New York first synagogue_311.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On April 8, 1730, New York’s only Jewish congregation gathered in the heart of what is now Manhattan’s financial district to consecrate its first synagogue. The congregation of Shearith Israel, North America’s oldest to this day, would go on to influence the establishment of some of US Jewry’s most influential and lasting institutions in the New World.One
of the major splits and restructuring was greatly influenced by a
failed experiment to bring a chief rabbi in order to unite and supervise
New York’s growing and divided Jewish communities. In the nearly two
centuries of Jewish presence in America, individuals and groups had
sought different paths at reconciling the individualistic, capitalist
and democratic spirit of the United States. Many saw Orthodox Judaism as
a relic that belonged in the Old World.
In the fall of 1654, 23 Jews aboard the Santa Catarina arrived in what was then New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil. Descendants of Jews who had fled the Portuguese and Spanish Inquisitions to The Netherlands, the small community had settled in Dutch colonies in South America. Fearing a repeat of the persecution they faced in Europe, the small community once again left their homes and sought refuge when the Portuguese recaptured Recife in 1654.
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The Jews’ arrival in New Amsterdam, however, was not immediately hospitable. Like their ancestors in Eygpt, the future-congregation of Shearith Israel was forced to depart quickly and with few belongings. Upon arrival, the captain of the Santa Catarina sold their remaining effects at auction to pay for their fare. The local governor for the New Amsterdam Company, not thrilled by their arrival, wrote to his superiors asking that “none of the Jewish Nation be permitted to infest New Netherland.” In reply, however, the company described his request as “inconsistent with reason and justice,” the New York Times reported in 1899. Shearith Israel was henceforth given express permission to settle in the New World.
From its first days, the Jewish community of New York and its sister congregation in Providence, Rhode Island fully participated in the fledgling American project into which it was welcomed. Members of the Shearith Israel congregation fought in the American Revolutionary War against the British, including a colonel who served as an aid to General George Washington. Other notable Jews from Shearith Israel helped found the New York Stock Exchange and would serve on the US Supreme Court in later days.
After renting various spaces of worship for decades, in 1730 the members of Shearith Israel consecrated their first permanent synagogue on Mill Street in lower Manhattan (South William Street today). Until 1865, it was the only established Jewish congregation in New York but in the late 19th and early 20th century, the birth of several other Jewish streams, movements, congregations and institutions were highly influenced by Shearith Israel’s leadership and members.
In an attempt to counter
this trend, several orthodox communities invited Rabbi Jacob Joseph to
be the first chief rabbi of New York. Joseph, however, faced great
suspicion and even disdain from liberal and Reform Jewish communities as
well as non-religious and socialist Jews. His lack of fluency in
English and “Old World” ways, in addition to economic resentment by
poorer Jews over demands to support Joseph quickly doomed the new and
short-lived position of chief rabbi. Even among the orthodox
communities, the very leaders who brought him from Lithuania abandoned
him. Joseph died several years later.
After Joseph’s death, the
position of chief rabbi was dissolved and the experiment aimed at
unifying American Jewry was abandoned. In light of the failure, the
Orthodox Union was established as part of ensuing efforts to consolidate
unification within orthodox communities.
Shearith Israel’s rabbi
at the time, Henry Pereira Mendes, was one of the founders of the
American Jewish Theological Seminary. After the death of Rabbi Joseph,
he saw a need to build a more democratic consolidation of Orthodox
Judaism. He soon left the JTS to help found the Orthodox Union. With his
departure, however, JTS moved towards become one of the Conservative
Movement’s (Masorti) central institutions.
A New York Times
article from 1884 notes the growing split taking place in the synagogue,
in which more reform-minded members sought to change the character of
the congregation. Decidedly voting to remain an orthodox congregation,
Shearith Israel has since been associated with the Orthodox Union.
today in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the congregation of Shearith
Israel continues to be an important foundation of American Jewish
history; it played a pivotal role in the establishment of various Jewish
streams and institutions. The current synagogue – the congregation’s
fifth – is a lauded architectural landmark built in the tradition of
Portuguese Jewry. Its members are the descendants of America’s oldest
Jewish community, established over 100 years before the United States,
and its synagogue was the first permanent house of worship built by Jews
in New York.