Before New York became the de facto capital of the American Jewish community, there was Philadelphia.
Jewish merchants traded in the region before the American Revolution, indeed even before the arrival of William Penn. City residents founded the young nation’s first Jewish publication association, benevolent society, Sunday school, and rabbinical college.
So, 10 years ago, when filmmaker Sam Katz was beginning a documentary series about Philadelphia from the 1600s into the 1900s, he decided to chronicle the history of faith groups in the first capital of a nation founded as a haven of religious freedom.
“Philadelphia is a place that is very prideful about its history. But the truth of the matter is, it doesn’t know its history. It confuses its history with American history: the Liberty Bell, Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin,” said Katz, 68, of Mount Airy. “That’s important to Philadelphia, but that’s not Philadelphia history.”
Only a few months into filming, Journey: The Jewish Philadelphia Story is still a work in progress, and a sweeping one. Katz, founder of the Center City-based History Making Productions, is examining the region’s evolution over centuries into the seventh largest Jewish population center in America, and one of most influential. Today, about 215,000 of the nation’s 5.7 million Jews live in the area.
The Philadelphia story — stretching from the formation of a settled Jewish community here in the mid-1700s through its role in the Civil Rights movement and suburban flight, the resettlement of émigrés from the former Soviet Union, and the flourishing Jewish hub in Lower Merion with its implications for the future — has often taken a back seat among historians more enamored of the New York saga of Ellis Island and the immigrant beacon on the Lower East Side.
Since the start of the 20th century, “American Jewish life is in the shadow of New York,” said historian Rabbi Lance Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, a coproducer of the film. “But if you look at the Revolutionary period, half of the Jewish community lived in Philadelphia. They fought in the Revolutionary Army, knew the founders of the country, and exchanged ideas that were critically important to how the U.S. was framed as a society.”
The documentary is being produced at a challenging time for the local Jewish community, which is grappling with a decline in synagogue affiliation, divergent views on Israel, and the emergence of younger generations less tied than their parents to religious institutions. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is preparing to launch a population study that will examine these trends, updating the association’s last survey in 2009.
“All of these forces make the survival and future of Philadelphia and the American Jewish community complicated,” Katz said.
Even so, it remains “resilient and strong” here, said Rabbi Joshua Waxman, president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. He described the documentary as an opportunity to “look back at history and show how these roots are still very present.”
Katz, a former political campaign manager who ran for mayor in 1999 and 2003, also has produced nonfiction films about Cecil B. Moore and the civil rights leader’s mission to desegregate Girard College, and the role of Philadelphians in the development of motion pictures. Before he began planning a film on Philadelphia’s Jewish community, his company did a documentary on the history of the city’s Catholics. Urban Trinity: The Story of Catholic Philadelphia debuted in 2015 at the World Meeting of Families, an international conference for Roman Catholics held at the Convention Center.
History Making Productions uses films, interviews, reenactments, archival materials, graphics and animation to tell its stories, which are televised on 6ABC, shown at film festivals, and presented in schools as part of a curriculum that Katz’s team develops for each documentary.
So far, Katz has raised about $90,000 of the $1 million he needs to complete the documentary, which he hopes to premiere in the fall of 2019.
For Journey: The Jewish Philadelphia Story, he has assembled a team of researchers and scholars. Sussman, for instance, will lend his expertise as author of the 1995 book Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism.
Leeser, who emigrated from Germany in the mid-1820s, was a leader of Congregation Mikveh Israel, the first Jewish congregation in Philadelphia (founded in the 1740s) and second oldest in the nation. He started the tradition of rabbis delivering regular sermons in English during services, produced the first Jewish translation of the Bible in America that used Jewish sources, and founded the first rabbinical school and Jewish publication society.
He supported the public service efforts of Rebecca Gratz, one of Mikveh Israel’s most prominent members, who founded the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances to help families after the Revolutionary War. She also was instrumental in the founding of the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, the first Hebrew Sunday school, and the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society.
“She never took the presidency of any of the organizations she founded, even though everyone knew she was the organizer,” said Dianne Ashton, a professor at Rowan University and author of Rebecca Gratz: Women and Judaism in Antebellum America. By taking a lesser official role, “she created leadership roles for other women, and that’s what she was concerned about, getting other women involved in work caring about the Jewish community.”
Gratz and Lesser certainly aren’t unsung, but the documentary will be peopled with others who are.
“I feel like we’re creating a lasting legacy that doesn’t require brick and mortar,” Katz said. “There really is a value in knowing about the history of your people — whether they’re African American, Catholic or Jewish. There’s a story here … a really good story.”