Finding Jewish Roots Along the Appalachian Trail

Written by Paul J. Blank on . Posted in Travel

The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only trail in the world. It extends 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Over the years, I have hiked sections of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. It is my dream to one day complete the entire trail.

For me, the most interesting part of the trail is the opportunity to discover a rural America not typically seen by suburbanites and city-dwellers. It is one that I generally assume to be far removed from my Jewish roots; as the trail passes through small towns built around white clapboard churches and country stores, I joke to myself: “I wonder where I will find a minyan?” Or, “Does this town have a B’nai B’rith chapter?”

Despite my assumptions about not being able to find a Jewish presence along the Appalachian Trail, I have actally found many Jewish connections. As we commemorate Black History Month in February, two national historic sites that fascinating information about pre-Civil War Jewish attitudes toward slavery in the U.S. seem like timely examples to share.

The first site is the John Brown Museum in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Brown was an abolitionist who believed that armed insurrection was the only way to overthrow the institution of slavery. In 1856, with a small group of volunteers, Brown led anti-slavery forces in Kansas. Reading the names of these volunteers, I thought that some names “sounded Jewish.” I researched those names and discovered that Theodore Weiner, Jacob Benjamin, and, most notably, August Bondi, were in fact Jews.

Bondi, born in 1833, was an immigrant from Vienna. In 1850, he was a sailor on a freighter when his ship stopped in Texas. “The screams of the slaves, who were whipped with leather straps every morning, woke me up before dawn,” he wrote in his diary. He also wrote: “I could have married the most beautiful woman in Texas, but I felt I could not marry a woman who owned slaves.”

Bondi moved to Kansas and, together with Weiner and Benjamin, joined Brown’s anti-slavery forces. Bondi wrote about Brown: “He always preached against slavery and hammered home to us that we should never accept existing laws and institutions if our conscience and reason told us that they violate human rights.”

In 1857, after Kansas became a free state, Bondi established an Underground Railroad station, hiding fugitive slaves in his home. In 1861, he joined the Union Army as a first sergeant. After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Bondi wrote: “No more Pharaohs and no more slaves.”

The second national historic site I discovered with a connection to Jewish attitudes toward slavery in the U.S. was the Daniel Kaufman House in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. Kaufman, born in 1818, also established an Underground Railroad station. In a case that drew national attention, in 1852 he was fined $4,000 for providing food and transportation to fugitive slaves. According to Kaufman’s own testimony, he assisted more than 60 runaway slaves, none of whom were ever caught or returned to bondage.

The Daniel Kaufman House is 50 miles from the Maryland border. This proximity is significant insofar as Maryland, although part of the Union, was also a slave-owning state. There is a tradition that, when hiking the Appalachian Trail and crossing the Mason-Dixon line from Maryland into Pennsylvania, one should run the last 100 yards to remember the experience of slaves running to their freedom.

Thinking the name Kaufman sounded Jewish and remembering that Bondi had also established an Underground Railroad station, I did some research and discovered that Daniel Kaufman was not, in fact, Jewish — but he did have an older, more famous brother, David Kaufman, who was Jewish!

David Kaufman’s religious identification has puzzled historians. Judaism wasn’t the religion of his parents, his younger brother Daniel, or even his wife. Most likely, he converted to Judaism while he was a student at Princeton University.

Kaufman, born in 1813, did not share the same beliefs and convictions as his brother. He was pro-slavery and married into a slave-owning family. He was elected to Congress and fought against an act that would have banned slavery in new territories acquired by the United States. Moreover, the he sponsored a bill making it unlawful for a “free person of color” to immigrate to Texas and requiring such persons to leave Texas within two years. Kaufman also participated in the expulsion of the Cherokee Indians.

Bondi and Kaufman were both Jewish, yet they had very different attitudes toward slavery: Bondi was a staunch abolitionist and Kaufman was a pro-slavery advocate. At the same time, both of these attitudes towards slavery are part of the American Jewish experience, an experience which continues to come alive for me in new ways as I hike the Appalachian Trail.

By Paul J. Blank

 Paul J. Blank is a teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Send comments or questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .