This is part two of Mr. Hoffheimer’s history of David Israel Johnson.

Not long after the Johnson family settled into Cincinnati, more Jews began arriving, at first single men seeking their fortunes. Why did they settle on Cincinnati? It would appear they just desired the company of other Jews. Men, and then women, with names like Jonas, Moses, Symonds, Seixas, Alexander, DeYoung, Joseph—at first all English Jews whose families were descended from refugees from the Spanish expulsion in 1492 and thus with Sephardi background. They continued to conduct High Holy Day Services in 1819 and until 1823. Then, they considered that the time had arrived for them to form an organized congregation. While worshipping together from 1819 to 1823, they established their mutual “brit” as a congregation only on January 4, 1824, at the residence of Morris Moses. David Israel Johnson was in attendance and was a charter member of this, the first Jewish congregation west of the Allegheny Mountains, named Kehal Kodesh Bene Israel — the Holy Congregation of the Children of Israel. The congregation is today also known as Rockdale Temple, named for the fourth of the five synagogue buildings the congregation has inhabited.

For the following twelve years, the congregation had no physical home, no synagogue, and moved for services and gathering among different venues on Main Street, Front Street, and Fourth Street. They had no rabbi, no chazzan (cantor), not even a caretaker (gabbai, shamash, sexton, or beadle). But these were determined Jews. David Johnson was one of those who served as Shliach Tzibur, leader of worship. He is said in the memoirs of Joseph Jonas to have chanted the Torah. On occasion, Johnson was elected “Parnass” of the congregation, what today we would call the executive director. He also participated in the first Passover Seder to be held west of the Allegheny Mountains, in Cincinnati.

By 1826, the congregation began searching for a location to build their own synagogue. The Jewish community, being small and without sufficient capital, solicited support from their more well-to-do brethren in eastern cities and even in Europe. Charleston, South Carolina, and Philadelphia immediately responded to the appeal. One gift even came from Barbados in the West Indies, another from Portsmouth, England. At least 52 donations of $25 each came from non-Jewish Cincinnatians. Finally, in 1829, a committee consisting of David Johnson and Morris Moses was appointed with special directions to solicit funds in New Orleans. Jews there contributed $280. Success followed, and in July 1829, the congregation purchased a plot at the southeast corner of Broadway and Sixth Street, land now included in the corporate headquarters of The Procter & Gamble Company. But still there were insufficient funds to commission the building. With more Jews settling in Cincinnati, finally in 1834 a committee consisting of Joseph Jonas and Phineas Moses raised the remaining funds needed. On June 11, 1835, the cornerstone of the building was laid, and the congregation engaged its first Reader, the Reverend Joseph Samuels, to lead the ceremony. Seats were sold during the summer months totaling $4,500, this allowing the interior of the sanctuary to be suitably planned. Five gorgeous brass chandeliers were received from Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City. In the formal letter of solicitation dated July 3, 1825, to which David Johnson attached his signature, he and his brethren pled their case:

“[W]e consider it our duty to apply to you for your assistance in the erection of a House of worship of God of our forefathers, agreeably to the Jewish faith; we have always performed all in our power to promote Judaism, and for the last four or five years we have congregated, where, a few years before, nothing was heard, but the howling of wild beasts, and the more hideous cry of savage man. We are well assured that many Jews are lost in this country from not being in the neighbourhood of a congregation, they often marry with Christians, and their posterity lose the true worship of God for ever; we have at this time, a room fitted up for a Synagogue, two Manuscripts of the law, and a burying ground in which we have already interred four persons, who, but for us, must have lain among Christians; one of our members acts as a shohet. It will therefore be seen that nothing has been left undone…”

By the end of the 1820s, the Jewish population of Cincinnati had grown to 32 adult male and 20 female adults, so the congregation decided to request incorporation by statute of the Ohio General Assembly. Referring to David I. Johnson by name along with the others, the General Assembly in 1830 granted the incorporation though which the congregation operates to this day.

On September 9, 1836, with David Johnson present, the congregation joyously and solemnly dedicated their synagogue, the first such building in Ohio and the Northwest Territory. In celebration, the Reader, Henry Harris, led the congregation in worship, and Joseph Jonas delivered the dedicatory address.

When his time came, the pioneer David Israel Johnson was buried in the old Jewish cemetery on Chestnut Street. You can visit him there. His descendants lived up to their ancestor’s hopes. To name but several, Edward I. Johnson became a lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was killed at the Alamo at age 19. Frederick A. Johnson was a judge and an Ohio legislator; James W. Johnson was a songwriter, a novelist, and deputy treasurer of Hamilton County; another, Edgar M. Johnson, was a member of the school board, prosecuting attorney, and a judge; Selina Emma Johnson was a teacher and school principal in Cincinnati; and another, Simeon Johnson, was Vice-Mayor of Cincinnati and President of the Ohio State Bar Association. David Israel and Eliza Johnson have descendants living in Cincinnati to this day.