Jewish Family Services

Explore the history of the Jewish faith here in Richmond and one of the premiere service organizations that grew out of this community.

By Valentine Museum Staff

When Virginia was first established as a colony, all residents were required to support the Anglican Church. But with the 1786 passage of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, Richmond became a potential home for people of other faiths. Just four years later, by 1790, nearly 100 Jews had settled here, making Richmond the fourth largest Jewish community in the United States. Members of this community built Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome, the city’s first and the nation’s sixth synagogue. In the 1830s, new Jewish immigrants from Germany and Bavaria began arriving in Richmond. They initially worshipped at Beth Shalome, but preferred to follow the Ashkenazic rite, as opposed to the Sephardic tradition. In 1841, they founded Richmond’s second Jewish congregation, Beth Ahabah—in English, “House of Love.”

Congregation Beth Ahabah hired Rabbi Max Michelbacher and began to fundraise for a synagogue, which they built in 1848, at 11th and Marshall Streets. A year later, the women of the congregation founded a volunteer organization to help those Richmonders in need, regardless of religion. They called it the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association.

 The mission of the LHBA was simple: to provide help where help was needed. To accomplish this, the versatile group often shifted focus to meet the demands of the evolving city. During the Civil War, the women tended wounded soldiers, sometimes converting their own homes to hospitals. After the war, they assisted widows and orphans. Under the leadership of President Zipporah Cohen in the early-20th century, they rose to meet the material needs of the Great Depression, in addition to battling issues like alcoholism in the Roaring 20s. The organization’s range could be surprising. In the 1950s, LHBA became a formal social services agency, changed its name to Jewish Family Services (JFS), and opened an adoption center. In 1969, they founded a counselling program in the Fan neighborhood for disillusioned and homeless youth.

 Though the JFS provided services in a largely Christian city and regardless of the faith of those in need, they did not lose sight of the plight facing Jewish communities across the globe.  As world events displaced Jews on the other side of the Atlantic—most notably in 1890 from Eastern Europe, in 1938 from Nazi Germany and 1989 from the U.S.S.R.— JFS focused its efforts toward helping refuges from those eras escape persecution and resettle in Richmond. They recruited sponsors to assist new immigrants, taught them English, found them homes and helped introduce them to a completely new culture in America.

 Jewish Family Services is still in operation today. As the American population ages, the group now offers extensive elder care services, in addition to adoption and family counselling. As Richmond history marches on, however, don’t be surprised to see this enduring organization once again rise to meet new needs in our community.

Pamphlet for Jewish Family Services that reads "What does Jewish Family Services of Richmond Do" with headshots of two children, two women and a man.
Jewish Family Services brochure, 1984, V.86.96.05a, The Valentine

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Authors Valentine Museum Staff
Work Title Jewish Family Services
Published December 10, 2020
Updated May 28, 2024
Copyright © 2024 The Valentine Museum