When Did Jews Settle in Vermont?
Myron Samuelson, who compiled the most complete history of Jews in Vermont, lists a good number of Colonial-era Jews who were among those purchasing lands in the Hampshire Grants, including what is now Vermont. This was mostly territory of virgin timber along the waterways to Canada. Jews and many others purchased these lands as investment, rather than to live there. None ever lived in Vermont, and few, if any, would have had reason to visit.
A Samuel Seaman “of Jerusalem” was a proprietor of land in Williston, VT. Nothing is known of him, but there is a man of the same name buried in the cemetery of New York’s Shearith Israel Cemetery. If Seaman was Jewish, than many others of the same name holding grants in other Vermont towns might have been Jewish, too. These include Zebulan and Benjamin Seaman. The grant sold for Burlington of June 7, 1763 contained the names of Nathan, Morris and Solomon Seaman.
Two years later, in 1765, noted silversmith Myer Myers purchased land in Litchfield County, CT with his friend and business partner Ethan Allen.
No Jews are known to have lived in Vermont during Washington’s two terms in office, although there is an intriguing account published in 1802 – which Samuelson dismisses as fanciful – of “Hermit of the Mountain” Nathan Ben Ashur, “evidently of Jewish extraction,” living in a Vermont cave. Fanciful perhaps, but the story, printed in the Philadelphia newspaper The Poulsons Daily American Advertiser (Feb. 23, 1802), is striking enough to bear repeating, whether or not Ben Ashur was a fiction, and whether or not he was a Jew:
“There is a very singular kind of man residing in the State of Vermont; the inhabitants call him Hermit of the Mountain, but he calls himself Nathan Ben Ashur. He is evidently of Jewish extraction; he retains all the rites and ceremonies of the Hebrews and his style and manner bear a near similitude to that of the Ancient Scribes. his living is simple; the fruit of the woods is his food, and water of the spring allays his thirst; his devotion is fervent and sincere, and those within the circle of his acquaintance revere him for the sanctity of his manners and more especially for that foresight unto the futurity, for which he is eminently remarkable. He lives in a Cave dug out of the side of the mountain, shaded by a forest of lofty trees. But from what part of the world he came or why he has become a recluse, must remain a secret until his death, when it is supposed he will leave for the benefit of mankind a precious collection of his labours.”
In 1835, Castleton Medical School, the first in Vermont, graduated David Globenski, possibly a Jew of Polish origin. Dr. Bernard Heineberg was born in Prussia and received an MD degree at the University of Bonn and Göttigen in 1834. By 1835 he was in the United States, where he received an honorary MD degree at the University of Vermont. He moved to Burlington soon afterward and remained in the growing town until his death in 1878.
But it was not until the 1840s and later, when large numbers of German speaking Central European Jews emigrated to the United States, that there are signs of substantial Jewish settlement in Vermont. By mid-century, according to scattered records and occasional mentions, there was at least one Jew in many villages and towns. By 1860, there were Jews noted in Richford (Meron Stearns, 1856), Winooski (Mr. Mainheim, 1852), Poultney (S. Mienberg, 1859), Rutland (Mr. Rosenbaum, 1859), St. Albans (the Solomon Cohen family and Jacob Rubenstein, 1860) and Jeffersonville (Miers Stearns, 1860). Herman Levy of Barre fought in the Civil War, as did Herman Seligson of the 9th Vermont Volunteers; he rose from the rank of private to Lieutenant Colonel and was taken prisoner at Harper’s Ferry.
There were no Jewish religious congregations in Vermont, however, until one was formed in Poultney around 1870. A cemetery was acquired there in 1873 and the community boasted a synagogue and a shochet (kosher butcher/slaughterer). In 1888 the B’nai Israel and Hebrew Cemetery Association was incorporated.
Before that time, Vermont Jews looked toward their co-religionists in New York State, with whom they had close family, religious and commercial ties. As early as 1845 a Jewish community with a synagogue and cemetery was established in Plattsburgh, just across Lake Champlain. That community would help form Burlington’s first Jewish community a few decades later.
The state’s first purpose-built synagogue was probably Ohavi Zedek, erected in Burlington in 1885.
Samuelson, Myron. The Story of the Jewish Community of Burlington, Vermont. (Burlington, VT: 1976).