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BETH AHABAH CIVIC LEADERS

ISAIAH ISAACS AND JACOB I. COHEN

Silversmith Isaiah Isaacs, perhaps the first Jew in Richmond, arrived in 1769. His business partner, Jacob I. Cohen, came to Virginia during the American Revolution. Known throughout the Commonwealth as “the Jews’ Store,” their retail firm carried all types of provisions and also sold real estate. They hired Daniel Boone in 1781 to survey some tracts of land for them in Kentucky. They also opened Richmond’s first tavern and boarding house, “The Bird in Hand,” at the base of Church Hill in 1787. In 1788, Isaacs was elected to Richmond’s Common Hall, the forerunner of city council. He was a founder of K.K. Beth Shalome.

JOSEPH DARMSTADT

A Hessian soldier who had been brought to Virginia in the service of the British, Darmstadt became an active patriot. He decided to remain in the Commonwealth after the American Revolution to act as an auctioneer and merchant in Richmond for the German farmers of the Shenandoah Valley. His morning ritual of serving coffee made his store a favorite meeting place for local merchants to catch up on news and gossip. He was also an involved Mason on both the state and local levels. Darmstadt served for a brief time on Richmond’s Common Hall, or town council, but resigned shortly after his appointment in 1816.

SOLOMON JACOBS


Solomon Jacobs arrived in Richmond prior to 1798, and was active in both civic and fraternal affairs. Jacobs was elected to serve a variety of offices, including city councilman, recorder and acting mayor. Like many other Richmond Jews, he took an active role in the Masonic order. Jacobs served as Master of one of the local lodges, and then was elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Virginia, 1810-1813.

BENJAMIN WOLFE

Benjamin Wolfe was an early member of K.K. Beth Shalome, and was an elected member of Richmond’s Common Hall, or town council, in 1816. During his brief time in office he procured land from the city for Beth Shalome’s new burial ground (Hebrew Cemetery). Fittingly, after his death in 1817, he was the first person to be interred there.

THE REV. M.J. MICHELBACHER

When the Rev. M.J. Michelbacher arrived from Philadelphia in 1846 as Congregation Beth Ahabah’s first Rabbi, he brought a love of education and learning. The Congregation established the first Jewish school in Richmond that year, and Beth Ahabah’s school, being a particularly excellent institution, was attended by Christian as well as Jewish children. When the Richmond public school system was about to be established, Beth Ahabah volunteered to discontinue its school and place its schoolrooms, rent free, at the disposal of the city until proper school buildings could be built. The offer was accepted, and the first public school in Richmond was conducted in the rooms of the synagogue in 1870.

JUDAH P. BENJAMIN

Judah P. Benjamin, a senator from Louisiana, was called “the brains of the Confederacy” by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He held three separate cabinet positions during the Civil War. Jefferson Davis named Benjamin Attorney General in the Confederate cabinet in February 1861, the first Jew to hold a cabinet-level office in the country. Seven months later, Benjamin took over as Secretary of War. When Roanoke Island fell to Union forces in February 1862, Benjamin was blamed for not providing sufficient ammunition and personnel to the Confederate troops. He accepted a censure and resigned from his position rather than reveal that the Confederacy had no funds with which to provide the needed resources. Jefferson Davis, knowing the truth, immediately appointed Benjamin Secretary of State.

THALHIMER FAMILY

William Thalhimer came to Richmond in 1842, and started out as a peddler in the East End before opening Thalhimer Brothers dry goods store with his wife, Mary. From the one-room store, the business expanded rapidly. The business relocated several times before it finally moved into a five-story building on East Broad Street, with branches of the store across Virginia and North Carolina. In the 1930s, William B. Thalhimer Sr., then president of Thalhimers, and his cousin Morton G. Thalhimer Sr., both grandsons of the founder, helped rescue young German refugees from Hitler’s regime of terror. In a unique plan to resettle the German refugees, William Thalhimer and Professor Curt Bondy of Gross Breesen, Germany, negotiated for the purchase of a 1,450-acre tract of land called Hyde Farmlands in rural Virginia. The refugees-turned-agricultural students grew tobacco, cultivated fruit trees and raised chickens. Although the Hyde Farmlands’ experiment did not produce a new farming colony, the partnership did succeed in rescuing a small but significant number of young Germans from Hitler’s Europe. It also highlighted the devotion of a Richmond Jew who remembered that his own grandfather had once been a “stranger in the Land of Egypt.”

Tue, January 22 2019 16 Shevat 5779