Portsmouth's Early Jewish Community and First Place of Worship

Beneh Abraham, located at the corner of Second and Union Street, is among Ohio's oldest organized Jewish congregations. Beneh Abraham was incorporated in 1858 at a time when the total Jewish population of Portsmouth was estimated to be around 60 people. This initial congregation laid the foundation for a longstanding celebration and appreciation of Jewish history in Portsmouth. On December 17, 1858, rabbis and Jewish leaders traveled from across Kentucky and Ohio for the dedication of Portsmouth's First Synagogue marking a significant moment in Portsmouth's religious history and that of the Jewish faith in Ohio.

Portsmouth is home to Ohio’s third-oldest organized Jewish community. This community, known as Beneh Abraham, or Children of Abraham, also has the distinction of being the oldest Jewish community in the state of Ohio outside of Cleveland and Cincinnati. This status places Portsmouth in a prominent place within Ohio’s Jewish history despite the local Jewish community never numbering more than 200 people or about 0.60 percent of the overall city population. While modest in size, the Jewish community of Portsmouth, alongside a few families in surrounding towns, has made notable contributions to the civic, cultural, and economic history of Scioto County.

The Elsas, Seeberger, and Seidenbach families were the first Jewish households in Portsmouth. Jacob Elsas, a native of Baden-Württemberg, was the first Jew to have resided in Portsmouth. He arrived in the city by 1842. It is likely, however, that Jews passed through the town earlier while traveling to Cincinnati and other points further west. Like many Jewish immigrants to the United States at the time, Jacob made a living operating a clothing and tailoring business in Portsmouth. Prior to this, he worked as a peddler across four states. Mayer, or Michael, Seeberger lived in Portsmouth by the late 1840s and at various times he made a living as a clothier or grocery store proprietor. The Seeberger grocery store was located on Chillicothe Street near Fifth. L. and Yedith Seidenbach, along with Meyer and Sarah Seidenbach, were likely located in Portsmouth by the mid-1850s. L. Seidenbach, who died in 1862, worked as a clothier according to the 1860 federal census. Meyer Seidenbach worked as a jeweler during that same year.

By the late-1850s, eleven more Jewish families had settled in Portsmouth. Included among these individuals were Bernard Dreyfoos, Mayer and Susan Eichelstein, Isaac Freiberg, Joseph and Hanna Lehman, Nany and Simon Lehman, Hannah and Louis Levi, Henry and Sarah Richman, and Esther and Jacob Stern.

Due to the growth in the local population, it is likely that Jewish religious services were organized in Portsmouth by the early-1850s. A 1925 article published by the Portsmouth Daily Times stated that an organized Jewish community existed in Portsmouth as early as 1848. No other reference found, however, claims that a Jewish community was established by this time. The earliest contemporary reference to a Jewish community in Portsmouth is from October 1, 1855. On this date, it was reported in The Occident, a monthly Jewish newspaper printed in Philadelphia, that a Jewish congregation had been formed in Portsmouth. Emanuel Marcuson of Pittsburgh was hired by the nascent community as a religious leader and shochet. Shochet, the Hebrew word for slaughterer, is a kosher butcher. Emanuel, while never ordained as a rabbi, was a noted scholar of Jewish religious law. He was married to Frances and their first child, Moses was born in Portsmouth.

By 1857, however, Emanuel and Frances left Portsmouth with their children after Emanuel accepted a position with Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville. For a time Portsmouth’s Jewish community was without a formal religious leader. This changed, however, with the arrival of Raphael Lasker and the incorporation of Beneh Abraham in 1858.

After several years as an informal community, on November 1, 1858, Beneh Abraham was incorporated as an Orthodox Jewish congregation. The full name of the community was given as Kahlo Kodosh Bene Avehom, which translates to The Holy Congregation of the Sons of Abraham. Those who signed the articles of incorporation were Bernard Dreyfoos, Mayer Eichelstein, Isaac Freiberg, Louis Levi, Mayer Seeberger, Jacob Stern, and Ludwig Stern. All seven of these individuals were immigrants from German-speaking regions of Europe.

After a short time, the members of Beneh Abraham began to adopt Reform Judaism. This branch of Judaism originated in Central Europe during the early-1800s and it was rapidly growing in the United States by the mid-1800s. Reform Judaism was characterized at the time by its emphasis on Judaism’s ethical precepts over religious laws. Its leaders also sought to make Jewish practice more compatible with the realities of life in the United States.

On December 17, 1858, the members of Beneh Abraham dedicated a formal space for worship gatherings. Rabbi Raphael Lasker was also hired during this year as the religious leader of the congregation. The location of the new consecrated space was at the corner of Third and Washington Street on the north half of the first and second floors of the three-story Masonic building. As of 2022, the site of this building is a parking lot. The former structure was located within the 700 block of Third Street. Beneh Abraham would occupy the space until 1921 when the congregation moved to the corner of Eighth and Gay.

The building housing Portsmouth’s first synagogue was owned by Thomas Dugan. Portsmouth’s Masonic Lodge also rented space at the same location. The dedication of a formal worship space for the Jewish community was an event that drew significant attention in both Portsmouth and the regional Jewish community. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the foremost American rabbi of the time and a resident of Cincinnati, visited Portsmouth to speak at the dedication ceremony.

In 1858, it was estimated that the Jewish population of Portsmouth numbered 60 people. By 1861, Beneh Abraham’s membership numbered around 27 members. At this time only men were typically counted as members of synagogues, so the total adult Jewish population of Portsmouth was likely a little over 54 people.

Raphael Lasker left Portsmouth in 1859 and was succeeded by his brother, Abraham Lasker, who previously worked as a rabbi in Dayton. In 1860, Abraham too left Portsmouth and was succeeded by Rabbi Judah Wechsler, who was at Beneh Abraham by 1861. Rabbi Wechsler previously was the minister at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, which was formed in 1856. Judah was the first rabbi to serve at Beneh Abraham for several years, departing in 1864, and it is possible that for this reason he is sometimes referred to in later sources as the congregation’s first rabbi. Rabbi Wechsler was an ardent proponent of Reform Judaism and he supported Beneh Abraham’s mixed choir, unheard of in Orthodox Jewish congregations, and offered sermons in English and German. Judah was also active in soliciting contributions for the expansion and renovation of Beneh Abraham’s worship space in the mid-1860s.

These fundraising efforts proved successful in 1864 after the members of Portsmouth’s Masonic lodge purchased their previously rented space from Thomas Dugan. Under the new ownership, Beneh Abraham extended and refurbished its rented space to occupy the entirety of the first and second floors while the Masons occupied the entire third floor. During the renovations, the home of Ephraim Ronsheim, a local dry goods merchant, served as the temporary site of religious services organized by Beneh Abraham.

As they did six years earlier, Christians were again reported to have contributed to Beneh Abraham’s fundraising efforts. This same sense of interfaith collaboration was also demonstrated when Jews contributed to the building funds for nearby churches. Not all, however, was harmonious in Portsmouth. In 1864, Rabbi Wechsler reported in a letter to The Israelite that a minister at one of Portsmouth’s Catholic churches was offended to be invited to the dedication of the new Beneh Abraham sanctuary. He also shared that few other Christian ministers elected to attend the ceremonies. Despite the absence of Christian clergy, an estimated 500 people were reported to have attended the day’s events. Members of the First Presbyterian Church choir also assisted in the dedication service. The number of attendees was far more than the estimated 200 people who could be seated in the new second-floor sanctuary, which measured 80 by 30 feet.

The first floor of the newly renovated building was used as both a vestry and as classrooms for the religious school. Around 24 students were enrolled in the Beneh Abraham religious school in 1862. The school may have had a similar enrollment two years later. It is also possible that the school decreased in size since several of Portsmouth’s Jewish residents left in 1863. Students at the school learned religious teachings as well as Hebrew, English, and German.

Jews living in areas outside Portsmouth also contributed to Beneh Abraham’s efforts to purchase and renovate its sanctuary. Coreligionists in Gallipolis, Ohio, were mentioned specifically by Rabbi Wechsler for their support of the congregation. In 1864 just five or six Jewish families lived in Gallipolis. Seven months later, however, a Jewish congregation named B’nai Israel, or Sons of Israel, was established in Gallipolis with the assistance of Rabbi Wechsler. Women also played a critical role in supporting Beneh Abraham. In 1863, around 17 women were organized to support Beneh Abraham and various charitable organizations, including a local widows and orphans home. This group was a forerunner of the later Beneh Abraham Sisterhood.

As was true in the 1860s, during the 1870s and 1880s most of Portsmouth’s Jewish households were supported by entrepreneurs engaged in various businesses. Some business establishments, however, endured in Portsmouth longer than others. In addition to business closures, the Jewish community was also particularly susceptible to contractions caused by business relocations. Such a relocation occurred in 1879 when the owners of the firm Lehman, Richman, & Company elected to relocate their facilities to Cleveland. This business, which was founded by Joseph Lehman and Henry Richman in 1853, occupied a three-story building and employed over 100 people by 1874. Drawn to Cleveland’s greater industrial resources and larger customer base, Joseph and Henry selected a site on Cleveland’s Water Street for the company’s factory. The relocation of Lehman, Richman, & Company also meant the departure of at least five Jewish households from Portsmouth. These families were Joseph and Hanna Lehman, Henry and Sarah Richman, along with their four children, Herman Kohn, David Oppenheimer, and the family of M. Steinberg. Lehman, Richman, & Company, which was renamed Richman Brothers in 1904, thrived in Cleveland and grew to include 245 branch stores. One branch store was opened at 311 Chillicothe Street in 1926.

While the departure of Lehman, Richman, & Company was acutely felt by the members of Portsmouth’s Jewish community, some of those who relocated to Cleveland did not forget their roots in Portsmouth. In 1934, Henry Richman Jr., the youngest son of Henry and Sarah died. In his will, he bequeathed $12,600 in Richman Brothers stock to each of the following three organizations, Mercy Hospital, the Portsmouth General Hospital, and Beneh Abraham. This sum is equal to approximately $274,800 in 2022. Additionally, The children's Fresh Air Camp and the Home for Aged Women each received $2,520 worth of company stock. Two years later, Charles Richman, an older brother of Henry, left money in his will for the Portsmouth General Hospital, the Home for Aged Women, the Fresh Air Camp, and Beneh Abraham.

In addition to business departures, Portsmouth’s Jewish community also felt a negative effect when some members chose to abandon Jewish practices and distance themselves from the larger community. One way in which this distancing could occur was through interfaith marriages. During the mid to late 1800s marriages between Christians and Jews were not common and these unions were generally looked upon disfavorably by members of both faiths. When an interfaith marriage did occur it was common for one partner to formally adopt the faith of the other. In 1879, Celia Steinberg, the daughter of M. Steinberg married David Ball, who was not Jewish. While the marriage was accepted by both families, the editors of the Portsmouth Times did nevertheless remark on the occasion. About ten years later, a Jew named Edward Feiler, or Feyler, married Dessie Clayton at Bigelow United Methodist Church.

Love or conviction also sometimes brought about conversions to Judaism. In 1864, Ada Walker, a resident of Brownstown, West Virginia converted to Judaism at Beneh Abraham. Shortly after, she married Doctor Daniel Mayer of Pomeroy, Ohio. In 1873, Louisa Billstein, a resident of Maysville, Kentucky converted to Judaism. The ceremony at Beneh Abraham was reported on extensively by the Portsmouth Times. Alexander Billstein, the husband of Louisa, was Jewish. By 1880, the Billstein family relocated to Philadelphia.

The decline in the number of Jews in Portsmouth likely played a part in the decision by Beneh Abraham to not hire an ordained rabbi from 1879 to 1886. During this period, Mayer Eichstein filled the role. Mayer officiated at least one wedding during his time as Beneh Abraham’s religious leader. In 1884 Julia Labold, the daughter of Fannie and Henry Labold, married Nathan Meyer, the son of Jacob and Rebecca.

Isaac Stemple was the last ordained rabbi at Beneh Abraham prior to Mayer taking up the role. In 1886, Mayer died and a man known only by the surname Pollok took over as Beneh Abraham’s religious leader. Pollok was likely once again an individual formally ordained as a rabbi. In 1888 or 1889, Abraham Schapiro, a native of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, stepped into the role. Rabbi Schapiro would hold the post full-time until 1901 or 1903 and remain engaged by Beneh Abraham as a part-time religious leader until his death in 1931.

By the late-1880s, the Jewish population of Portsmouth had begun to recover from the losses sustained in the earlier decade. Around ten years later, in 1900, The American Jewish Yearbook reported that Beneh Abraham had 32 members and a Religious School enrollment of 22. Despite the modest size of the community, Jews living in the vicinity of Portsmouth during the 1890s and 1900s had several organizations through which to connect with coreligionists. One communal organization that existed was known as the Excelsior Club. This club was formed in 1888 from the union of two earlier organizations, The Standard Club and the Montefiore Club. The Standard Club, which was formed by 1879, served a social purpose, and its members comprised both men and women. By 1884, the organization was meeting inside the Odd Fellows Block. The Montefiore Club, which existed by 1887, served a philanthropic purpose. Once established, the Excelsior Club rented space in the Massie Block on Market Street. Club events included concerts, dances, dinners, and literary discussions. In 1895, an organization known as the Jewish Literary Society was formed in Portsmouth. In addition to hosting literary discussions, members of the group donated books to Portsmouth’s public library.

Alongside these newer organizations, the Jewish Ladies’ Aid Society, also called the Ladies’ Benevolent Society in some sources, continued to be an active force in the support of both Beneh Abraham and philanthropic causes in the wider Portsmouth community. The Jewish Ladies’ Aid Society was a forerunner of the Beneh Abraham Sisterhood. Another women’s group, the Jewish Kaffee Klatch, was formed by 1897. This group served a social function and remained active until at least 1937.

Congregational life at Beneh Abraham was vibrant during the late 1890s and early 1900s. In 1896, repairs were made to the interior of Beneh Abraham, and in 1897 new carpets and pews were installed at the synagogue. In 1901, the Religious School at Beneh Abraham had two teachers. Weekly Shabbat services were held on Friday night and Saturday morning. On major Jewish holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews from outside Portsmouth were drawn to Beneh Abraham for religious services. Ashland, Kentucky, which was home to Jewish residents by the 1870s, and Gallipolis are two areas from which Jews traveled. In 1902, efforts were made to secure a new site for a synagogue in Portsmouth. These efforts appear to have been abandoned, however, possibly due to the decision by the Masons to relocate from their former space on Third and Washington Street in 1906. After the departure of the Masons, Beneh Abraham took sole possession of the formerly shared building.

Between the years 1880 and 1924, over two million Jews arrived in the United States from Eastern Europe. A major impetus behind this wave of immigration, the largest in American Jewish history, was increased violence against Jews living in the Russian Empire. The deadliest form of violence took shape in pogroms, or organized riots, that left thousands of Jewish families homeless and hundreds killed or injured. While most Jews living in the Portsmouth area before 1800 traced their roots to German-speaking areas of Central Europe, after 1800 a growing number would come from Eastern Europe.

On April 6, 1917, Congress voted to declare war on Germany, marking the entry of the United States into World War I. Alongside millions of Americans, Jews and non-Jews in Scioto County did their part to support the war effort. At the time, the county’s Jewish community numbered no more than 150 people, including children. At least five local Jews are known to have served during the war. Their names are Herman Greenberg, Joseph Horchow, Jacob Jacobs, Aronhold Schapiro, and Maurice Schapiro.

During the seven years following World War I, at least 16 new Jewish households arrived in Scioto County. The arrival of these individuals, alongside the growth of more established families, contributed to the need for Beneh Abraham to expand its physical space.

Works Cited - Primary Sources:

"New Grocery," Portsmouth Times, April 05, 1862.

“A Catholic Accepts the Hebrew Faith,” Portsmouth Times, April 05, 1873.

"The Pioneer Clothing House of Portsmouth," Portsmouth Times, March 28, 1874.

"A Quiet Wedding," Portsmouth Times, January 18, 1879. Portsmouth Times, February 01, 1879.

“The New Standard Club Rooms,” Portsmouth Times, March 29, 1884.

Portsmouth Times
, December 24, 1887.

Portsmouth Times
, February 11, 1888.

Obituary of Henry Seeberger, Portsmouth Times, December 19, 1891.

“The Literary Society,” Portsmouth Times, February 23, 1895.

“At Seel’s Tonight,” Daily Times, March 18, 1897.

“New Pews at Jewish Temple,” Daily Times, September 16, 1897.

Obituary of Julia Meyer, Portsmouth Times, February 26, 1898.

“Jewish New Year,” Daily Times, September 05, 1899.

“Fitting Exercises Mark the Dedication of New Temple,” Portsmouth Daily Times, January 05, 1925.

Obituary of Abraham Schapiro, Portsmouth Times, November 17, 1931.

"Five Institutions Here Share in Henry C. Richman Estate," Portsmouth Times, March 01, 1934.

"Council Plans Busy Session," Portsmouth Times, July 20, 1938.

“Sisterhood is Active in City Welfare Work,” Portsmouth Times, February 22, 1942.

“New Items,” Occident (Philadelphia), October 01, 1855

“Portsmouth, Ohio, Dedication Lectures,” Israelite (Cincinnati), December 24, 1858.

Israelite, October 05, 1860.

Wechsler, Judah. Letter to the editor, Israelite, September 27, 1861.

Israelite, January 17, 1862.

Wechsler, Judah. Letter to the editor, Israelite, February 26, 1864

Wechsler, Judah. Letter to the editor, Israelite, September 23, 1864.

“Correspondence,” Israelite, October 07, 1864.

Wechsler, J. “Another Conversion to Judaism,” Israelite, December 09, 1864.

"Former Ohio Rabbi Dead," Jewish Review and Observer (Cleveland), September 16, 1904.

American Jewish Yearbook Vol. 1, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1900: 233, http://www.ajcarchives.org/ajcarchive/DigitalArchive.aspx.

American Jewish Yearbook Vol. 2, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1901: 415, http://www.ajcarchives.org/ajcarchive/DigitalArchive.aspx.

Evans, Nelson. A History of Scioto County, Ohio. Portsmouth: Nelson W. Evans, 1903.

Works Cited - Secondary Sources:

Shevitz, Amy Hill. Jewish Communities on the Ohio River: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.

Teresa Klaiber, 2022, “Edward Leopold Feiler aka Feyler., Facebook, June 09, 2022.