In the Beginning – 1850s

The story of Cumberland Jewry cannot be written completely. Until at least 1853, no records were kept, and those which might have been made about that time and later were not preserved. Much of what is set down here has been gathered from stories of happenings and events told by persons then living to their families and friends, and passed on to the present generation.

Certainly, the earliest Jewish settlers, here as in other places, were not interested in preserving their activities and thoughts for posterity. They had no eye on history. They were immigrants struggling for existence in a new land. The workday was long and the people desired only to become established where a living could be made and one’s religion could be observed openly and without fear. Cumberland was the gateway to the West. The Ohio Company established its westernmost fort here and called it Fort Cumberland, in honor of the Duke of Cumberland from whom its authority was obtained. The first National Highway, called the Cumberland Road, came through here. The first railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, reached here in 1842, to be followed shortly by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Such travel could only bring with it those sturdy individuals who were settling the frontier as it moved onward.

Just when the first Jew came into the region cannot be established. The first notice of a Jew in Cumberland is in a letter from George Washington to his brother in which he acknowledged the receipt of a ham, and told him he had placed it in the care of a Jewish soldier where he knew it would be cared for safely.

In 1817 there were only three churches in Cumberland; the Lutheran, Methodist and Roman Catholic. The Episcopalians and Presbyterians had been worshipping in the Lutheran Church. In that year they asked for public contributions to erect a church of their own. Members of every Protestant denomination, Roman Catholics and “one Israelite” contributed. This contributor has never been identified.  It is recorded that Henry Clay, in 1839, alighted from a stagecoach in Cumberland and purchased a cravat at the store of Moses Goldsmith.  Yet during all this time, more and more Jews were living in Cumberland, and to these were added immigrants brought to America by relatives who had found some measure of success and, more importantly, a spirit of tolerance and freedom, particularly of worship, in their recently adopted land.

We know two such examples. Two of the thirteen children of the Sonneborn family had settled in Cumberland by the 1840s. They sent for their brothers and sisters until all but two had reached America. Among them was Joseph Sonneborn, who in turn brought over his nephew, Reuben Lictenstein. The Adlers established a store in Cumberland in 1848, and sent for two nephews, Simon and Susman Rosenbaum, who later took over the business which bore their name.

By 1853, twelve Jewish families were known to be in Cumberland, which then had a population of 6,150. This was enough to warrant the establishment of a congregation and on April 27th of that year, this little group first met for that purpose. Within a month, on May 23, 1853, the Legislature of Maryland passed an act incorporating “Baair Cheiim” Congregation.