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Isaac was the second of three children; his one older sister was named Leah Lippman and his younger brother was named Jacob Lippman. Leah married a butcher named Hirsch Elkus who moved the family to the small town of Denekamp, Holland located near the Dutch-German border. Leeser's younger brother Jacob died of smallpox at the age of twenty-five in 1834, one year after emigrating to America. Jacob contracted the disease from his brother Isaac after coming to Philadelphia to care for him. While surviving the disease and the trauma of his brother's death, Leeser' face remained deeply pock-marked, a disfigurement that would cause him great embarrassment throughout his life. Both Jacob and Isaac died bachelors.
Leeser received his early education in Dulmen (in Germany), where his family had moved no later than 1812. Leeser was raised by his paternal grandmother Gitla, a devout woman who strongly influenced Leeser. With the death of his father and grandmother in 1820, Leeser found himself orphaned at the age of 14. That same year Leeser left for Muenster where he attended the secular Gymnasium. While living in Muenster, Leeser was befriended by the city's district Rabbi, Abraham Sutro, who was a strong opponent of the burgeoning movement for Jewish religious reform. The relationship appears to have had a determining character on Leeser insofar as he would take up the cause of traditional Judaism against the Reformers later in America.
Leeser emigrated to the United States at the age of 17, arriving on May 5, 1824. He came on the invitation of his maternal uncle Zalma Rehine who lived in Richmond, Virginia. Rehine, who ran a fairly prosperous dry-goods business, was married to Rachel Judah, whose mother was the sister of Reverend Gershom Seixas, one of early America's most important Jewish religious leaders. Rachel Judah's sister Rebecca was married to their first cousin, Isaac Seixas, who was Hazan of the Beth Shalom Synagogue in Richmond. Seixas befriended Leeser and taught him the Sephardic rite, the dominant Jewish rite then practiced in America. Rachel's brother Isaac Judah was another Richmond relative with whom Leeser formed a strong friendship. In all, Leeser would spend five years in Richmond, a time he would later describe as among his happiest, and in that time become Americanized in one of the more traditional, conservative Jewish communities of the South.
Leeser first achieved national renown in 1828 for his moving response, published in The Richmond Whig, to an attack on the Jews which had appeared in the London Quarterly Review and then been re-printed in American newspapers. Leeser's response was widely circulated and eventually re-published in book form in 1841 as The Claims of the Jews to an Equality of Rights. In 1829, with his reputation established and at the urging of Jacob Mordecai, one of Richmond's leading Jewish figures, Leeser applied for and was elected to the post of Hazan (Cantor and Reader of the prayer service) of the Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia.
Leeser's tenure at Mikveh Israel was marked by constant bickering with the Board of the synagogue over the extent of the Hazan's authority, his status and independence, as well as over Leeser's on-going demands for a life-time contract and salary increase. The Board also resisted several innovations by Leeser, such as his introduction into the weekly service of a regular English language sermon, the first of its kind of note in the United States (first begun on June 2, 1830). Even as his relations with Mikveh Israel were to sour, however, Leeser was to begin a period of intense literary productivity and remarkable organizational activity.
During the 1830's, Leeser worked closely with Rebecca Gratz, the famous Jewish educator and civic leader, to establish the Free Sunday School movement in Philadelphia. Leeser's Hebrew Spelling-Book, which he published in 1838 (the first Hebrew Primer for children in the United States) was created specifically for use in the Hebrew school which he and Rebecca Gratz opened that same year.
Leeser's career as a translator also began in Philadelphia in 1830 with the publication of his rendering from German of J. Johlson's Instruction in the Mosaic Religion. Leeser, as part of his ongoing efforts to contribute to the development of Jewish education and culture in America, translated a number of important works into English from German, Spanish, French and Hebrew. Among his most important translations were Moses Mendelssohn's Jerusalem, Joseph Schwartz' Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine, as well as his renowned Bible translations, first of the Pentateuch and later of the entire Hebrew Bible.