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 1840: Petition for a Jewish Section of the City Cemetery

The oldest document signed by Cleveland's Jewish pioneers. 

Introduction

The Archives of Cleveland City Council have helped this website tell many stories of Cleveland's Jewish history, but none more important than this one.

On August 1, 2017 Chief Archivist Martin Hauserman, who retired in January 2020, sent an email to me and Jeffrey Morris, now Superintendent of Mayfield Cemetery. He wrote that while doing research on another subject he had found a document whose scanned image was attached to the email. He asked "Is this of interest?"

I read the old handwritten document and then recognized the names of its signers. First was S (Simson) Thorman, then A (Aaron) Lowentritt, followed by I (Isaac) Hopferman (later Hoffman). This document was from our first Jewish organization, the Israelitic Society. For 177 years it had been out of sight and unknown, not reported in any newspaper or history.

The April 1, 1840 Israelitic Society petition to Cleveland City Council is our oldest Cleveland Jewish historical document!

Here's the historical background, the petition, the reason it was rejected, the next steps in securing Jewish burial grounds, and where we might see this historic document some day.

Arnold Berger
Posted August 24, 2017    last revised March 27, 2024

Historical Background

Early in 1839 there were only a few Jews in Cleveland, notably Simson Thorman from Unsleben, Bavaria. After two years in Missouri, fur trading, he settled here in 1837 and bought property. He wrote home, inviting relatives and friends to join him.

On July 12, 1839, when the ship Howard arrived in New York from Hamburg, Germany with the Alsbacher Party of 19 Jews from Unsleben, Thorman met them and led 15 of them to Cleveland. He had a personal reason to be there, for Reichel (later Regina) Klein was in the group. A few months later they would be engaged.

Following the custom of Jews in Bavarian towns to organize to deal with communal matters. Cleveland's Jews soon formed the Israelitic Society. (Here less than a year, they would have called it the Israelitische Verein.) Thorman, only 28, was its leader. A Jewish burial ground was a high priority, perhaps out of fear of child mortality, for there were no elderly among the Jewish settlers who lived in what we now call the Gateway area. (In those days of infections and no vaccinations, one-third of children died before their 18th birthday.)

The Unsleben Bavaria Thorman and others had left did not have a Jewish cemetery. Its Jewish cemetery would open in 1856. Its Jewish dead were laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery of Kleinbardorf, about 15 miles (a three-hour trip) to the southeast. But here there was no Jewish cemetery even a day (40 miles) away from Cleveland. Their cemetery would serve many communities.

Early in 1840, when there were about 30 Jews here in a city of roughly 6,000, the Israelitic Society learned that nearby Erie Street Cemetery was making available eight acres of burial sites. It hired a 'scrivener' (a writer of legal documents and letters to courts) to write a petition to City Council asking for a half-acre section. It was signed by the Israelitic Society members and dated April 1, 1840.

The Petition

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

      
Why did City Council reject the petition?

On April 7, 1840 City Council referred the petition to its Committee on Public Grounds. We can see their decision: "The committee to whom this petition was referred Report that it is inexpedient to grant the prayer of the petitioners."

Members of the committee may have thought the request was too large, 30 Jews asking for room to bury 500 of their persuasion, or wondered if these newcomers, many of them peddlers, could raise $1,250, the price of 500 cemetery plots.

The committee's ruling "inexpedient" is explained by city law. To make its cemetery a benefit for as many Cleveland families as possible, it had restricted the sale of burial plots to persons or families, with a six-grave limit. Allowing an organization to buy a large section would violate that policy. To grant the half-acre the Israelitic Society asked for would mean saying "no" to more than 80 requests for family plots. Perhaps the newly-arrived Israelites were not aware of this city policy, for no other organization petitioned for burial space.

Would Erie Street Cemetery bury Jewish Clevelanders? Note the cross at the top of the entrance (image below) built in 1870. If challenged about this religious symbol, City Council could have said "The Jews have their own cemeteries." That was true: Willet Street (1840 and 1854) and Fir Street (1865). Roman Catholics and Evangelical Lutherans also had their own sectarian cemeteries.

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

The next steps securing Jewish burial grounds

Willet Street Cemetery - 2014 Photo Arnold Berger  

  • August 7, 1840, a Friday morning, the day before Tisha B'Av, the most tragic day of the Jewish calendar, Josiah Barber's deed of sale for one acre on Willet Street in Old Brooklyn for $100 to the Israelitic Society was recorded. That afternoon the first Jewish burial took place. It was Alexander Kahnweiler, a recent immigrant from Bavaria who had died peddling in a rural area.

  • 1842, Anshe Chesed Congregation is formed and now owns Willet Street Cemetery.

  • August 13, 1843, Anshe Chesed Congregation receives The Great Gift — land on Ohio Street for its first synagogue. They sell it and buy land on Eagle Street, where in 1846 they construct Cleveland's first synagogue building.

  • 1854, Tifereth Israel Congregation, which had broken away from Anshe Chesed, reunited, then left again, buys its burial ground. The congregations are so connected by kinship and friendship, Tifereth Israel buys its land next to Anshe Chesed's cemetery on Willet Street.

  • 1890, United Jewish Cemeteries was formed to own and operate all the cemeteries of the two congregations.

Learn more on these pages

Where we might see the 1840 Petition some day

The 1839 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. In 1937 Citizen Historian Abraham Lincoln Nebel discovered it when he interviewed Rena Alsbacher who had received it from her father Isaac, the son of Moses Alsbacher. She gave it to Federation, which then entrusted it to the Western Reserve Historical Society where it was (and still is) stored in a vault at the Cleveland History Center. Not until October 2005, when the Maltz Museum opened and displayed a professionally created facsimile, could the public view it.

But the 1840 Israelitic Society Petition, signed in Cleveland by our first settlers, is a recent discovery, found in 2017. This page is its first appearance on the web.

Jeffrey Morris and I brought a copy of the 1840 Petition to the Maltz Museum and met with the director and his staff. We were told that the document should be in the center of its core exhibit, but that could not happen until the exhibit was redesigned. We understood. I suggested that until then it could be displayed easily by being hung on a lobby wall. There was no response.

In early 2023 we considered its display on a wall of the mausoleum at Mayfield Cemetery. a building owned by our oldest congregations, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple and The Temple - Tifereth Israel, both founded by these pioneer Jews. As few visitors would see the petition and its story there, we did not pursue this possibility.

Now, with the plans for re-unification of these congregations progressing well, we hope to see a copy of the 1840 petition and its story displayed in the home of the consolidated congregation Mishkan Or at 26000 Shaker Boulevard.

There, descendants of the signers, longtime and new members, their children and visitors would get a glimpse of Cleveland Jewish history. I can visualize Blaine Griffin, president of Cleveland City Council, presenting it to the congregation.


Thanks to Martin Hauserman and Chuck Mocsiran, the former and current Archivists of Cleveland City Council, for their help.
 

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