Life Stories in Jewish Philadelphia

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Life Stories in Jewish Philadelphia

Students will work with secondary sources to study individuals from the  Jewish community of Philadelphia between the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.  Each of these people came from different backgrounds and developed diverse economic and social activities, yet still maintained their Jewish customs. Their skills, passions, and occupations brought positive contributions to Philadelphia as they gained recognition in the fields of medicine, religion, and social welfare.

This lesson uses the case-study method to explore the lives of Jacob da Silva Solis-Cohen (1838-1927), Joseph Paull (1892-1966), and Jean Gornish (1916-1981). In groups, students will read different types of sources –newspaper articles, music programs, and manuscripts- that contains biographical information about them. Students will identify their reasons to migrate, family background, religious affiliation, skills and occupation, as well as  the contributions of these people to their communities. The students will also read excerpts from Barbara Klaczynska’s “Immigration in Philadelphia, 1870-1930” , and Harry Boonin’s “The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia” that will provide them with a general overview of the Jewish-immigrant history in Philadelphia.  

By exploring the lives of these individuals, the students will learn how Jewish immigrants and their descendants contributed to both the history of Philadelphia and the United States. 


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Essential Questions

How does continuity and change within Pennsylvania history influence your community today?
What role does analysis have in historical construction?


The students will be able to:  

  • Apply case-study method to identify differences and similarities among the individual’s histories while addressing topics related to immigration.  

  • Examine and contrast different types of sources to develop historical interpretation.  

  • Reflect upon the Jewish immigrant history of Philadelphia from the perspective of individual experiences. 

Suggested Instructional Procedures

  1. Prior to the class, have the students read Barbara Klaczynska and Harry Boonin’s articles. These reading will provide them with a general overview of the history of the Jewish community in Philadelphia. To encourage active reading, have students take notes with key ideas and circle any unfamiliar terms to be discussed during class.

  1. Depending on the size of the class, divide the students into small groups. Each group will study one individual (25 min for group assignment).

  1. Hand each group the work packet related to the person they will study. These packets contain a set of sources and a worksheet that will guide their analysis.

  2. Working Packet 1 - for Jacob da Silva Solis-Cohen

  3. Working Packet 2 - Joseph Paull

  4. Working Packet 3 - Jean Gornish.

  5. Ask the students to read the sources in their groups and identify the information requested. Ask them to put a (?) next to anything unfamiliar. . They can use the Glossary of Jewish terminology to identify words:  

  6. Once they finish answering the questions, open the class for discussion. You can use some of the following questions to guide the activity:  

  • Why these persons move to the United States? (Spend some time explaining the political reasons behind the waves of Jewish immigration during the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. This might also bring into question the difference between Sephardi and Jewish -see the vocabulary).  

  • Compare and contrast their lives. What was similar and what was different?

  • What events affected their lives?

  • Name one thing that surprised you or that you found most interesting while reading the documents.  

  • Were the sources you analyzed useful to learn about their lives? Why or why not?


Chasidism: From the word "Chasid" meaning "pious." A branch of Orthodox Judaism that maintains a lifestyle separate from the non-Jewish world.

Chazan/Chazante: male/female term for Jewish cantorial musician.  

Gentile: a person who is not Jewish.

Immigration: movement of people from their place of origin to another country to which they are not native, in order to settle or reside there.

Jewish/Jews: People live their lives according to the doctrines and practices of Judaism.

Judaism: monotheistic religion. The origins of Judaism are associated with the ancient Hebrew people of Israel and to Abraham, and to the laws revealed to Moses and recorded in the Torah (supplemented by the rabbinical Talmud), which established the Jewish people’s special relationship with God.

"Holdovers:" prisoners who met the conditions for parole but could not be released because they lacked guaranteed employment in the community. 

Orthodox: a person or their views that are conform to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true. In Judaism, it refer to those who strictly keep to the traditional doctrines and rituals of the religion.

Pious: Dutiful and loyal to religion.

Sephardi: Jews from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East and their descendants, who are culturally different from Jews with origins in other parts of the world. Jews from North Africa and the Middle East are often described separately as Mizrachi Jews.