COHEN, JACOB RAPHAEL, Jewish minister; b. c. 1738, perhaps on the Barbary Coast; m. 5 Dec. 1764 Rebecca Luria in London, England, and they had five daughters and a son; d. 9 Sept. 1811 in Philadelphia, Pa.
Jacob Raphael Cohen was educated in London where he became a mohel or ritual circumciser. When in 1777 or 1778 the Spanish-Portuguese congregation of London, Shaar Hashomayim, was asked by the Shearith Israel congregation in Montreal to recommend a spiritual leader, they suggested Cohen. Ministers without ordination as rabbis – men of piety with dedication to the obligations of their office – have not been uncommon in Jewish history. On 13 Feb. 1778 Cohen was engaged for three years at £50 per annum to act as shochet (ritual slaughterer), hazan (precentor), teacher of Hebrew and of the religious tradition, and reader from the sacred scrolls of the Pentateuch. The engagement was made in London on behalf of the Montreal congregation by the merchant Hyam Myers, who had lived in Montreal from the early 1760s to 1774.
Cohen probably arrived at Montreal in 1779, the first minister to a Jewish community in the province of Quebec. His congregation consisted largely of the families of successful merchants who had come to the new British colony during and immediately after the conquest from England, the American colonies, Barbados, Jamaica, and Curaçao. In the early 1760s perhaps ten per cent of Montreal’s merchants had been Jews but, since commercial conditions there had proved to be difficult, most had soon left for New York City or Philadelphia. Nevertheless, on 30 Dec. 1768 those who remained had formed Shearith Israel, the earliest Jewish congregation in Canada. Although the majority of its members were Ashkenazim, descendants of German and East European Jews, they had adopted the Spanish-Portuguese Sephardic rite, practised in the senior institution of British Jewry, London’s Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, with which they had maintained constant contact.
As prescribed by Sephardic custom, the social and religious life of the Montreal congregation was supervised, almost autocratically, by the junta or communal heads, all zealous adherents to aristocracy, conservatism, and orthodoxy. In 1768 the founders of the congregation had been accorded a double vote on all matters brought up at communal meetings, a privilege they could pass on to their eldest sons. In this manner internal unity and a strong orthodox spirit had been forged, so that by 1777, although small, the congregation was sufficiently established to build a synagogue, Shearith Israel, the first north of the Thirteen Colonies; it was constructed on a site on Rue Notre-Dame, which had been made available to the congregation by the David family [see David David*].
Cohen probably ministered, according to Sephardic custom, under the strict control of the powerful lay committee. One of his earliest ceremonies appears to have been a blessing for three benefactors of the synagogue, Abraham Judah, Phoebe Samuel, and Naphtali Joseph; blessings were also said for the congregations in London, New York, Curaçao, and Surinam. Cohen extended his services to Jewish communities outside Montreal: at Trois-Rivières he performed the circumcision ceremonies for two of Aaron Hart*’s sons, Benjamin* in 1779 and Asher Alexander in 1782. The Jewish communities were small, however, numbering only 20 families in Montreal and five in Trois-Rivières and Berthier combined, and in the three years of his ministry Cohen performed only four circumcisions and two marriages. In 1781 Cohen made his own translation of an ancient and complex halachic document, the Aramaic ketuba or marriage contract, probably not rendered into English previously.
Cohen’s incumbency appears to have been satisfactory to his congregation and peaceful, until his last year when he complained of not having been fully paid for the term of his engagement. The congregation split, a minority supporting Cohen, who in September 1782 sued Lucius Levy Solomons*, apparently the parnas or lay leader of the congregation, for £50. Cohen won his case in the Court of Common Pleas but the decision was reversed on a technicality in the Court of Appeals on 6 May 1784.
Cohen had departed for England in 1782 but found himself stranded in New York City, where his ship had been diverted to repatriate British troops. The Jewish community there was temporarily without a minister, their hazan, Gershom Mendas Seixas, a supporter of the revolution, having fled to Philadelphia. Cohen filled the position of hazan until Seixas’s return in 1784, at which time he left to replace Seixas at the Mikveh Israel Synagogue of Philadelphia. Cohen died at Philadelphia in 1811 and was replaced as hazan by his son, Abraham Haim.
Following Cohen’s departure from Montreal, Shearith Israel had begun to go into a long decline, in part as a result of the government’s refusal to recognize it as an incorporated body; it was, in consequence, prevented from maintaining legal registers of births, marriages, and deaths, and experienced problems of administration and property ownership. In the course of the ensuing decades the congregation almost disintegrated. During this time it was served by laymen, and occasionally by the clergy of the New York congregation; in 1803 a layman from Rivière du-Loup (Louiseville), Barnett Lyons, officiated at the marriage of Henry Joseph* and Rachel Solomons at Berthier-en-Haut (Berthierville), and in 1811 the minister of the Shearith Israel Synagogue of New York, the Reverend Jacques Judah Lyons, circumcised the sons of Ezekiel* and Benjamin Hart at Montreal, and of Henry Joseph at Berthier-en-Haut. When the Montreal congregation obtained legal recognition in 1830, its renewal commenced; however, it was not until 1840, when it appointed David Piza, that it was again able to support a permanent hazan.
[Jacob Raphael Cohen kept a record book of his activities as a minister which is one of the important sources for Jewish history in North America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In addition to the list of circumcisions, marriages, and burials, it provides a written description of liturgies, a rare find in the Jewish tradition. It has been published by A. D. Corré and M. H. Stern as “The record book of the Reverend Jacob Raphael Cohen” in American Jewish Hist. Quarterly (New York), 59 (1969): 23–82. d.r.]
PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 33: 17–30. First American Jewish families, comp. M. H. Stern (Cincinnati, Ohio, and Waltham, Mass., n.d.), 180. Solomon Frank, Two centuries in the life of a synagogue (n.p., n.d.), 28–60. A. M. Hyamson, The Sephardim of England; a history of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, 1492–1951 (London, 1951), 150. Louis Rosenberg, Some aspects of the historical development of the Canadian Jewish community (Montreal, n.d.). B. G. Sack, History of the Jews in Canada, from the earliest beginnings to the present day, [trans. Ralph Novek] (Montreal, 1945). Edwin Wolf and Maxwell Whiteman, The history of the Jews of Philadelphia from colonial times to the age of Jackson (Philadelphia, 1957), 124, 141–42, 190, 195, 203, 244–47. [B. G. Sack], “A suit at law involving the first Jewish minister in Canada,” American Jewish Hist. Soc., Pubs. ([New York]), 31 (1928): 181–86.