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Beth Shalome Congregation of Richmond, Virginia

Mr. Editor:—

Perceiving a notice in the last number of the “Occident,” relative to a dispute between the Portuguese and German congregations of Richmond, concerning the burying-ground that was vested in the former congregation many jean ago by the Common Hall of that city : it may probably prove interesting to many of your readers, to peruse an outline of the case now in controversy.

The congregations Beth Shalome (Portuguese) was formed in the early part of the year 1791, A.M. 5561, by the following-named gen<<418>>tlemen, may their souls rest in peace: Jacob Mordecai, Joseph Darmstadt, Zalma Rehine, Samuel Alexander. Isaac H. Judah, Joseph Marx, Isaac Mordecai, Gershom Judah. Lyon Hart, Myer M. Cohen, Aaron Henry, Baruch H. Judah, Benjamin Wolfe, John Tobias, Manuel Judah, Jacob J. Cohen, David Isaacs, Benjamin Solomons, Isaiah Isaacs, Mordecai M. Mordecai, Asher Marx, Samuel Mordecai, Benjamin Myers, Mordecai Myers, Marcus Elcan, Abraham Myers and others.

In the month of October of that year, Isaiah Isaacs, owning and residing on a lot of ground, bounded on Main, Franklin, and 21st streets, vested into the hands of certain trustees, a portion of his garden, fronting about forty feet on Franklin Street, running back one hundred and two feet, for a burying-ground. for the purpose of interring “all Jews, male and female, that may hereafter die in the city of Richmond, or whose bodies may be brought there to be interred,” reserving to himself and his heirs an oblong square of eight by forty feet in the said ground, for the purpose of the interment of himself and kindred, also those of his partner in trade, Jacob I. Cohen and all his kindred. In that reservation, mw repose the remains of Israel I. Cohen and others.

That burying-ground was placed under the supervision and control of the congregation “Beth Shalome,” and used for burial purposes until the year 1816. About that time the walls around the same became much dilapidated, and the members of the congregation being increased, it was thought to be more prudent for the congregation to obtain a new ground, and enclose the same, rather than incur an expenditure for rebuilding the wall around a burying-ground which was not alone too small for the increase of the congregation, but over which they could not exercise any legal control. Therefore, at a meeting of the congregation Beth Shalome, held on the 13th day of February, 1816, the following resolution was adopted:

Resolved, that Messrs. Benjamin Wolfe, Manuel Judah, and Samuel Myers, be appointed a committee to investigate the records of the Common Hall, concerning the appropriation of some ground that was laid off for burying-grounds, for the different religious societies some  time back, and that they use their endeavours to obtain said ground for this congregation.

And at a subsequent meeting, held on the 9th of June, 1816, Mr. Benjamin Wolfe, chairman of the committee, laid before the meeting the following ordinance of the Common Hall, appropriating a lot of ground to the congregation for a burying-ground, with a plat of the same. <<419>>

An Ordinance concerning the Hebrew Society of Richmond.

Passed May 20th, 1816.

Be it ordained, &c. &c., That one acre of land, being a part of the lands belonging to the city of Richmond, and lying upon Schockoe Hill, as laid off and designated in a plat of the said land made by Richard Young, Surveyor of the city of Richmond, be and the same is hereby vested in the Hebrew Society of the city of Richmond, called in Hebrew, “Kaal Kadosh Beth Shalome,” in English, “The Congregation of the House of Peace,” to be by them held, and exclusively used as a burying-ground, subject to their rites and laws, for that purpose, and for that alone.

This ordinance shall be in force from and after its passage.

On motion, it was then:

Resolved, That the Congregation do accept the lot, and that the ordinance and survey be recorded.

Resolved, That a rote of thanks be given to Mr. Benjamin Wolfe, a member of the Common Hall, for his unremitted exertions in procuring for this congregation the lot of ground from the Common Hall for a burying-ground.

Resolved, That four corner-stones, with the letters ב״ה thereon, be placed on the ground granted to this Congregation.

The Congregation then appointed committees for the purpose of laying off the ground, and building a metaher house and a wall around the same. The committee succeeded by resorting to a voluntary subscription* of the members, to raise the sum of thirteen hundred and twenty-two dollars, being the amount necessary to complete the object.

* The plan of a voluntary subscription has always been resorted to in order to meet the current expenses of the congregation, as well as for other purposes, in lieu of the practice of the sale or renting of the seats in the Synagogue; the seats are free.

The congregation thus abandoned the use of the old ground and commenced making interments in the new one. Mr. Benjamin Wolfe was the first individual therein interred. The congregation Beth Shalome have, to the present time, continued to keep peaceable possession,† and make interments therein without any interruption whatsoever.

† As a congregation, in accordance with the laws of Virginia, they could exercise no legal control over the said ground, or any other property belonging to the congregation, unless having been vested in the hands of trustees; until the year 1842 no congregation being possessed of corporate powers. The legislature, in the year 1849, passed a law authorizing the court to appoint trustees to hold any property that may have been conveyed, devised, or dedicated to the use of any religious congregation, with or without the intervention of trustees, since the year 1777, and the legal title shall rest in them.

About the year 1841, the congregation then numbering nearly one hundred contributing members, about eighteen or twenty of the German portion, who having then recently arrived, seceded, and formed themselves into a German Congregation, by the name and stile of Beth Ahaba: and that congregation not having provided itself (as is customary with all newly-established congregations) with a burying-ground; and the congregation Beth Shalome, being desirous of cultivating the greatest degree of amity between the two congregations, in all matters in which both congregations were to be in any way interested, proposed that if the German Congregation would pay one-half of the annual expense of the keeping in order of the burying-ground, which was estimated at about from 15 to 25 dollars, that they would permit that congregation to make interments therein without any farther charge; and the committee on the ground was directed to have the graves dug as near to the wishes of the relatives or friends of the deceased as practicable, and the said interments to be made according. to the German rites. This the German Congregation would not consent to, unless the Portuguese Congregation would agree to hold the ground conjointly, and a committee of an equal number from each congregation be appointed to keep the ground in charge.

The Congregation Beth Shalome, rather than to part with their exclusive right to the ground, resolved to permit interments to be made by the German Congregation, without receiving any recompense whatsoever, and upon the same conditions as the first proposition. The German Congregation availed themselves of the latter proposition, and whenever a death would occur in that congregation, and application made to Congregation Beth Shalome, for the right of interment, it was cheerfully granted, and the resolutions on their part relative to the location of the graves, &c., was carried out in good faith, and no demand ever made for any compensation.

About the latter end of the year 1847, the German Congregation. not wishing to avail themselves any longer of the kind and unsolicited resolutions of the Congregation Beth Shalome, after obtaining legal advice that that congregation were incapable in law to seek redress against any trespass on said ground, on account of their being unincorporated: obtained a false key to enter and make use of the ground with impunity, and they have from that time continued to use the same <<421>> against the will or consent of the congregation, to whom the ground was originally dedicated. The congregation never have or intended to refuse the right of interment to any person, and have never made any charge for the same, whether a contributing member or not. At a meeting of committees from each congregation (held prior to the German Congregation obtaining a false key) to make some arrangements concerning the burying-ground, the committee on the part of the Congregation Beth Shalome proposed to take the sum of two hundred and fifty dollars as a remuneration from the German Congregation for the conjoint use of the ground for ever, or leave the whole matter to the decision of arbitrators, as to what amount, if any, the congregation ought to be entitled to for parting with one half of their right to the ground the German Congregation, through their committee (who were fully authorised), would not, accede to either proposition, contending for their equal right to the ground, without giving any remuneration for the same. The Portuguese Congregation being powerless in the arms of the law, but relying on the equity of their cause, have been compelled to stand by and see their ground trespassed upon by a sister congregation, rather than engage in a disgraceful combat, or interfere with their interments.

The Congregation “Beth Shalome” have borne these unlawful trespasses, until forbearance has almost ceased to be a virtue, if it could have ever been regarded as such,—until last January, when that Con­gregation applied to the court for the appointment of Trustees, to take charge of and hold all property belonging to the Congregation, in accordance with an Act of the Legislature, passed in the year 1849, relative to church property, which application was resisted on the part of the German Congregation, under the most unequitable pretexts that could be countenanced by any religious congregation or community.

This claim to the burying-ground was at first set up ignorantly by the German Congregation, the claimants being under the impression that the ground was merely held by the Portuguese Congregation under a grant of the Common Hall, on the same condition as that, given by Mr. Isaiah Isaacs, to wit, for the purpose of interring “all Jews, male and female, that may die in the city of Richmond,” &c., &c., as was, and is still, the opinion even of some members of the Portuguese Congregation, not being conversant with its records.

The case will be disposed of probably at the January term of the Court. Your readers may be aware that it is a vexatious one, and the final result is looked for with great anxiety and interest, by both par<<422>>ties. The above statement is made in order to show to the Israelitish world that a Congregation, having for its name “The House of Peace,” have endeavoured by every act they have done since the establishment of the German Congregation, to sustain the peculiar virtue which their name imports, and that they have been assailed in the proper protection of their rights by a body of people whose proceedings have not been always characterized by kindness and forbearance.

Mr. Editor :—I fear that I have trespassed too much on your space; but I cannot refrain from giving a brief narrative of the facts connected with this case—one, I am sure, which stands unparalleled in the his­tory of at least Jewish communities, and that the old Congregation BETH SHALOME (with which you have been associated) have endeavoured “to pursue the path of peace,” in despite of every provocation on the part of a sister congregation, bearing the name of “The House of Love.”