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Was Wilmington’s Temple of Israel ever Sephardic?

Ben Steelman
Temple of Israel

The Temple of Israel is at 1 S. Fourth St. in Wilmington. (StarNews file photo)

A reader noticed the design of the Temple of Israel building at 1 S. Fourth St., Wilmington [Map this] — described as “Moorish” by architectural historian Tony Wrenn — and wondered if the congregation had Middle Eastern origins.

In fact, the Temple of Israel has been associated with the Reform branch of Judaism since the congregation organized in 1872. Its original 40 families chose to associate with the Minhag America (American Ritual), which became the Union of American Hebrew Congregations the following year. This group later evolved into the Union for Reform Judaism. 

The Temple building, constructed by local contractor Alex Strausz, based on a design by architect Samuel Sloan, was completed in 1876.

Most Jews in Wilmington in the 1860s and 1870s had family roots in Germany. In fact, the Temple’s first rabbi, Samuel Mendelsohn, delivered the eulogy for Kaiser Wilhelm I — in German — at an interdenominational service in St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Reporting on an 1872 address by Dr. Markus Jastrow at Wilmington’s City Hall, a newspaper noted “the majority of (the city’s) Hebrew population belong to the Reformed portion.” An earlier effort, in 1867, to establish an Orthodox congregation in Wilmington lasted less than a year. (This group rented space in the old First Presbyterian Church, which stood on Church Alley between Front and Second streets.)

Intriguingly, in 1860, Isaac Leeser noted that Jewish groups in Wilmington had taken up a collection “for the Morocco refugees.”

Wilmington’s B’nai Israel Synagogue was founded by East European immigrants in 1898 as an Orthodox congregation, but shifted to the Conservative movement in the 1950s.

Chabad of Wilmington, connected with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Orthodox Judaism, was founded in 2007.

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User-contributed question by:
Trudy Fishman

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