Dear Dr. Scribblerstore:
In “History of the Jews in America,” Deborah Pessin writes: “Joseph Simon, a Jewish merchant, opened a general store in Lancaster. Indians came to Joseph Simon’s store with their furs, which they exchanged for trinkets, axes, rum, pots, bells, knives, cloth, scissors — goods which Joseph Simon imported from Newport or New York.”
Later she says Simon loaned the use of his store for Lancaster’s first synagogue.
Do we know where Simon’s store was located? Is the building still standing? Do we know of other Jewish merchants or professionals who settled in Lancaster during its early years?
Joseph Simon (1712-1804) operated a store on the southeast corner of what is now Penn Square. The store stood next to the White Swan Tavern. Both have disappeared. The Watt & Shand department store took over that site. The Watt & Shand facade now covers the Lancaster County Convention Center.
David Franks and Simon’s nephew, Levy Andrew Levy, helped Simon run the store. Several other Jewish traders and merchants lived in Lancaster at that time. Simon offered his home, not the store, for use as a synagogue. His home was located on the southwest corner of Penn Square.
That answers most of your questions, Julian. Now, let’s add a bit of context.
Joseph Simon, Lancaster’s colonial Jewish patriarch, arrived in Lancaster about 1740 when he was almost 30 years old. He began selling imported goods to other early Pennsylvania traders and directly to American Indians.
It is not clear when Simon, Levy and Franks opened a store in the center of town: the store seems to have opened in the 1740s at another location before moving to the southeast corner of the square in the 1750s. Later Simon helped supply the Continental army with arms and other supplies during the Revolution.
Simon also owned several houses in Lancaster and engaged in land speculation in western Pennsylvania.
He made a fortune and, apparently, lost much of it following the Revolution. Most of his fellow Jews left Lancaster. By the 1790 census, only three Jewish families still lived here. Simon was the last Lancaster Jew of his generation.
In the 1840s, a new Jewish community moved to Lancaster. These people had no association with Simon or the earlier Jewish settlement. They established the town’s first formal Jewish congregation, Shaarai Shomayim, in 1856.
In 2006, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, erected a historical marker for Simon at the corner of Orange and Queen streets. It notes, in part, that “Simon’s home near here was one of the first centers of Jewish worship west of Philadelphia.”
Here are some other interesting facts related to Joseph Simon:
Thanks to his little settlement, Lancaster is recognized as the fourth oldest Jewish community in the United States.
Simon is buried in a Jewish cemetery that he helped to establish in 1747. It is located on the north side of Liberty Street between Lime and Shippen. The congregation of Shaarai Shomayim maintains the cemetery.
Simon enslaved at least seven Blacks to do his heavy lifting.
He and his wife, Rosa Simon, had 10 children and dozens of grandchildren.
Their most famous grandchild, Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869), was renowned for her intelligence and beauty. She stunned Philadelphia society and knew many prominent American and British citizens. She founded five charitable, religious and educational organizations for needy women and children.
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes “The Scribbler” column every Sunday. He welcomes comments and contributions at firstname.lastname@example.org.