Founded in 1854, Mt. Sinai is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries still in active existence in Philadelphia. For over 150 years, it has played an integral role in Jewish life in Philadelphia.
The cemetery has been the final resting place of some of America’s leading Jewish citizens. Premier Philadelphia retailing families, such as the Snellenburgs and the Gimbels, have plots here. The Paleys, the Binswangers, the Solis-Cohens, the Publickers, the Rosenbachs—the list of influential families affiliated with Mt. Sinai reads like a roll call of Philadelphia’s most important Jewish families.
The cemetery is not only home to those who achieved fame and acclaim in their lives but to the many other active members of the Jewish community. A stroll through the leafy pathways reveals the simple dates on headstones that cause us to pause and reflect. Here lies a 16-year-old fife player who died in the Civil War. There are the infants, marked by tiny headstones, who lie next to their parents, attesting to the fragility of children in a time before vaccination and antibiotics. And yet, there are also those hardy souls who lived into their 80’s and 90’s—couples who enjoyed 50 or 60 years of marriage together. There’s even one individual who lived until the age of 106.
How did the cemetery come about? By the 1850’s, the Jewish population of Philadelphia was growing rapidly. Prejudice and repression in many parts of Germany had encouraged emigration to the U.S., and many new immigrants discovered a congenial and supportive environment in Philadelphia. The first arrivals quickly found success in retailing, real estate, wholesaling, and manufacturing. As word about the city’s opportunities spread, others followed, establishing businesses, schools, synagogues, and a thriving social network in the area.
Still, in 1850, there were only one or two small Jewish cemeteries in the city. Seeking to rectify this, a small group of citizens met on July 1, 1853, at Keim’s Hall, 4th Street below Callowhill. The group’s objective was to buy a piece of land for the purpose of a cemetery. A committee was formed to locate a proper piece of land suitable for a cemetery. A few weeks later the committee closed on a 7-acre lot located on what is now Bridge Street, near Cottage. The association was incorporated by the Philadelphia Courts as The Mount Sinai Cemetery Association of Pennsylvania and its charter was signed and recorded on June 9, 1854.
The first burial in the Cemetery was made in January of 1854 in the Moses Sternberger lot No. 503. (It is interesting to note that in 1952, 90-year-old Hettie Sternberger, wife of Solomon Sternberger, a son of the original lot holder, was buried in the family plot—evidence of the enduring connections through time.)
There have been many changes at Mt. Sinai through the years, including, in 1892, the addition of a chapel designed by the renowned Philadelphia architect, Frank Furness. The image on this page is from an advertisement in the Jewish Exponent in 1902, which claimed, “The advantages and facilities offered by the Mount Sinai Cemetery Association to their lot holders are superior to any provided by other cemeteries. A Mortuary Chapel, with well-furnished parlor for ladies and gentlemen, and a Receiving Vault have recently been added…”
Subsequent boards approved the acquisition of an additional 10.5 acres of adjoining land. Today, Mt. Sinai Cemetery encompasses 17½ acres. It is bounded by Bridge Street on the South, Cottage Street on the East, and Cheltenham Avenue on the North. The cemetery is well-maintained and has many of the original trees and other plantings, as well as new landscaping.
Memory and History Take Form: Architecture and Design at Mt. Sinai Cemetery