The Richmond History Podcast

Friday, May 4, 2012

The First Jewish Cemetery in Virginia

The First Jewish Cemetery in Virginia, Photo by Jeff Majer
On Oct 21, 1791 Isaiah Isaacs, the first Jew recorded to have settled in Richmond, deeded a 40'x102' section of land just west of the SW corner of 21st and E Franklin St "to be used for the sole purpose of a burying ground for all Jews male and female that may at any time here after die in the city of Richmond, or whose bodies after death might be brought there to be interred".  This first Jewish Cemetery in Virginia was to be maintained by a group of trustees, not all from Richmond, but some from Beth Shalome that met a couple blocks away in a room on 19th St between Grace and Franklin.  They later moved to the SW corner of 19th and Main then moved again a little farther west.  
This small burial ground apparently ran out of space quickly because by 1816 Benjamin Wolfe, a member of Beth Shalome, arranged for a new burial ground.  It became what is now The Hebrew Cemetery, maintained by Beth Ahabah across the Street from municipally run Shockoe Hill Cemetery, established around the same time.  Oddly, Wolfe was the first to be buried at the new Hebrew Cemetery.

When the small Franklin St Cemetery was closed, several of the bodies were reinterred at the new Hebrew Cemetery.  In time the congregation of Beth Shalome decreased in numbers and the original trustees died, leaving the Franklin St Cemetery to fall into "a state of abject neglect".

The state of the cemetery was communicated to the Cohen family of Baltimore who had relatives in the forgotten burial ground.  The Cohen's kin were in a special Cohen-Isaacs section in the back right corner.  Col. Mendes I. Cohen came to RVA and had a stone vault erected around their families graves, still visible today.

Sept 21, 1901 reconsecration, From Beth Ahabah web site
The attention to this one section didn't prevent it from looking like a like a vacant lot, with the grass so high you couldn’t see the markers.  When Franklin St was paved and leveled, the cemetery was left 4' below the street level.  The markers were laid flat and 4' of dirt was added on top, leaving only the top of the stone vault sticking out.  After a few decades of looking like an eye sore Mr. William Cohen of Beth Shalome allowed the lot to be leased to a Mr. Murphy who ran a Blacksmith Shop on the site.  Sometime after that it was even used as a coal-dumping yard.  Finally in 1909 it got some attention with a concrete wall and the iron fence, and the marker.  There were ceremonies to reconsecrate the ground held in 1909 and another in 1955.

When I called Beth Ahabah Archives and Museum, who maintains the cemetery today, I was told that they don't think there are any bodies left on the site, but as late as 1976 the slab on top of the Cohen Tomb was removed reveling 4' down the graves of Israel I. Cohen and his sister in-law Mrs. Esther I. Cohen.

Most of the information for this story came from Richmond's Jewry: Shabbat in Shockoe 1769-1976 by Myron Berman
*Photo from the 

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