Building Synagogues

The Center of Communities

Almost as soon as they first arrived in the Americas, Jews formed congregations for worship and community support. Jewish individuals and groups petitioned to build synagogues as early as the 1700s. Supporters gave their own land or money and continued to raise funds to maintain their houses of worship.

Shearith Israel, Mikveh Israel, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Touro Synagogue and Rodolph Shalom were some of the earliest synagogues, from Rhode Island to South Carolina. Their congregations also built cemeteries to fulfill Jewish law and custom, and sometimes supported other congregations in need.

Before the creation of separate institutions and aid organizations, charity took place through the synagogue. Synagogues received funds for their own upkeep, and congregation leaders helped to direct funds to help those in need. In some ways, Jewish charity was obligatory, as Jews who were members of a congregation were required to support its operations. Synagogues kept detailed expense books, some of which even recorded requisitions for— among all things—spittoons and beer.

Early congregations also took an interest in United States politics and policy, and they sometimes attempted to speak in a unified voice. In a 1790, Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Charleston, S.C.) affirmed its loyalty to the United States and congratulated George Washington on assuming the office of President. The letter was probably sent to Shearith Israel (N.Y.) so that congregation leadership could sign it. Perhaps it was intended as a message on behalf of all Jews in the United States. However, ultimately, it never reached Washington.

  • Mikveh Israel cemetery plot map, Philadelphia.


  • Dedication prayer for Mikveh Israel synagogue in Philadelphia.


  • Honor card for circling the room carrying the Torah at the dedication of Mikveh Israel synagogue in Philadelphia.


  • Letter to George Washington from Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim.


  • Record of payment for planks, boards and other material for Shearith Israel.


  • Accounting of expenses for Shearith Israel synagogue.


  • Record of payment for masonry work done for Congregation Shearith Israel.


  • Letter to Rhode Island legislature discussing the upkeep of Touro Synagogue.

    Circa 1820

  • United Hebrew Congregation (St. Louis, Missouri) constitution and bylaws. The title was changed from “German Congregation” to “United Congregation,” possibly reflecting changes in the local population and the congregation’s commitment to inclusion.


  • Passage on charity and burial in the United Hebrew Congregation (St. Louis, Missouri) constitution and bylaws.


  • Record of donations and offerings to Shearith Israel.


  • Renowned philanthropist Judah Touro’s signature

    19th century

  • Renowned philanthropist Judah Touro’s signature.

    19th century

  • Account book from the Allen Street Shul in New York. It records expenses such as those for spittoons and beer.


  • Explanation of how the Shearith Israel Sisterhood formed from other organizations.


  • Handbill of a performance at the Waldorf to benefit the Shearith Israel Sisterhood.


  • Shearith Israel Sisterhood kindergarten picnic in Central Park.


  • Donations given to the Eldridge Street Synagogue in exchange for the honor of being called to the Torah. This record is from Passover time and notes the Torah portions assigned to each honoree.


  • Invitation to the consecration of the Shearith Israel Sisterhood’s Neighborhood House.


  • Invitation to the consecration of the Shearith Israel Sisterhood’s Neighborhood House.


  • Patriotic celebration on July 4th in the rooftop garden of the Shearith Israel Sisterhood’s Neighborhood House.


  • Photo of the Neighborhood House Settlement supported by the Shearith Israel Sisterhood.

    Early 20th century

  • Camp Fund appeal card sent by the Sisterhood of Shearith Israel in New York.


  • Camp Fund appeal card sent by the Sisterhood of Shearith Israel in New York.


  • Image of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.

    Mid-20th century

  • Graphic depiction of the historic New York locations of Shearith Israel.

    20th century

  • Image of Shearith Israel synagogue in New York.

    Mid-20th century

  • David Sacks, Attorney and former Board member of the Stephen Wise free synagogue, speaks on his early religious education as a reform, German – American Jew, and attending the Stephen Wise free synagogue on Sundays in Carnegie Hall.



Contributors to the Cause includes only a small portion of the material that is housed at the Center for Jewish History. The five partners’ archival collections span more than 700 years of history. To search the catalog, click here. To plan your visit to the Center’s New York home, click here.