K.K. Bene Israel and JCGC Dedicate Monument in Honor of Cincinnati’s First Jewish Resident
On September 18, 2022, Rockdale Temple, in partnership with Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati, celebrated the dedication of a memorial cenotaph honoring Joseph Jonas, placed at Cincinnati’s historic Chestnut Street Cemetery. Jonas is widely considered to have been the first Jewish resident of Cincinnati, having arrived in 1817, and is among the founders of both the Chestnut Street Cemetery and Kehal Kodesh Bene Israel – Rockdale Temple, both institutions the oldest of their kinds west of the Allegheny Mountains. Jonas was the first President of K.K. Bene Israel from 1824 – 1826, a title he would hold three additional times (during 1835-36, 1843 – 44, and 1846-48).
Sally Korkin, current President of Rockdale Temple, explained how the idea originated to honor Joseph Jonas, during brainstorming sessions for the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial in the fall of 2020. “I thought Rockdale could hold an event at Jonas’ gravesite in the Chestnut Street Cemetery, not realizing that he is actually not interred in the cemetery he helped to found.” David Harris, Executive Director of the Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati (JCGC), explained to her that while Jonas’ first wife Rachel Jonas is buried in the Chestnut Street Cemetery, and his second wife Martha Oppenheim Jonas is buried in the UJC Walnut Hills Cemetery, Joseph Jonas is not buried in Cincinnati at all. Jonas passed in 1869 while visiting his daughter in Mobile, Alabama and is buried there in the Magnolia Cemetery.
Harris thought the idea of honoring Joseph Jonas at the Chestnut Street Cemetery was an important one. He suggested erecting a cenotaph – a funerary monument set in honor of someone at a place where they are not interred. Rabbi Meredith Kahan, Senior Rabbi of Rockdale Temple, agreed, and they began the work of designing the first permanent installation in Cincinnati to honor Jonas.
Rabbi Kahan, Korkin, and Harris were joined in their efforts by several community members, including David and Abby Schwartz and JCGC Operations Manager, Carrie Rhodus. The team set out to determine exactly what Jonas’ existing monument looked like to guide their design process. As a professional preservationist, Rhodus was able to reach out to her network of professional colleagues to seek the answer. Within a day, another preservationist from Mobile was able to go to the cemetery and send back photos.
The team selected limestone quarried in Indiana and, with the help of Acsent stone masons in Northside, chose to design it in a four-part obelisk to replicate his original stone. The cenotaph is over seven feet tall and was installed during the summer of 2022.
In its four sides, the cenotaph reads:
A simple and upright man
Cincinnati’s first permanent Jewish settler
Founder of Chestnut St. Cemetery
Founding President of
K.K. Bene Israel Rockdale Temple
This cenotaph is presented by Rockdale Temple
To commemorate its Bicentennial Year
The dedication ceremony was part of a series of events in September in preparation for Rockdale’s upcoming 200th anniversary. Rockdale will kick-off a year-long calendar of celebrations in fall of 2023. Rabbi Erin Binder, Assistant Rabbi and Educator of Rockdale Temple, led the ceremony, framing it as a time of celebration and remembrance of Jonas’ life and very rich legacy. She explained to approximately fifty guests how Jonas encouraged his family and friends to emigrate from England to build a Jewish community here. “He knew there was something here in Cincinnati that could really bring promise to the Jewish people. And he wasn’t wrong. By his work, he brought forth this amazing community that we now call home, that we contribute to and partake in.”
Rabbi Meredith Kahan continued, “One year ago, I had the honor of representing our nearly 200-year-old congregation, Kehal Kodesh Bene Israel – Rockdale Temple, as we joined our Cincinnati Jewish community in re-dedicating the Chestnut Street Cemetery. Buried here are many of the builders, founders, and leaders of our community, the people who made it possible for us to be on the very cusp of a most historic celebration of Jewish life in our city. Rockdale Temple is proud to dedicate this cenotaph, a monument in memory of Joseph Jonas, our congregation’s founder and first president. It is our sacred honor to dedicate this memorial to Joseph Jonas, as we celebrate our history and his central place therein.”
JCGC is proud to have partnered with Rockdale Temple on the creation of this monument, as the cemetery concludes its 200th Anniversary year, and as Rockdale Temple soon begins the celebration of its 200th Anniversary year.