookville, Indiana, with his wife and child in 1818 at a brother's behest. The Johnsons, finding the frontier life in Brookville a little too wild, returned to Cincinnati to stay in 1819. Also arriving in June 1819 were Lewin Cohen, Barnet Levi (d. 1863), and Jonas Levy. This collection of individuals celebrated the High Holidays for the first time in Cincinnati that year. Shortly thereafter, Jonas's brother Abraham (1801–1864) and his sister and brother-in-law Sarah (1795–1846) and Morris Moses (1792–1860) arrived with a family friend, Philip Symonds (d. 1864). In 1820, a few more residents joined the community: Solomon Buckingham, Moses Nathan, and Solomon Minken. These individuals mark the arrival of the first German Jews to...

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