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  • Sabato Morais, Solomon Schechter, and K’lal Yisra·el
  • Robert Fierstien (bio)

As a student of the history of the early Seminary and of the origins of Conservative Judaism, I often turn to the early “architects” of our movement for insights into contemporary issues. With regard to the idea of k’lal yisra·el, there is much to be learned from the early leaders of the Seminary, for, as Moshe Davis points out, “The concept of k’lal yisra·el was expressed frequently in the presentations of the (Historical) School.”1 In this essay, we will examine the attitude of the early Seminary leaders, Sabato Morais and Solomon Schechter, to see how they related to k’lal yisra·el and how the concept affected their deeds and their writings. In the case of each leader, we will see how a commitment to the unity of the Jewish people was of paramount importance, and how they dealt with the bifurcation of American Jewry into traditional and non-traditional sectors. Although the world of American “ultra” or “fervent” Orthodoxy was only in its embryonic stage at the time, we will also see how they related to this phenomenon that has become such a vital part of the American Jewish landscape in the early twenty-first century.

Italian-born Sabato Morais was the principal founder and president of the Seminary from its beginnings in 1886 until his passing in 1897. A proud Sephardic Jew whose family could trace its origins back to Portuguese marranos, Morais was the rabbi or “minister” of Philadelphia’s venerable Sephardic synagogue, Congregation Mikveh Israel. Successor to the great Isaac Leeser, who often spoke about what he termed “Keneset Israel,” Morais shared Leeser’s deep love of the Jewish people, combined [End Page 36] with a commitment to helping Jews around the world, irrespective of their Sephardic or Ashkenazic heritage. Just as he spoke out for the rights of Sephardic Jews in Morocco and the Balkan territories, he just as strongly condemned the treatment of Ashkenazic Jews in Romania and Czarist Russia. Morais was an active member and director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, and made an appeal for the organization at Purim each year.2

As Eastern European Jewish immigrants began to pour into Philadelphia after the outbreak of pogroms in 1881, Morais took a special interest in helping the so-called “Russian” immigrants, many of whom came from what is now Poland. His home was always open wide to welcome the new arrivals, and in 1884, he helped to found the “Association of Jewish Immigrants,” which, despite its misleading name, was an organization of “elite Philadelphia Jews” that sought to reach out to the Russian refugees.3 One project that especially captured Morais’s attention was the cause of the Jewish farm colonies in Southern New Jersey, starting with the Alliance colony in 1882. Struggling to establish themselves on the land, these colonies, such as Alliance, Rosenhayn, Carmel, and later Woodbine, were largely populated by Eastern European immigrants who wanted to escape the crowded conditions of ghettos such as New York’s Lower East Side. In 1889, thanks to the efforts of a boyhood friend, Emmanuel Veneziani, Morais was able to secure a $5000 grant from Baron Maurice de Hirsch to aid the Carmel colony.4 Thus, to Morais, k’lal yisra·el was more than just a concept to which he paid lip service: it was an important pillar of his rabbinate, a value that he must surely have sought to impart to his students at the early Seminary.

Indeed, Morais’s devotion to Jewish unity and solidarity was so strong that he was even willing to abandon his beloved Sephardic prayer book if it would foster a feeling of k’lal yisra·el among American Jews. In the nineteenth century, many Jewish leaders felt that it was extremely desirable for all the Jews in the United States to share a single ritual and liturgy. Significantly, in 1857, when the great Reform rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise published his own siddur, he titled it Minhag America, reflecting his hope that it would be adopted by all American synagogues. As we will see, Morais...


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