Menu JTA Search

Hadassah Examines the Origins of U.S. Cities with Biblical Names

Why do more than half the states in America have cities or towns named Jerusalem, or its derivative, Salem?

The answers to this question are part of a research contest sponsored by Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization.

The aim of the contest is to have the organization’s chapters in places with biblical names such as Bethlehem and Hebron create study circles to investigate why the founders of the town or city chose the name, said Carol Diament, director for Hebrew Education at Hadassah.

By studying the link between Christian America and biblical Israel, Hadassah hopes to reveal how Jews have been treated in America.

Diament wrote recently in the organization’s newsletter Textures that there is no doubt those who founded this country likened it to Zion and themselves to the Children of Israel.

“What is unclear,” Diament said, “is how they viewed authentic Jews [in their midst and] were relations harmonious or hostile?”

There are two schools of thought on the interactions between Jews and Christians in this country.

Moshe Davis, founder of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, proffers a positive interpretation of American Jewish history. He asserts that the founding fathers adopted the biblical story of Jewish slavery in Egypt – comparing Britain to Egypt and King George III to Pharaoh – and therefore welcomed the Jews to America.

“America recognized [religious and cultural diversity as compatible with its ideas of civil liberty,” Davis wrote in Textures.

Taking a less benign approach to the original settlers is the historian Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who said in the newsletters: “The Puritans of New England were obsessed by the Jewish Bible, but they were not hospitable to the Jews or Judaism.”

There are more than 1,000 places, according to the Census Bureau, with names mentioned in the Bible. At least 384 have been authenticated as stemming from biblical sources.

There are Canaans, Zions, Jordans, Jerichos, Pisgahs, Mitzpahs and Gileads dotting the map from coast to coast.

Hawaii is the only state without a city of town from the Bible.

The overwhelming interest generated by the contest has prompted Diament to consider pursuing the “wider implications,” by soliciting the participation of the Christian Right in the contest and studies.

Diament believes that the joint effort could foster better relations between the two groups, though she is wary that serious improvements can only result when “the evangelicals compromise on social issues.”

Although Jewish groups welcome the support of Israel by the Christian Right, they remain apprehensive about embracing Christian evangelicals because of their emphasis on converting Jews.

NEXT STORY