Honoring first rabbi in America

50 descendants gather at Jewish Museum, contemplate changes since 1840

  • About 50 descendants of Rabbi Abraham Rice, who came from Bavaria in 1840 to the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation as the first ordained rabbi in America, gathered Sunday for a reunion at the Jewish Museum and the Lloyd Street Synagogue.
About 50 descendants of Rabbi Abraham Rice, who came from Bavaria… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
March 15, 2010|By Eileen Ambrose | eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

Rabbi Abraham Rice arrived in East Baltimore 170 years ago from Europe, and over the weekend dozens of his descendants came here, too, to meet distant relatives and learn more about the first ordained rabbi to lead a congregation in the United States.

The Rice family reunion gathered Sunday at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which coincidentally is celebrating its 50th anniversary and the recent renovation of the Lloyd Street Synagogue, where Rabbi Rice served so long ago.

Jewish immigrants began arriving in America in the 1650s, and by 1840 about 10,000 Jews lived in the country, said Deborah Weiner, research historian at the museum. Religious leaders in Europe, though, were concerned that their American cousins had no rabbi to lead them, so Rice made the voyage from his native Bavaria in 1840 to head the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

"People would contact him from all over ... when they had a question of Jewish law," Weiner said.

But the Orthodox rabbi was dismayed by some of the lax religious practices of his Baltimore congregation, such as working on the Sabbath and marrying outside their faith, Weiner said.

"Rabbi Rice was concerned that if Jews kept going the way they were going, Jewish life would disappear," she said.

After a nine-year, contentious relationship with his congregation, Rice resigned. He became a grocer, and about two years later started an Orthodox congregation at his home, Weiner said. Today, Rice remains revered by Orthodox Jews, who make pilgrimages to his grave site at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Cemetery. The congregation is now Reform.

Around 50 of his descendants came from a half-dozen states for what's believed to be the first family reunion. Some are Orthodox, while others are Reform, Christian and agnostic, relatives said.

"I don't know what he would think, but times have changed," said Harriet Robinson, 60, Rice's great-great-great-granddaughter from Baltimore. "The fact that so many people came together from all over the country - and some of them didn't even know each other - is remarkable. It shows something good about their heritage."

Adds Texas financial adviser David Rice, who came up with the idea for the reunion with a cousin he contacted through Facebook, "Everybody is very close and very understanding and respectful of each other."

For 11-year-old Kevin Kaufman of Bethesda, the reunion was the first he has heard of the role of his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. And it was a chance to meet the other branches of the family tree.

"It was a lot of fun meeting everybody," he said. "Now I know so many more relatives than I did two hours ago."

After brunch at the museum, the Rice family toured the nearby Lloyd Street Synagogue, the third oldest synagogue left standing in the United States. Built in 1845, the Greek Revival building recently underwent a renovation to replace its roof, paint the exterior and update the heating and air conditioning.

A new exhibit, The Synagogue Speaks, opens next week and traces the history of the three congregations, including a Catholic church, that worshiped in the building from 1845 to 1960.

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