America’s Oldest Mikveh Found

A ritual bath complex found under the Lloyd Street Synagogue in Baltimore is believed to be the oldest in the United States.

Tags: Mikveh
Hillel Fendel , | updated: 10:39 AM

Ancient Mikveh
Ancient Mikveh
Israel news photo: illustrative

The Baltimore Sun reports that a mikveh – ritual bath – found under the Lloyd Street Synagogue in Baltimore is believed to be the oldest in the United States.

The excavations, led by Esther Doyle Read, a lecturer in ancient studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), are being funded by the Jewish Museum of Maryland – which now includes the Lloyd Street Synagogue – as well as the Maryland Historical Trust and UMBC.

It is believed that the mikveh was built in or before 1845. Hints of its presence were first discovered in 2001, but archaeologists have now revealed about a quarter of a five-foot-deep wooden tub. The finds are linked to a cistern found in 2008, and to remains of a brick hearth once used to warm the bath's water.

 "The idea of a ritual bath complex helps fill out the history of Jewish religious practice in this country," Avi Decter, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, told the Sun. The 161-year-old mikveh is just a few feet away from a pair of more modern, tile-lined baths, built and used by the Shomrei Mishmeres Orthodox congregation that used the building after 1905.

 The Lloyd Street Synagogue was a central place of worship and religious practice for a small community of German Jewish immigrants. Barred by Maryland law from incorporating and owning property until 1828, Read said, Jewish congregations would typically meet in private homes, where they would build their mikveh in the basement. Records show that the newly-found mikveh house was already present in 1845.  No mikvehs have been found at any older synagogue in the United States.

When the congregation expanded its synagogue to the rear in 1860, it tore down the old mikveh building, filled in the bath and buried it beneath their new addition. The dig has also turned up a wealth of artifacts in the fill dirt, including broken wine bottles, crockery, buttons and other domestic items, none of which date back later than 1860.

"The week we discovered the cistern,” Decter said, “there was an article in a professional archaeology magazine about the excavation of a [1723] synagogue in Amsterdam. And it had the same three elements" — the bath, the cistern and the hearth.