Walking Tour Explores Local Jewish History

Jon Stone takes the group through Christ Church Burial Ground, where one Jew is buried.

Before the United States was even a nation, the country’s Jewish community had begun to shift into focus.

“Between the Reformation and then the Revivalist movement, and the expulsion of the Jews and the establishment of the community in Amsterdam and then later in London, it all sort of weaves together to create the arrival of the Jewish community in America,” said Jon Stone, who runs Jewish history tours of Philadelphia. “I tie that in with how Philly was founded because that’s also a result of that religious upheaval in Europe.”

This is how Stone begins his Philly Maven Jewish History Tours, which run for two to two-and-a-half hours. Stone gives occasional public tours, which are free, and private tours, which cost $150 for a group of five and $20 for each additional person. During the tours, Stone walks participants through about 100 years of Jewish history in Philadelphia — from the 1740s into the 1800s.

Stone started conducting the tours in February, but the idea developed several months before that. During the summer, he worked as a tour guide, taking groups of 30 to 40 people around on buses.

“I had all this Jewish history, a deep passion of mine,” said Stone, a fifth-generation Philadelphian. “I had all this knowledge that I wanted to share, but it wasn’t the appropriate forum, the tour I was working in, and I didn’t know of any other Jewish history tours, and I really wanted to do it, so I did it.”

Jon Stone leads the group through Elfreth’s Alley, the approximate location of the colonial Jewish community. | Photos provided

By researching online and print resources on self-guided Jewish history tours, he mapped out an 18-page tour outline, trying to balance geography and chronology in a way that would make the most sense. Stone then tested it by giving tours to friends.

Stone organizes and advertises the tours through the organization’s Facebook page. He also advertises the tours on various other Facebook groups like Jews in Center City and Jewish Philadelphia.

So far, tour participants have mostly been Jewish residents of the city, though he hopes to eventually attract participants from a wider range of backgrounds.

The tour starts in Welcome Park in Old City. Stone begins by talking about colonial Jewish history, then guides the groups to Mikveh Israel to discuss the Jewish community during the Revolutionary War and the synagogue’s role in that community. Sometimes, depending upon whether he can get a key, he will visit the Mikveh Israel Cemetery.

The first Jews to arrive in Philadelphia were mostly wealthy families, merchants and bankers from London and Amsterdam that could afford to take the risk of moving to America, he said.

“The main challenge for them was having traditional ritual observance with a tiny new community, almost no ritual oversight and no establishment for supervising ritual observances,” Stone said. “So people would slaughter their own meat and circumcise their own children. You couldn’t get a hechsher because there wasn’t even a rabbi in Philly, let alone a mashgiach. Those were the challenges facing the community back then.”

Jews of the time also rubbed elbows with the non-Jewish machers in Philadelphia, such as Benjamin Franklin.

From that point forward, Stone said, Jewish life in Philadelphia exploded.

He takes his tour groups south to talk about the growth of the German Jewish community in Philadelphia in the 1800s and, lastly, they walk to some historic synagogues and contemporary Jewish sites, like Homemade Goodies by Roz.

Jon Stone and the group from Beiteinu Synagogue pose in front of Homemade Goodies by Roz

“The community got 1,000 times bigger — that’s one thing,” Stone said. “The demographics changed. There was a much wider spectrum of wealth and education and, of course, the Industrial Revolution happened and changed life for everybody. But you see a period of flourishing Jewish life in Philly. There are 100-plus synagogues in South Philadelphia alone.”

That rich Jewish life in Philadelphia all changed in the 1960s, Stone said. Though not an official part of the tour, participants often ask for evidence of those 100-plus synagogues.

“People always ask at the end, ‘Oh well, what happened?’” Stone said. “I say, ‘Oh, the highway system, the industrialization, white flight, a number of other things. All the Jews ran away to the suburbs.’”

Stone recently took a group of people from Beiteinu Synagogue on the tour.

Staci Levick-Cove, a physician and wife of the synagogue’s Rabbi Howard Cove, said they learned of the tour because it had come up on the synagogue’s Facebook page. The synagogue is planning on taking another group on the tour this summer.

Levick-Cove is a native of Philadelphia and said a lot of the information she learned on the tour was new to her, particularly about the involvement of the Jewish community in financing the Revolutionary War. Despite not being a history buff, Levick-Cove said she enjoyed the tour and may even get a book on local Jewish history.

“I’m much more science-oriented,” she said. “History is not my thing, but I thought it was really fascinating.”

Stone’s interest in history comes from growing up in a family of history buffs, who taught him a lot about the history of the local Jewish community. His own family immigrated from Germany in the mid-1800s.

“I like learning about communities that appear to have disappeared or lost their identity through the process of assimilation and being in America or focusing on Israel as the central focus of the Jewish experience,” he said. “You hear from the older generations about what life was like in these thriving, bustling and very dense Jewish communities when they were growing up, and outside of New York City, they don’t seem to exist as much.

“I find it really compelling to unearth that history and educate people about it to show just how recent and how accessible that community’s experience was and that identity was.” 

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