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 1840: Cleveland's Jews petition for a burial ground

The oldest document signed by Cleveland's Jewish pioneers. 

Introduction

The Archives of Cleveland's City Council have helped these pages tell many stories of Cleveland's Jewish history. On August 1, 2017 Chief Archivist Martin Hauserman, who retired in January 2020, sent an email to me and Jeffrey Morris. He wrote that while doing research on another subject (the opening or closing of Public Square by businesses or homeowners around the Square) he had come upon a document whose image was attached to the email. He asked "Is this of interest?"

I read the document and then recognized the names of its signers. First, as President, was S (Simson) Thorman, then as Treasurer A (Aaron) Lowentritt, followed by I (Isaac) Hopferman (later Hoffman). This document was from our first Jewish organization, the Israelitic Society. It had been safe, but unknown and out of sight, for nearly 180 years.

The April 1, 1840 Israelitic Society petition to Cleveland's City Council asking for a Jewish section in Erie Street Cemetery is our oldest Cleveland Jewish historical document!

Here's the petition, its story and why it is not on display.

Arnold Berger

The actual document is about 9 by 12 inches. These slightly enlarged web-resolution images are displayed with the permission of the Clerk of Cleveland City Council.  The left and right ends of the lower image are blank and are not shown.
 

The text of the petition

To the Hon, The City Council

The undersigned respectfully represent that they are citizens of Cleveland, of German birth, and of that class of persons denominated Jews. That the number of that class now resident in the City of Cleveland is about thirty and will be further augmented by immigration from Germany.

They would further represent that their religious customs do not permit the burial of their dead promiscuously with those of other persuasions, but require them to have separate burial grounds. They have therefore sought in both Cleveland and Ohio City, to obtain by gift or purchase, ground for such purpose but without success - objection being made to the multiplication of burial grounds as injurious to the value of grounds adjacent. It has, however, been kindly suggested by citizens of other persuasions that the City burial ground is extensive and, if requested, the City Council would apart a portion to the Jews.

The undersigned venture therefore to pray Your Honorable Body to take the subject into consideration and if consistent to apportion and set apart one half acre of the City burial ground to be used by the Jews of this city and vicinity, as burial ground, in accordance with their religious customs.

And your petitioners will ever more pray to Cleveland.

April 1, 1840


Historical Background

Early in 1839 there were only a few Jews in Cleveland, notably Simson Thorman from Unsleben, Bavaria. After two years in Missouri, trading for furs, Thorman settled here and bought property.. He wrote home and urged friends and relatives to come here.

On July 12, 1839, when the ship Howard arrived in New York with 19 from his home town, Thorman met them and led 15 of them to Cleveland. Later, for mutual support, they and the other Jewish settlers formed the Israelitic Society, with Thorman, then 28 years old, as its leader.

Having a Jewish burial ground was a high priority, perhaps out of fear of infant mortality, for there were no elderly among the settlers who lived not far from the Erie Street Cemetery, in what we now call the Gateway area. They may have known that the city planned to expand the cemetery's area for burials from two acres to ten.

On April 1, 1840, when there were about 30 Jews in a city of 6,000, the Israelitic Society hired a 'scrivener', someone who wrote legal documents and letters to courts, to petition City Council for a half-acre section of the cemetery.

This sandstone arch was erected at the main entrance in 1870.
Image: an old print in CSU Library Special Collections
Erie Street was renamed East Ninth Street in 1906


Why did City Council reject the petition?

On April 7, 1840 City Council referred the petition to its Committee on Public Grounds. A note on the title says "The committee to whom this petition was referred Report that it is inexpedient to grant the prayer of the petitioners."

To understand the rejection it helps to know that only two of Erie Street Cemetery's ten acres had been laid out into burial plots. Most family plots may have been nearly empty, but there were few new plots for sale.

The city code for its cemetery reflected the shortage of plots. The largest plots for sale had room for only six graves, at $2.50 each. Further, the law limited one person or family to buying only one plot. Thus, City Council could not grant the petition. There was no provision for selling a section.

The petitioners may have thought their request was timely, yet City Council could not grant it without inviting the established churches to make their own requests for space.

Perhaps Council thought that the size of the requested section was too large: 30 immigrants asking for room to bury 500 of their persuasion. How could they allot so much space to a small group? Further, how could 30 newcomers, some of them peddlers, pay more than $1,000 for burial plots?

Was there a reluctance to have Jews buried there? Note that the cemetery entrance (see image above) built in 1870 had a cross at its top. Would City Council members have explained this by quoting the petition, "Jews must have separate burial grounds?"


After the petition was rejected

Willet Street Cemetery - 2014 Photo Arnold Berger  

  • Four months later, on August 6, 1840, the Israelitic Society bought from Josiah Barber one acre on the west side for $100 for the Willet Street Cemetery.
     

  • Three years later on August 13, 1843, any doubts that Cleveland's first Jews had about being welcome ended. They were given land for their first synagogue, that Anshe Chesed built on Eagle Street in 1846. Our pages call this The Great Gift.
     

  • Twenty-five years later, in 1865, Simson Thorman became the first Jewish member of the Cleveland City Council.

Learn more on these pages Learn more on other websites

Why the 1840 Petition is not on display

The Alsbacher Document, a farewell letter by teacher Lazarus Kohn to Moses and Yetta Alsbacher and the others leaving Unsleben, Bavaria for America, is our oldest document. In German, Hebrew and Yiddish it asks them to keep their Jewish faith in a land of tempting freedom. The Jews who stayed behind in Unsleben signed it on May 5, 1839. It was discovered by Abe Nebel in 1938. Rena Alsbacher gave it to Federation, who then entrusted it to the Western Reserve Historical Society. The Maltz Museum has always had a copy on display.

But the 1840 Israelitic Society Petition,  signed in Cleveland by our first settlers, is a recent discovery. This web page is the first to display it. Our Cleveland Jewish News, though it has been asked a few times, has never told its amazing story.

posted 8/24/2017    last revised 3/15/2021 

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