Many people do not realize that Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home to the famous Amish community, was one of the few active Jewish communities during the colonial era and has the fourth oldest Jewish cemetery in the United States.

The Jewish cemetery, which is now owned and cared for by Congregation Shaarai Shomayim (established 1856) has at least five tombstones that date back to the earliest days of the nation. One of these early tombstones belongs to Joseph Simon, who appears to have been the leader of the community. Simon was a merchant who dealt in trade with the Native American tribes in the area. He arrived in Lancaster sometime before 1735. Although it is not known exactly when he came to prominence, he is noted for his dedication to the Jewish community, opening his home for regular services. He owned two Torah scrolls and a portion of the ark (cabinet) in which he housed them now belongs to the American Jewish Historical Society. In 1747, Simon and Isaac Nunas Ricus were granted a deed in trust for the Jewish community for the land that would become the cemetery.

The Jews of Lancaster sided with the colonial army. They provided supplies, weapons and provisions. What became of the community after the war, however, is a little less clear. After Joseph Simon’s death in 1804, the community disappeared until the mid 1850s, when new Jewish settlers arrived. The close relationship of the Lancaster Jews with Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia lead many to speculate that many moved there. The new settlers who arrived founded Shaarai Shomayim and took custodianship of the cemetery. Degel Israel Congregation was established in 1895 and Temple Beth El was established in 1945. These congregations continue until today.

On December 12, 1787, Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify the Constitution.

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