Jewish Continuity in America: Creative Survival in a Free Society

Jewish Continuity in America: Creative Survival in a Free Society

by Abraham J. Karp

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817358228
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 03/15/2015
Series: Judaic Studies Series
Edition description: First Edition, 1st Edition
Pages: 318
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Abraham J. Karp is the Philip S. Bernstein Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at The University of Rochester and The Joseph and Rebecca Mitchell Research Professor of American Jewish History and Bibliography at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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Jewish Continuity In America

Creative Survival in a Free Society

By Abraham J. Karp

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1998 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8842-3


The Synagogue in America A Historical Typology

Little more than half a year after the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, the Reverend Johann Megapolensis of the Reformed Dutch Church wrote to his superiors in Amsterdam, on March 18, 1655: "Last summer some Jews came here from Holland. ... Now again, in the spring some have come ... and report that a great many of that lot would yet follow and then build here their synagogue." The Reverend's apprehensions that the handful of immigrant Jews, the first of their people on the North American continent, planned to form a congregation, were well-founded. Governor Peter Stuyvesant complained to the directors of the Dutch West India Company, owners of the colony, on June 10, 1656, that "the Jewish nation ... have many times requested of us free and public exercise of their abominable religion." He urged that this not be granted, for "giving them liberty, we cannot refuse the Lutherans and the Papists." A year earlier, in July 1655, in reply to a petition by the recently arrived Jews to "purchase a burying place for their nation," the council of the colony noted, "that inasmuch as they did not wish to bury their dead in the common burying ground, there would be granted them when the need and occasion thereof arose, some place elsewhere of the free land belonging to the Company," and on February 22, 1656, two members of the council were "authorized to point out to the petitioners a little hook of land situated outside of this city for a burial place."

Within a year of their arrival, the Jews of New Amsterdam had already joined together for their common religious needs, the first of which was consecrated ground for burial. Congregation Shearith Israel, mother synagogue of American Israel, may well be right in dating its inception to the year of arrival, 1654. The first congregation's initial holding, as in the case of many of the congregations that followed, was a cemetery. As the Reverend Mr. Megapolensis feared, many were to follow the first arrivals and "did build here their synagogue" for worship, for religious celebration, and for the transmission, retention, and fostering of Jewish loyalties.

The establishment of a congregation was not always a profession of religious piety, nor was the building of a synagogue evidence of a desire to worship. For many, the act was primarily an expression of Jewish identity or a response to what was believed to be an American "demand." The definition and function of the American synagogue were forged within the parameters of Jewish needs and American demands, changing in response to the changing religious needs of the American Jew and in conformity both to the possibilities for public expression of corporate Jewish religious life that America afforded and to the perceived limitation upon it that America imposed.


In colonial America, synagogue and community were synonymous, and the congregation served all communal needs. "No colonial American Jewish community ever sheltered more than one permanent synagogue," Jacob R. Marcus has noted, "and the local synagogue virtually exercised a monopolistic control over every Jew within its ambit." It was able to do so because it alone provided for the basic needs of the recently arrived or native Jew: companionship with fellow Jews, a place to worship when piety or other sentiments demanded it, circumcision for a son and a wedding service for a daughter, kosher meat for the table and a proper burial in consecrated ground, and the opportunity to give or to receive charity. Hannah, the widow of Moses Louzanda, remained on the pension rolls of Shearith Israel from 1756 through 1774, and Levi Michaels petitioned "the President and Elders of the Synagogue in the City of New York" in 1764 for "a sum of money, upon loan, as you in your wisdom shall see meet" to enable him to return to Montreal. In 1762 Abraham I. Abrahams was engaged by the congregation "to keep a publick school ... to teach the Hebrew language and translate the same into English, also to teach English, reading, writing, and cyphering." Seven years later he described his tenure as "having served this congregation in the capacity of a Ribbi [sic]" (the term designates teacher, for there were no ordained rabbis in America until the middle of the nineteenth century). The chief religious functionary was the reverend minister (calledhazzan), who led the services, officiated at religious ceremonies (although permission to officiate at a marriage had to be granted by the lay leaders), and on occasion would be permitted to preach. The governance of the congregation in all its aspects was firmly in the hands of lay leaders, who kept a tight rein.

For the immigrant Jew, the synagogue provided the comforting continuity of familiar liturgy and ritual and the security of the company of fellow Jews who would care and provide for one's family in time of need or loss. In a society that was splintering into a religious pluralism, the synagogue was becoming part of the religious landscape, its adherents clothed with an identity coherent and acceptable to the host community. Marcus suggests that "in its hegemonic aspect the colonial American synagogue did parallel contemporary Protestantism" as it moved "toward the integration of [its] communicants into one rounded-out religious, social, and eleemosynary whole." What permitted the local synagogue to exert "monopolistic control" was the place and power of the church in colonial America. Franklin Hamlin Littell notes that the major religious factor in colonial America was the established church and that even in the early years of the Republic, the great Virginians, Washington, Jefferson, et al., "were all committed to the cause of organized religion ... the large majority as taxpayers and patrons of the state church." The Jews, seeking acceptance, laboring at integration, took instruction and example from their Protestant neighbors, choosing the synagogue as the institution that would establish their community; indeed, they regarded congregation and community as synonymous.

No more than a half dozen congregations served colonial Jewry. They were small and far apart. Almost one hundred miles separated the nearest two, New York's Shearith Israel and Philadelphia's Mikveh Israel. Although separated by distance, they were united by their shared Jewish identity, by a similar Sephardi synagogue rite, and by family and business ties. One congregation could freely turn to another in time of need, whether it was for aid in building a synagogue, for the loan of a Torah or other ritual objects, or for guidance in religious matters. This unity found symbolic expression when four of the six — the Hebrew congregations in the cities of Philadelphia, New York, Richmond, and Charleston — united in an "Address ... to the President of the United States," George Washington, in 1790. Only the most northern congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, and the most southern, in Savannah, Georgia, framed their own letters. The Jewish communities spoke through their congregations, which were the sole communal institutions.

The mother congregation, as we have noted, was Shearith Israel, New York. The earliest extant minute books disclose that by 1728 it was a fully functioning organization presided over by a "Parnaz and Two Hatanim" and served by three functionaries:

The Hazzan Mosses Lopez de fonseca shall be obliged to attend at the Sinogog at the customary hours twice every weekday, and three times on the Sabbath and feasts. ... Semuel Bar Meyr a Cohen of this Kahall shall be obliged to kill at severall places and Sufficiently for the whole Congregation. ... Valentin Campanall Shamaz shall be obliged to attend at the Sinogog and shall call the Yehidimz that they may assemble togeathere at the usual hours ... he shall keep the Synagog candlesticks & lamp clean and make the candles also shall keep the sestern supplyed with watter.

The hazzan, bodek (ritual inspector), and shamash (beadle) were paid £50, £20, and £16, respectively, and were supplied with firewood and matzot (unleavened Passover bread). The congregation met in a house on Mill Street, "commonly known by the name of the Jews' synagogue."

Dr. Alexander Hamilton, of Annapolis, Maryland, on a visit to the New York synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, 1744, wrote:

I went in the morning with Mr. Hog to the Jews' sinagogue where was an assembly of about 50 of the seed of Abraham chanting and singing their doleful hymns, dressed in robes of white silk. Before the rabbi, who was elevated above the rest, in a kind of desk, stood the seven golden candlesticks transformed into silver gilt. They were all slipshod. The men wore their hats ... and had a veil of some white stuff which they sometimes threw over their heads in their devotion; the women, of whom some were very pritty, stood up in a gallery like a hen coop. They sometimes paused or rested a little from singing and talked about business.

The colonial synagogue represented continuity. It replicated in form and function the Jewish houses of worship on the European continent — adopting the same prayers, garb, melodies, and decorum, or lack thereof. It was that, and more. Already in colonial days it was part of the American religious landscape. When Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal, emissary from Hebron, preached in the Newport, Rhode Island, synagogue on Shavuot, 1773, the twenty-five Jewish families were joined at the service by neighbors, including Governor Joseph Wantan and judges Oliver and Auchmuty. The dedication of a new synagogue in Charleston, South Carolina, on September 19, 1774, was attended by Governor William Moultrie and civil and military officers of the state and city. The South Carolina State Gazette noted: "From the style of the building and the splendor of its ornaments, we can perceive that, that injured people ... have realized their promised land ... in the blessed climes of America. The shackles of religious distinctions are now no more ... they are permitted to the full privileges of citizenship, and bid fair to flourish and be happy."

The Jews perceived that in America "religious distinctions" expressed by the synagogue were not bars to "privileges of citizenship." To the contrary, the synagogue served as a symbol of the Jews' at-homeness in America. In 1788 the Jews of Philadelphia solicited contributions for building a synagogue from "worthy fellow Citizens of every religious Denomination ... flattering themselves that their worshipping Almighty God in a way and manner different from other religious societies will never deter the enlightened citizens of Philadelphia, from generously subscribing." They were correct in their surmise. Benjamin Franklin was the first to respond with a generous £5, and he was joined by a who's who of the community.

The small size of the Jewish communities in colonial America permitted only single congregations, all following the Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) rite. As established churches became prevalent, community and congregation were seen as identical. Functionally, the total needs of Jewish life were provided for by the congregation, which in turn exerted considerable discipline over its membership. The synagogue as an institution of religion afforded the immigrant community an accepted and respected vehicle for its integration into the larger society.


During the first half of the nineteenth century, while the Jewish population of the world doubled in size, that of the United States increased twenty-five fold, from some two thousand to fifty thousand. Migration from central and western Europe provided the numbers and helped diversify the rapidly growing network of Ashkenazi synagogues. By midcentury, the ten synagogues of the early 1800s had grown to almost ninety. New York City alone could boast of twenty, Philadelphia, five. Their rite varied with country of origin, as noted in the Lyons–De SolaJewish Calendar of 1854. New York's synagogues ranged from the Portugueseminhag (rite) Shearith Israel to seven following the Polish minhag, seven the German, and one the Bohemian; in addition, one was described as a Netherlandish congregation. As identified by their minhag, the five synagogues of Philadelphia were Portuguese, German (two), Polish, and Netherlandish. The Calendar also discloses that communal function was becoming diversified. No fewer than forty-four societies served the charitable and educational needs of New York Jewry; Philadelphia listed seventeen; and Cincinnati, served by two Polish and two German congregations, supported eleven societies and schools.

Factors external and internal to Jewish life were responsible for the proliferation and diversification of synagogues. In the 1830s Francis Grund described the role of religion in America: "Religion has been the basis of the most important American settlements; religion kept their little community together, religion assisted them in their revolutionary struggle. ... The Americans look upon religion as a promoter of civil and political liberty; and have, therefore, transferred to it a large portion of the affection which they cherish for the institutions of their country."

The immigrant Jew quickly perceived that religion and religious institutions were highly esteemed in America, that those associated with these institutions were respected as "good citizens," and that religious diversity was viewed as a mandate of democracy. Thomas Jefferson stated to Jacob de la Motta that in religion the maxim is "divided we stand, united, we fall." The diversity that the synagogue brought to the religious scene was a service to democracy. Hence, to build and maintain a synagogue was a response to the American as well as to the Jewish call to duty. Wherever Jewish and American interests fortified each other, American Jews responded with enthusiasm.

American church bodies, whether Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, or Baptist, reflected differences not only in religious ideology but also in European national origins. The immigrant Jews took example and did the same. The rite synagogues afforded the immigrant the needed comfort and security of the known, the habitual. Continuity of ritual and familiar liturgical melodies sung by landsleit (fellow immigrants from the same town or region) eased the trauma of migration and resettlement. The first Ashkenazi congregation, Rodef Shalom of Philadelphia, came about naturally, when in 1795 a group of Jews felt more comfortable praying "according to the German and Dutch rules" than the Sephardi rite of Mikveh Israel. The older congregation accepted this division as natural and right. This was not the case in New York's first Ashkenazi synagogue, B'nai Jeshurun. In May 1825, fifteen members of Shearith Israel requested that they be permitted to conduct their own services in the synagogue. The request was summarily turned down by the trustees, who stated that they could not "recognize any society or association for religious worship distinct from Congregation Shearith Israel." Nonetheless, the petitioners were determined to found a new congregation, explaining: "We have a large portion of our brethren who have been educated in the German and Polish minhag, who find it difficult to accustom themselves to what is commonly called the Portuguese minhag." They also argued that increasing immigration and dispersal of places of residence would soon make another synagogue necessary. The leaders of the mother congregation never replied to the seceders; unhappy with the defection, they would not wish them well, but, recognizing the inevitable, they knew that to protest would be futile.

Once begun, the process of congregation building, aided by growing immigration, continued. In 1828, a group of German, Dutch, and Polish Jews left B'nai Jeshurun, which styled itself as an English synagogue recognizing the authority of London's Great Synagogue and its rabbi, to found Anshe Chesed. Eleven years later, a group of Polish Jews left both synagogues to form Shaarey Zedek, which in turn was abandoned by a group of its congregants who organized Beth Israel in 1843.

The professional traveler I. J. Benjamin II describes the situation well: "The Portuguese claimed a sort of patronage — over the immigrants. ... Accordingly, the immigrants founded a new synagogue. Those of English origin ... introduced the London minhag with a sermon and discussion of congregational matters in English. The Germans ... could not endure the English; the Poles could not endure the Germans; so there was soon division and separation in all directions. New York spread ever more rapidly; distances became too great, the synagogues too small."

Most separations were acrimonious, occasioned by disagreement on a point of ritual or liturgical usage, social distinctions, ethnic loyalties, or personal peeves. What made possible this volatility and viability of the new congregations was the congregationalism that marked American religious life, legitimizing secession, and a constantly increasing immigration from numerous countries.


Excerpted from Jewish Continuity In America by Abraham J. Karp. Copyright © 1998 University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Quest for a Viable Identity1
Part 1The Synagogue in America
1.The Synagogue in America: A Historical Typology17
2.The Americanization of Congregation Beth Israel, Rochester45
Part 2The American Rabbinate
3.Expanding the Parameters of the Rabbinate: Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia109
4.From Campus to Pulpit: Simon Tuska of Rochester122
5.American Rabbis for America: Solomon Schechter Comes to the Seminary132
6.New York Chooses a Chief Rabbi: Jacob Joseph of Vilna145
Part 3A Pluralistic Religious Community
7.The Tripartite Division: How It Came to Be193
8.A Century of Conservative Judaism204
Postscript: Between Fear and Faith259

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