The Grand Old Jews of York

In 1773, when Capt. Alexander Graydon visited York, Pa., it was a married Jewish hostess who captured his attention.
March 17, 2005


In 1773, when Capt. Alexander Graydon visited York, Pa., it was a married Jewish hostess who captured his attention.

“[T]here was but a single house in which I found that sort of reception which invited me to repeat my visit; and this was the house of a Jew,” he wrote of Shinah [Shaynah] Etting in his memoirs.

“In this I could conceive myself at home, being always received with ease, with cheerfulness, and cordiality,” he continued. “Those who have known York, at the period I am speaking of, cannot fail to recollect the sprightly and engaging Mrs. E., the life of all the gaiety that could be mustered in the village; always in spirits, full of frolic and glee and possessing the talent of singing agreeable, she was an indispensable ingredient in the little parties of pleasure which sometime took place.”

Shaynah and her merchant husband, Elijah, considered the first Jewish residents of York, also were among the country’s Jews of record. And their story is among the handful of surprising Jewish connections in York, the country’s first legal capital, where the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of the Confederation on Nov. 15, 1777.

Visitors to this charming industrial center, which describes itself as the “Factory Tour Capital of the World,” can choose from an eclectic mix of attractions. York also hosts fascinating Colonial buildings such as the Golden Plough Tavern. In the adjacent home, complete with pots hanging over the hearth and an authentic spinning wheel, a bonneted tour guide introduced a reporter to the story of the Ettings.

I found out still more from “Never to Be Forgotten” by James McClure, historian and managing editor of the York Daily Record. The book is sold for about $14 at the York County Heritage Trust gift shop in the downtown visitors center.

The Ettings’ most prominent son, Solomon, who moved with Shaynah to Baltimore after her husband died, went on to lead the efforts to pass the “Jew Bill,” which allowed Jews to become elected officials in Maryland. After its enactment in 1826, Solomon Etting would become one of the first Jews in that state to hold office.

Another son, Reuben, was enlisted during the Revolutionary War despite the customary exclusion of Jews. Reuben, after a brilliant military career in which he reached the rank of captain, was then appointed by Thomas Jefferson to be the U.S. marshal for the District of Maryland.

A tour of nearby downtown streets reveals one of York’s most honored modern-day heroes, Rabbi Alexander Goode. His visage looks down upon York from a large outdoor mural, one of a popular downtown series, which depicts the blue beauty of dawn at sea.

The former spiritual leader of the Reform Temple Beth Israel was aboard the USS Dorchester during World War II when it was struck by a torpedo off the coast of Greenland. In the ensuing panic, Goode gave his gloves to a Coast Guard officer, enabling him to cling to a lifeboat for hours before rescue. Goode, who also forfeited his lifejacket and seat in a lifeboat, joined arms with three fellow chaplains and lifted his voice in prayer as the ship took them to their death.

The U.S. Senate awarded “The Four Chaplains” Medals of Heroism. An interfaith chapel dedicated to their memory stands at Valley Forge. And a York elementary school, which contains another mural, is named in Goode’s memory.

Just outside the city of York, the local Jewish Community Center (JCC) receives the support of a Jewish community estimated at 500 to 900 families, depending on the source. The JCC houses a striking Holocaust memorial wall sculpture.

In an unusual piece of Jewish trivia, one of the world’s leading motorcycle makers based here reportedly also has Jewish roots. The Davidson half of the legendary Harley-Davidson company, which began operating in York in 1903, is presumed to have been Jewish.

I stayed at The Yorktowne Hotel, a national historic landmark, which opened in 1925. The hotel, at 48 E. Market St., is located near many tourist sites. For reservations and more information contact (800) 233-9324 or visit www.yorktowne.com.

For more information on tours and exhibits throughout York County, call (888) 858-9675 or visit www.yorkpa.org. Printed walking tour guides are available for a nominal fee.

“The Four Chaplains” mural is located on Market Street near Pershing Avenue, east of the visitors’ center. The “Harley-Davidson Tradition,” the first mural of the series, is located nearby on West Market Street between Newberry Street and Pershing Avenue.

The York JCC is at 2000 Hollywood Drive, (717) 843-0918. Two local congregations are the Reform Temple Beth Israel, 2090 Hollywood Drive (next door to the JCC), (717) 843-2676 and the Conservative Ohev Sholom Congregation, 2251 Eastern Blvd., (717) 755-2714.

For information on Harley-Davidson tours in York as well as Wauwatosa, Wis., and Kansas City, Mo., call (877) 883-1450 or visit

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