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Americanization in those days was very closely associated with the concept of unity, uniformity, centralized authority. Hundreds of thousands of men had died in a great Civil war to sanctify the word “union.” Unlike Wise, the leftwing Reformers were frightened by the phrase union. Union implies compromise and where principle was concerned, they were uncompromising. Einhorn, the leader of this group, wanted to emphasize the great truths without equivocation, uniting only those who believed as he did. There could be no tampering with ideology even if this meant a break with the American Jewish masses who were wedded to unity and Jewish tradition. In mid-nineteenth century America most Jews wanted national institutions and a national Jewish overall organization. Protestant sectarian proliferation was for them the horrible example of disunity; they were dismayed at the anarchy in American Jewry in rites, rituals, and practices.

Wise was a man with a plan. It was two-pronged: Americanization and unification. All Jews must unite to further a type of modern universal Judaism, a faith more important than a separatistic Reform or Orthodoxy. Without unity Jews could not reach their goal; organization must precede doctrinal clarification. Wise wanted to be a Jew first then a Reform Jew. His conviction that one religion for a total Jewry was imperative was both traditional and idealistic; Einhorn’s belief that liberals must herd together was in the long run more realistic. Wise wanted one national Jewry, coordinated, disciplined, with instrumentalities to control worship, education, and social welfare. He wanted circuit preaching, a publication society, a women’s academy, orphans’ and widows’ asylums, and an effective national defense organization, all closely integrated. The Jews must have a college, a common prayer book, and a common culture that would raise the niveau of Jewry and win an ungrudging admiration and respect from Christian Americans. The ultimate goal was to fashion a Judaism so attractive that its religious idealism, buttressed by American political liberalism, would wipe out particularistic Christianity and sweep the world.1


Many Jewish leaders here—Leeser, Wise and others—wanted a synod, a union of laymen and rabbis with sufficient authority to legislate order and unity for the chaotic American Jewish religious world. This push for authority, order, control was in part Germanic although the concept of a synod in Jewry is actually pre-Christian; medieval Jews met in legislative sessions, and the European German Jewish liberals had been talking of synods ever since the 1840’s. When Wise published his call to the ministers and laymen of this country in 1848 he may well have been influenced by a similar appeal by Ludwig Philippson in Germany. In all probability the Cincinnatian never gave up the hope of a Jewish congress that would speak ex cathedra. Even in the 1880’s when he set out to establish a conference of rabbis it was still his hope that its resolutions would have binding character. It distressed him, as he said, that there were numerous different prayer books and catechisms in the congregation of this country. The thought of a synod never died among the Reformers. In the lustrum 1900 to 1905 the rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis began to reach out for legislative authority; they nursed hierarchical pretensions. There was talk of an American Jewish Congress to unite all American Jews, though not necessarily along religious lines, and in 1906 the powerful political and civil defense organization, the American Jewish Committee, came into existence. Two generations later the Reformers were debating endlessly the relative virtues of religious “codes” and “guides” to ceremonial practices.

Even the liberals of the early 1900’s felt a need for definitive decisions in matters of creed, theology, and ritual. Intermarriage, Sabbath and holiday observance, the admission of proselytes, cremation—all these were problems of concern. Since a synod would bring order and uniformity out of diversity they seriously considered establishing one. All that was achieved was a series of resolutions and recommendations of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, none of which was ever binding in the areas of belief and practice. The synod never became a reality in American Reform—or in any branch of American Jewry—because most congregations and rabbis insisted on autonomy. This matter of unity was a dream in the minds of a few leaders who always associated uniformity with personal power.

The thoroughgoing leftists always opposed the setting up of any authoritative religious body. Martin A. Marks of Cleveland, the creator of the Community Chest concept and the president of a Reform temple, spoke for many liberals when he rejected the synod in the following sentence: If it has “authority, it is not to be desired … and if it is to be a body without authority, it is unnecessary.” What Wise and his friends forgot was that in free America free men would decide for themselves; theological controls among Jews were doomed to failure; the concept of a code in Reform violated the principle of religious freedom.2


Within a year after he landed in New York Wise was active in a modest effort to set up an ecclesiastical court in that city. Years later in 1855 he worked unsuccessfully to establish a synod in Cleveland, and in 1869 he made still another attempt to summon a group to meet, this time in Cincinnati. He was by then one of the country’s outstanding rabbis. Wise was not alone in this hope for a synod or a rabbinical conference. Leeser, the Orthodox leader, and Einhorn, the uncompromising Reformer, both cherished similar aspirations. The Board of Delegates of American Israelites, a congregational union, was an instrument to hand, but Wise, the Westerner, would have nothing to do with that organization dominated by Easterners. They would not accept his leadership and what was even more important they ruled all religious legislation out of order. Influenced probably by the Germans of Europe who were to meet in a synod in Leipzig in June, 1869, Wise proposed that the laymen and rabbis of this country meet on June 15 in his city. It was his hope that this gathering would deal with all aspects of American Jewish culture, philanthropy, and religious life. Emphasis was to be laid on the youth who were then agglomerating around the Young Men’s Hebrew Associations. But the Eastern Reformers stole a march on Wise. Einhorn and Adler issued a countercall for a conference excluding “reverends” and cantors, inviting only the liberals and the intellectuals. They dared not keep Wise out and he dared not absent himself. The men assembled in Philadelphia on November 3 by which time the Leipzig synod had met with little effectiveness. Einhorn and his colleagues wanted to lay down principles for Reform around which the Americans could rally, principles which might well influence even the cautious Germans across the Atlantic. Einhorn may well have thought that the revolutionary, innovative initiative had passed to the Americans. This may have been his high hope; his call was certainly a bold stroke.3

Because the Philadelphia conferees could not avoid talking of practical matters they made an effort to ameliorate the status of women in religious practice, in the marriage ceremony, and in divorce. They also endeavored to make it possible for abandoned wives to remarry. An uncircumcised son of a Jewish mother was deemed a Jew. Wise pleaded for the renunciation of circumcision for adult proselytes but the rabbis took no action; in the matter of conversion the Eastern universalists were more traditionalist than the Western upstart. The conference was hostile to intermarriage and insisted on maintaining the traditional Sabbath.4

The importance of the Philadelphia Conference does not lie in the decisions regulating religious practice. The men assembled were ideologists determined to make final pronouncements on principles that had already been discussed for a generation in Germany. This was brash decisive America speaking through them. They pleaded for a single standard in sex morals, chose immortality rather than resurrection, and, as free spirits, evinced no interest in a common prayer book. They opted for more of the vernacular (German) in the service and rejected animal sacrifice as a form of vicarious atonement. Summarily they repudiated the undemocratic concept of a priestly caste; Jews needed no intermediary between God and man. In this rejection they were influenced by Deists and Protestants with their disapproval of the role of the priest in Catholicism. All Israelites are equal, they said; every Jew is a priest in a kingdom of priests dedicated to the task of ministering to all men. In that age of democracy, American transcendentalism, and a slowly expanding liberal Christianity these Jewish intellectuals believed in man’s perfectibility and the priesthood of all believers.

They were not interested in a personal Messiah nor the restoration of the Jewish people to the ancestral homeland. Their spiritual yet this-worldly goal was a Messianic Age that would ultimately unite all humanity through the efforts of the Jews who had been providentially scattered. Here and everywhere in the Diaspora it was the Mission of the Jew to carry the message of ethical monotheism and of universal brotherhood. This concept of a Jewish Mission, cherished by American Jewish Reformers but not original with them, was a composite of Old Testament imperialistic spiritual euphoria and New Testament and Protestant evangelical outreach which had always proclaimed that the world is the field to be ploughed. This is an American Jewish version of “manifest destiny.” The Jews, said Joseph Priestley, in 1799, “are the instructors of mankind in … the knowledge and worship of the one true God.” Basking in the refulgence of American libertarianism they speculated and resolved as the spirit moved them. Disregarding the permissive atmosphere in which they moved these middle-aged leaders had a fixed mind-set. Rooted in German culture these university men deemed themselves exiles among the yokels. They kept their minutes in German, refused to think in terms of a common prayer book, and shrank from coopting laymen. Yet the meeting in 1869 was a historical watershed. For the first time in all Jewish history rabbis made clear-cut Reform decisions, breaking with Orthodoxy. The implications were truly schismatic. English Jewry deemed their pronouncements “Christian.” Nevertheless the Augsburg German Jewish synodalists who met in 1871 were not uninfluenced by the Philadelphia Conference. The scepter of Reform leadership was now passed to the Americans.5


Einhorn et Compagnie had carried off the roast at Philadelphia. Perhaps carried away by this victory, the Easterners called for another conference, this one to be held in Cincinnati, Wise’s own bailiwick. But then deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, the radicals cancelled out. They knew that this man of energy and charm would pack the Cincinnati conference with his friends and take over. Determined to assume or resume leadership Wise himself then called for an assembly of rabbis to meet in Cleveland in 1870. Meeting on July 12 to 15 the rabbis passed a series of liberal religious resolutions. Then they adjourned to meet again later that year, at the end of October in New York City. Wise looked forward to this larger stage confidently expecting substantial Eastern rabbinical support in the metropolis but the local clergy boycotted the conference.

Undaunted Wise called for yet another rabbinical conference, this one to meet in Cincinnati on June 5, 1871. This time he made headway as he refurbished his generation-long demand for a national program that would include a synodal union, a college, a conference of rabbis, and a standard prayer book. A large group of his friends gathered about him and put the stamp of approval on his proposals. But bad luck still pursed him. In the course of a discussion Rabbi Jacob Mayer of Cleveland, who later turned out to have once been a Christian missionary, intimated that he did not believe in a personal God, and Wise in his integrity defined Deity in philosophical and non-anthropomorphic terms. This was all that his enemies needed to hear. Watching him like hawks they swooped down on him and soon the American Jewish community was ringing with charges of heresy and atheism. The press attacked him ruthlessly. Even Horace Greeley made an editorial contribution to this cause célèbre. Wise’s attempt to call the rabbis together the next year in Chicago was aborted. Maybe one of the reasons the Jewish clergy attacked him so vigorously is that they sensed his impending success.6


By 1872 Wise was such a controversial personality that if a union was to be realized the laymen had to take over and create it. Most American Jews wanted unity. The immigrants had come from lands where the local community, the gemeinde, had been well organized. In that age of autocratic police states in Central Europe there were often provincial organizations sponsored if not controlled by the secular authorities. Even non-autocratic England had given birth to a national organization, the Board of Deputies of British Jews in the mid-eighteenth century; the Napoleonic Consistory had been imposed on French Jewry in the early 1800’s, and by 1869 the Germans had finally brought to birth a Deutsch-lsraelitischer Gemeindebund (German Israelitish Community Association). The following year the United Synagogue of London came into being led by a chief rabbi. On this side of the Atlantic where the state had no authority to compel church unity, Jews were confronted with the example of the well-established national Catholic and Protestant churches. With the completion of a transcontinental railroad in 1869 making rapid transportation a reality, the Jews had no excuse for not organizing. Individuals had been agitating for a national congregational confederacy ever since 1841; by 1870 the 200,000 or more Jews in this country had hundreds of congregations. The independency, the lack of uniformity in services, the anarchy that prevailed shocked many, although poverty and parsimoniousness deterred them from any outlay except for their own synagog and the congregational functionaries. It was not easy for Jews to come to terms with one another. There were quarrels between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and intramural battles among the different types of Ashkenazim; natives scorned the immigrants; rich and poor were divided, and Orthodox and Reformers were often unyielding in their mutual hostilities.

Jews who loved their faith were troubled about their future. It was their hope that unity would bring the resources and the authority to make necessary changes. By 1860 some forms of union were being achieved. The B’nai B’rith had become a national organization, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites although primarily Eastern was in existence; city charities were beginning to unite or federate; local rabbis were coming together; and congregations on occasion met for common purposes. After Leeser’s death in 1868 Wise began to push even harder for a national association of rabbis and synagogs; rabbinic conferences were called coevally with the Jewish synods in the Fatherland. Flexing its muscles midwestern American Jewry determined to rival the East with its Board of Delegates.7


There is every reason to believe that Wise was the real builder of the union that finally came into being. Almost from the moment of his arrival on these shores he had been working to unite American Jewry. For years despite apparent failure he continued his struggle. Because money, support, and a following were imperative he scoured the country, particularly the South and the West, rallying congregations behind him and making friends of the “rabbis.” By the 1870’s he had learned the sour lesson of low visibility and remained in the background allowing the laymen to translate his hopes into action. The accoucheur who stepped forward to bring the Union to birth in 1872 was Moritz Loth. Loth was not really exceptional; in nearly every town there was at least one layman who was devoted, intelligent, competent, and resolute in his desire to further Judaism. For example there was the politician Abraham Kohn in Chicago, the merchant Jacob Ezekiel in Richmond, and the publisher Abraham Hart in Philadelphia. The Moravian-born Loth, a goldsmith by trade, was an outstanding Cincinnati businessman, active in dry goods and apparel. He was a speculator, army purveyor, and a novelist who wrote very clever advertising copy. He lost and made money. In 1872 as president of Wise’s congregation, B’nai Yeshurun, Loth stepped forward with a very definite program. He was eager to unite the congregations of the South and Middle West into one solid body in order to counteract the deleterious influence of the Eastern radicals. He called specifically for a union of synagogs, a college, good Sabbath schools, better textbooks, observance of the Sabbath, continuation of the rite of circumcision, observance of the dietary laws, and a mandatory ritual code. This clever, cultured, sophisticated capitalist was no flaming religious radical. On still another plane he wanted Jews to live exemplary lives; he wanted them to send out rabbis to the Christian masses teaching them the essence of the Ten Commandments; it was Judaism’s job to help the whole world and to see that no man suffered oppression. The Jew must stand out through his moral and ethical conduct in a politically corrupt age tarnished by the scandals of the Grant administration, the Tweed Ring, and the Crédit Mobilier. Wise was unhappy with Loth’s proposed geographic limitation of the Union—Wise wanted it to be countrywide—and he refused obeisance to any authoritarian rabbinic law code. These two recommendations of the Cincinnati laymen were speedily disregarded.8


Loth’s appeal in 1872 to form a union brought responses, some even from the local Orthodox congregations. In March, 1873, Cincinnati Jewry, united, called a convention which met in the city on July 8. Representatives of twenty-eight synagogs were present, none, however, from east of Ohio or south of Natchez. On the other hand St. Joseph, Missouri, on the edge of the Great Plains and some Texas towns, too, were represented by delegates. Wise and others may have dreamt that this union would adopt an all-inclusive program embracing every major facet of American Jewish endeavor. The laymen were more realistic. The charter of 1873 limited itself to the establishment of a union, a seminary to preserve Judaism in the United States, and the furtherance of Sabbath schools, new congregations, and the Hebrew language. The Union was to have no authority over the religious beliefs and practices of the individual synagogs; in this respect it was no different than the older Board of Delegates. Religious differences were played down, the synodal idea was not; the words “liberal” or “Reform” do not appear in the charter, and the first secretary of the Union was an observant Orthodox Jew, Louis Naphtali Dembitz, the beloved uncle of young Louis D. Brandeis. The new union was really a coalition of moderate Reformers and Orthodox. Wise went along—he had no choice—but there can be no question that he hoped to move the rank and file slowly to the left through the use of his Minhag America. In this hope he was successful for in a relatively short period most of the congregations in the Union became Reformist if not altogether Reform.

There was one curious interlude at this point. A few weeks after the Union was called into being Wise accepted a call to serve as rabbi of Anshe Chesed in New York City, one of the great congregations of the East. What moved him to accept? The offer of a bigger salary? The prospect of a new world to conquer, a flirtation with the even more prestigious Emanu-El? Pique with Loth and his friends who were apparently moving to the right, who were taking over? At all events B’nai Yeshurun responded by giving him a substantial raise and he remained in the Queen City of the West.9

THE UNION, 1873-1900

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) was successful almost from the very start; even Einhorn went along with it. But if Wise and the rabbis thought they would dominate it they were mistaken. The laymen, successful upper middle-class German Jewish bankers, merchants, and lawyers, were in the saddle. In an age when businessmen and large corporations exercised a preponderant influence on the polity and fate of America, their Jewish counterparts ruled the UAHC. Even as Luther lost control of the sixteenth-century Reformation to the secular lords, Wise and the other rabbis had no choice but to play second fiddle in the new lay-controlled organization. By 1876 the Union could boast of eighty-two congregations in twenty-one states; Cincinnati said Wise, was the Zion of the New World. Congregations as far west as San Francisco and as far east as New York City were now numbered among its members and an effort to establish a rival union in the East failed egregiously.

It was the task of the Union to give direction to American Jewry and to reinterpret Judaism in America for a generation of patriotic immigrants. Strongly influenced by the enthusiasm of the Protestant churches the Union emphasized home missions. Thousands of Jews living in isolated places in those pre-auto days were cut off from Jewish institutions and coreligionists, tempted to assimilation if not total abandonment of the ancient faith. The Union through circuit preaching hoped to save these men and women for Judaism. The Union leaders were very concerned about the youth. Rabbis traveled to the small towns; Sunday Schools were aided; and in 1886 a Hebrew Sabbath-School Union was sponsored to standardize instruction and textbooks. In all these endeavors the village Jews was never far from the thoughts of the Union; many of the urbanites had themselves begun their careers in isolated hamlets.10

In the effort to extend its scope of activity the Union abandoned its earlier organizational conservatism and absorbed the Board of Delegates. This was a step in the direction of creating an overall national Jewish complex, for the Board, as has been noted, was a civic defense and philanthropic congeries, not a religious association. Ten years after the Union was fashioned there was talk of calling a national convention representative of all American Jews to discuss the state of the Israelite in this country. It may be that the coming of substantial numbers of East Europeans, fleeing from Russian persecution, signaled the Jews here that great changes were impending. Jacob H. Schiff, the chairman of the committee appointed to study the call for a national congress, saw no need for it. He and his associates recommended that more congregations be brought into the Union, that rabbis be encouraged to establish an association of their own, that the youth be involved in Jewish affairs, and that the Young Men’s Hebrew Associations be integrated into the governing council of the Union. This was in July, 1884, several years after the Jewish “Ys” had already attempted to effect a national association of their own. Schiff and his friends admired the manner in which the “Ys” were working with the Russian Jewish émigrés. This was “home mission” work that was useful and necessary. But the Cincinnati crowd rejected the “Ys” in spite of the indignant remonstrances of Schiff and his associates. Had the “Ys” been affiliated they might have had sufficient votes to supplant the Westerners in their control of the Union. This particularistic sectional reaction of the Cincinnatians was a mistake, not the last that they were fated to make. Yet there were moments when the men in the Union were anything but narrow and provincial. Conscious of their mission to humanity they were hopeful that the Jewish circuit riders would bring the gospel of an enlightened Judaism to the Christians of America; the Jewish seminary now established was to encourage the enrollment of serious Christian students, and liberal Christians were to be invited to affiliate themselves in some form or other with the synagog. This was indeed a radical thought.11


It is probably no exaggeration to maintain that the prime job of the Union was to create a college. The Jews in this country were very slow in reaching that goal. Sixteen years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, in a day when there were only about 40,000 English-speaking settlers in all of North America, Harvard College was established. Two hundred and thirty years later, with about 150,000 Jews in the land, there was still no Jewish seminary. Confronted by the same problem that plagued the union, the American Jews could not unite to establish an institution of higher learning. The immigrant masses were busy struggling to keep their heads above water; money was scarce; the Jewish secularists wanted no denominational school; the religionists were divided among themselves; sectional rivalries were very keen and there was an almost savage hostility against Wise, the chief protagonist of a college. Laymen were quite willing to work together to establish charities; they would not cooperate in the founding of a religious seminary.

Yet most of the rabbis and the solid middle-class businessmen did want a school. Jacob Wile of LaPorte, Indiana, offered acreage if a liberal Jewish college were established in his town; land speculators both Jewish and Christian were quick to donate free land for an academy in order to attract the Israelites to their holdings. Jews were beginning to be ashamed of their dilatoriness in establishing a religious college. “What will the Gentiles say?” There were hundreds of denominational colleges and church schools throughout the country; Ohio alone had several. The Jews were increasing daily in numbers and it was imperative that they have trained leaders if they were not to be exploited, as they occasionally were, by charlatans, former apostates, drunks, bigamists, and agnostics. Frontier America was the happy hunting ground for unassorted unfortunates and weird adventurers. At one point, March 15, 1885, Charleston, West Virginia, Jewry was careful to specify that it wanted a competent man who would also conduct services, but no rabbi. Their last religious leader had been dismissed after a stormy congregational battle. The rabbinate was, at times, the last if not the first resort of the incompetent and the embittered.12


Late nineteenth-century congregations were strongly impelled by apologetic motives in employing a rabbi. Concerned about their image in the local general Christian community they desired a spiritual leader who could represent and defend them and invite respect. The Jews wanted a cultured minister who was well educated in secular studies, who would preach an American Judaism that was not too incompatible with traditional teachings. They wanted English-speaking men who would maintain and raise the moral and intellectual standards of the Jewish community and influence the youth. It was essential therefore that rabbis be trained in this country, that congregations not be dependent on incompetents imported from Europe. A good man purveying an acceptable form of liberal Judaism could unite the disparate forces in town and save the next generation from assimilation; so it was believed. What that generation of Reformers did not realize was that Orthodoxy was not the ultimate cause in alienating youth from religion; the real danger lay in the permissiveness of the secular society. Reform was certainly not the total answer.

Rightly or wrongly the Jewish storekeepers of nineteenth-century America were convinced that the key to a good rabbinate, good Jews, and good relations with the Christian world was a competent man trained in an American Jewish college. Ever since the 1820’s American Jewry had been talking about schools for Jewish Americans. Proposals ranged from an academy for little children to a university with a Jewish theological faculty. By the 1840’s debates on the subject were common although no one was opposed to the concept of a college as such. This discussions took on new life after the Civil War, for the Jews now had money and pride. The B’nai B’rith and the Board of Delegates had been talking and writing about a college in the 1850’s and 1860’s; Leeser, Wise, Einhorn, and others, too, wanted a school; all of them, children of Europe were well aware that from the 1850’s on into the 1870’s modern Jewish seminaries for ministers had been opened in Breslau and London, in Berlin and in Budapest. America was falling behind.13


New York Jewry, by far the largest Jewish community in the country, was very sure that the new college when built would be located in its city. These Jews had a great deal of local pride but unfortunately for them their very size made unity and organization almost impossible. It was not until 1887 that a seminary—an “Orthodox” one—was finally opened in that metropolitan center and not until 1922 that a Reformist school was founded there by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. Throughout the nineteenth century there was much talk and some serious effort to set up a seminary or at least a preparatory department in New York. Sampson Simson, the philanthropist who had brought Jews’ Hospital (Mount Sinai) to birth, chartered the Jewish Theological Seminary Society in 1852. This Orthodox group never accomplished anything though it is not improbable that the later Jewish Theological Seminary Association of 1886 adopted the name in order to share in Simson’s estate.

In 1865, after the Civil War, Temple Emanu-El pushed very hard for some sort of institution or program to train Reform rabbis. Samuel Adler and his successors were very interested, always keeping in the back of their minds the hope that they might anticipate and perhaps even stop any action by Wise in the West. Emanu-El’s concern persisted to 1953 when the funds which it had raised for this purpose were finally turned over to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Emanu-El’s projects appeared under different guises as the Emanu-El Theological Seminary Society or Association, the American Hebrew College, or the Emanu-El Preparatory School. For a time classes or individuals were actually given instruction in Hebrew. Wishing to prepare men for the American rabbinate this New York Reform congregation utilized the resources of Columbia College, subsidized rabbinical students who studied in Europe, and thought of bringing well-equipped European students to this country to give them an American polish. Some of the men who it sent abroad or supported later became rabbis of distinction in the United States: Bernard Drachman, Samuel Schulman, Emil G. Hirsch, and Leon Harrison. Felix Adler, the Ethical Culturist, was educated at its expense. In 1867 Einhorn, then in New York City, joined with Adler in an unsuccessful attempt to set up a Reform Jewish college to rival the new Orthodox school established that year in Philadelphia by Leeser. The New York effort failed; Leeser’s Maimonides College succeeded in staying alive if only for a brief period.14


Maimonides College was the first Jewish theological seminary in the New World. It is ironical that this tradition-oriented rabbinical school was named after the twelfth-century scholar who in his own day was something of a leftist. The college, sponsored by the Board of Delegates and the Philadelphia Hebrew Education Society, was created by Leeser not only because of the country’s need for a seminary but also because of his fear that the Reformers in New York or in the West would forestall him by opening a non-traditional school. Leeser, the traditional Jew, was one however with all other Jewish college builders in the conviction that any rabbinical school opened in this country would have to be scholarly in its aims, modernistic, and America-oriented. He was no obscurantist—in this he was Maimonidean—and he secured an excellent faculty to teach Jewish and a few secular disciplines. Poor Leeser died in 1868 and his college closed in 1873. It never enjoyed any substantial support nor had more than a handful of students. Two of the three young men who attended did accept rabbinical posts. What did the College accomplish? It pushed the Westerners to hustle, gave Sabato Morais, one of the teachers, the experience he needed when he helped set up the 1887 Jewish Theological Seminary, and influenced Moses A. Dropsie who later left funds to establish Dropsie College.15


That Leeser got ahead of him in opening a school was a sore point with Wise. This autodidact was almost obsessed with the hope of a college of his own. Like Leeser he, too, had been agitating since the 1840’s for a national Jewish seminary; Zion College in 1855 had been a failure and the War of 1861 intervened to delay him once more, but a gift of $10,000 from Henry Adler of Cincinnati and Indiana made the new school more than a lustful gleam in his eye. The Union of 1873 was predicated on the creation of a college, one that would serve a united Israel, that would preserve Judaism on American soil, and bring the message of this great religion to Jew and Christian alike. In spite of the deep depression that then prevailed the Union resolved in 1874 to open a seminary. The name “Hebrew Union College” came very probably from Lilienthal whose New York City “Hebrew Union School” had enjoyed a brief existence in 1847. The name of course meant something to that generation for it was an institution to unite the Hebrews of America; “Jew” was a dirty word even for most Jews. Cincinnati was the proper location, for Wise was there, the city was a metropolis, and at that time the center of America’s population. Local Jewry dug deep into its pockets to help defray the costs.

As late as 1873 Wise was still thinking of a general college teaching Jewish studies but the rise of good high schools and city and state colleges obviated the need for secular courses, and thus at the last minute the new institution opened in 1875 as a rabbinical seminary only. Even though there were Saturday classes until the second decade of the twentieth century the students were not expected to write on that day of rest. In the early days the orientation was traditional; this was a college for all Jews, not merely for Reformers. All the students were teenagers; some were in knee pants. Julia Ettlinger of the seventh grade elementary school was the youngest; she was eleven. She should have been playing with jacks instead of juggling irregular Hebrew verbs. (Incidentally she did very well.) Two other students were also still in the elementary school. By the time the year was over the College had almost doubled in size increasing to seventeen. Small? Not at all. The University of Michigan started with six youngsters; Harvard in the seventeenth century, as Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes will testify, had even fewer:

                        And who was on the Catalogue

                        When College was begun?

                        Two nephews of the president,

                        And the professor’s son.…

                        Lord! How the seniors knocked about

                        The freshman class of one!16

                        Hebrew Union College, 1875-1900

In the early years the classes met in synagogal vestry rooms, actually the cellars of the two Reform synagogs. The College offered an eight-year course, four years high school and four years university; later a graduate year was added. A boy could start at thirteen and finish at twenty-one, although this rarely happened. The afternoons were spent at the seminary. Like the new Jewish European colleges, Bible, rabbinic literature, and history were taught; later philosophy, theology, homiletics, and elocution were added. There was of course a library. Originally the library was locked up every night in a two-and-a-half-foot wooden box, not for fear the children would carry off the books but lest the mice came out of the walls and nibble at them. At first there was only one instructor but Wise had to be called in very early; the children could and did get out of hand.

The College’s troubles certainly did not stop when its doors were first opened. Vigorous competition was attempted in Philadelphia and in New York. After the closing of Maimonides College, which the Philadelphians had not supported very generously, the Jews there threatened to open a new school; Wise, the eternal politician, may have placated them by promising to make the local defunct seminary a feeder school for the Hebrew Union College. In 1875 Emanu-El with help from another Reform synagog attempted to set up a school in New York, and when this failed its next move, enlisting congregations as far west as Chicago, was to establish a Jewish nondenominational seminary that would include even the Orthodox. Secular studies were also to be taught and, like the contemporary Berlin University for the Science of Judaism (the Lehranstalt), there was to be no Jewish sectarian theological teaching. The students, as in New York’s twentieth-century Jewish Institute of Religion, were to be taught the classical texts and as rabbis move into the synagog of their choice.

This 1876 Reform-Orthodox school never opened and a contemplated union to support it never came into being. The next year Emanu-El returned to the wars once again by establishing the Emanu-El Hebrew Preparatory School or College and this effort, it would seem, was quite successful. In 1879, however, it became a preparatory department of the Cincinnati school until it finally closed in the 1880’s for lack of financial support from both New York and Cincinnati. Other cities, too, bursting with pride and a boom spirit, hoped that school branches would be established in their towns; the constitution of the Union was accordingly modified in 1889 to make provision for this eventuality. Nothing happened however. The Hebrew Union College remained America’s only rabbinic seminary. Religious differences were played down, although actually the school was Reformist from its very beginning.17


If the College was successful it was in part due to the help of Max Lilienthal, the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Cincinnati. This young man with his doctor’s degree from the University in his native Munich was the first university-trained rabbi in this country. In the late 1840’s he became the Chief Rabbi of three Orthodox synagogs in New York City where he preached in the German vernacular, introduced good music, a choir, and confirmation, and launched a city-wide ecclesiastical court. But when he found it difficult to survive in his little religious empire he resigned, opened an excellent private school, became active in the liberal Friends of Light, and started veering to the left. In 1855 his friend Wise helped bring him to Cincinnati where he moved B’nai Israel slowly into the ambit of Reform. In the course of time Lilienthal became a radical theologically, though he was never an activist. He was hypersensitive and when things went wrong for him he withdrew into his shell. Religiously he was a universalist who believed that theology only served to divide people. His fame as a preacher and a gentleman of dignity and integrity brought him an invitation to serve Emanu-El in New York but he decided to remain in the Queen City. Like Wise, he, too, was a builder. In 1874 he began to edit the Sabbath School Visitor, probably the first successful Jewish children’s magazine in this country; about 1879-1880 he established the Rabbinical Literary Association and the Hebrew Review, a scientific publication. Neither the Association or the Review long survived his passing in 1882. In a number of respects Lilienthal, who also taught at the College, was a prototype of the typical Hebrew Union College graduate of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He played an important role in the life of the Cincinnati community, serving on the school and university boards and as president of the National Saengerfest. Despite the fact that this distinguished Jewish clergyman was active in the cultural life of the larger German Gentile community and published a volume of German poetry, he was a fierce American patriot utterly devoted to the principles of Americanism as reflected in the Constitution; he was a vigorous opponent of any attempt to breach the wall that separated church and state. This country was his life; “America is our Palestine.”18


It was the devotion of Lilienthal, other teachers, and a corps of able laymen that explains in large measure the speedy success of the new college. American congregations were very eager to employ native-born rabbis who fully understood both the ethos of this land and the needs of the immigrants. Wise watched the school carefully, subsidized the students liberally, and scoured the orphan asylums to recruit bright youngsters. In 1881 the College moved out of the cellars into a beautiful mansion in the West End of town; in 1883 four men were graduated; three of them soon embarked on notable careers. They were truly exceptional, outstanding in the communities to which they were called. By the 1880’s the students were already serving American Jewry as supply rabbis in biweekly and High Holy Day positions in numerous towns and cities, carrying the gospel of a modern permissive Judaism adapted to the needs of a rapidly acculturating Jewry. Ultimately the College emerged as the fountainhead of American Reform, and through its graduates built a movement that, a century later, was to become the largest liberal religious movement in the world. By that time the College and its affiliate, the Jewish Institute of Religion, had graduated about 1,000 rabbis, men and women, some of whom served in metropolitan centers throughout the world. Today the sun never sets on a graduate of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.19


The successes of the Hebrew Union College redounded to the credit of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations which soon began to make rapid advances on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. During the American centennial year, 1876, the Union in its desire to create a truly national organization eagerly sought to encompass the Eastern congregations affiliated with the Board of Delegates, although some Westerners remained wary of any amalgamation with the rich and numerous Easterners. Encouraged by Simon Wolf, the Washington lawyer, the BDAI was granted one-half the places on the executive board on condition that it bring in 2,000 members from its synagogs. The Board of Delegates of American Israelites, as a new standing committee of the Union, continued as a separate entity to be known as the Board of Delegates on Civil and Religious Rights (BDCRR). Was this fusion of East and West a victory for the Union, the West, in that it now absorbed the East, or did the new arrangement mark a victory of the East entrenched on Wall Street? The point is moot but it would seem that the West was still in the saddle, certainly in 1878.

The program of the new Board was much the same as that of the old: to help Jews here and abroad maintain and increase their civil and political rights, to work closely with the central Jewish agencies in Europe, aiding them financially to relieve the impoverished, and to raise the niveau of Jewish culture in all lands of oppression. To us it may seem rather brash on the part of a Jewry numbering but 250,000 souls to attempt to play a role on the world Jewish scene but this self-assurance was typical of the America and the American Jewry of that day.20


As early as 1876 the Union was already thinking of settling Jews in the West, on the land. Its instruments were a separate agriculture committee, other allied groups, and the BDCRR. None of them was effective. The motivations of the Union in this Push to the West was to solve the problem of Eastern metropolitan indigency during the long depression of the 1870’s and to work closely with the European Jewish relief agencies who were only too prone to ship their poor and oppressed to free and boundless America. All through the 1870’s East European Jews were arriving here in relatively substantial numbers. Many of them were impoverished. The hope of settling Jews on the land was a chimera that had a strange fascination for American Jewish urban leaders, a dream that persisted until well into the twentieth century. There was even talk at the time of establishing a farm school. A Hebrew Union Agricultural Society sponsored Beersheba Colony in Kansas. This colony failed as did numerous others because most Jews had no desire to live on the land. They lacked money, training, leadership, good lands. What is more important they were intelligent enough to realize that in an era of increasing urbanization their future lay in the industrialized cities not on the barren soil of the western plains. The leaders back East were completely unrealistic; wishful thinking blinded them to hard facts.21


In retrospect it is obvious that there were really very few problems here which actually threatened the welfare of American Jewry and required the intervention of the new Board of Delegates. But then hindsight is always more comforting than foresight. Publicly at least the Jews of that generation tended to ignore or underestimate existing prejudices or threats to Jewry. The immigrants who had sacrificed to leave their homelands dared not admit that conditions in their new homes were less than idyllic. The Board rarely if ever concerned itself with local acts of prejudice; it directed its attention—rightly it would seem—on national difficulties. Because the Board was apprehensive about civil rights it protested constantly against all Sunday laws which penalized Jews for working or doing business on that day even though they had already rested on the Sabbath. At one point the Board thought of acting as an amicus curiae, coming to the aid of a Christian, Seventh Day Adventist, farmer who had been arrested for working on his farm on a Sunday. As in the past Jews opposed Christologically-worded Thanksgiving proclamations and continued to make efforts to keep Christian religious teachings and New Testament readings out of the public schools.

There was no doubt in the minds of the Jews that any close union of Christianity and the state boded ill for Jews. History since Constantine the Great made that abundantly clear. In 1863 evangelical Christians had set out once more to induce Congress to make the United States legally and constitutionally a Christian land. This was an agitation that was to continue into the twentieth century. Jews of course had no sympathy with the National Reform Association which lobbied Congress to change the Constitution, to make this a Christian country, to stop the mail trains and interstate commerce on Sunday, to enact Christian marriage and divorce laws, and to bring Christianity back into the school system. Some of the ministers who sponsored these new laws were quite explicit; Infidels should be disenfranchised; if they don’t like it here they should go back where they came from. This drive failed egregiously. Quoting Mark against the Christologizers one senator laconically warned: “If a house be divided against itself that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25).

The Board concerned itself with the constant slander of Jews that appeared in the daily press. That was an old disease. By the 1890’s the Jews here had begun to learn a new unhappy word, anti-Semitism, and were not pleased to read that the anti-Semite, Adolf Stoecker, was coming to this country. He was the religious leader of the anti-Jewish Protestant Christian Social Workers’ Party in Germany where as a member of both the Prussian and national parliaments he had inveighed bitterly against Jews and Judaism. Stoecker was the religious ancestor of Hitler and his National Socialism. Liberal Christian clergymen promised aid to Jews if this demagogue, who had been dismissed as the court preacher, landed on these shores, but Stoecker canceled his trip. With their continuing attention to the position of Jews everywhere, both the Union and the BDCRR were upset by the Dreyfus Affair in France. In the late 1890’s the solicitude of the BDCRR for international peace marked the first beginnings of an American Jewish social action program, one that was to flower in the mid-twentieth century. The Board, too, was well aware that America was interested in the Hague Conference of 1899 inspired by Czar Nicholas II to bring, ostensibly, disarmament, international arbitration, and universal peace to a troubled world. Jewry here was all on the side of virtue but why, it asked, does not the Czar stop persecuting Jews and afford them elementary rights and immunities.22


Conscious of the many thousands of Russian refugees who were pouring into this country, the Union and the BDCRR had little faith in Czar Nicholas II and his humanitarian proposals. Immigration was a prime concern for American Jewry as improved oceanic travel, the knowledge of American opportunities, and the push of the pogroms induced large numbers of East European Jews to set out for this country. One active member of the BDCRR made it his particular job to help the émigrés. This was Simon Wolf (1836-1923). Wolf, a German, had come to the United States as a young boy and soon went to work in an Ohio town as a salesman and bookkeeper. In 1861 he was admitted to the bar and a year later, during the War, moved on to Washington. In the course of years he became a very cultured man, a brilliant orator, and the owner of a huge library. Ultimately he emerged as the country’s outstanding lobbyist for American Jewry, serving until his death as the ambassador to the White House and the Congress for the B’nai B’rith and the Board of Delegates on Civil and Religious Rights. He was active in Jewish fraternal affairs, in Masonry, the Red Cross, and in German-Christian organizations. As a lawyer he represented hundreds if not thousands during his long stay at the capital where he used his influence with the authorities to further many good causes.

The political establishment in Washington trusted him; he was a loyal Republican and a man of influence closely tied to large Jewish groups with votes. Wolf found it expedient to exculpate Grant for his expulsion of the Jews during the War and Grant was pleased to make him Recorder of Deeds at Washington and to send him for a year as consul general to Cairo. In between his endless duties and his large professional practice Wolf found time to establish a B’nai B’rith Orphan Asylum in Atlanta, to serve as president of the local congregation, and to help raise the funds for Moses Ezekiel’s Statue of Religious Liberty which was finally set up in Fairmont Park in Philadelphia during the 1876 centennial celebration.

The Board worked with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society during the early pogrom days of the 1880’s and with some newly established immigrant committees in the hinterland, but it did not occupy itself with the newcomers once they had passed through Castle Garden and were on their way to friends. Wolf and his associates wanted laws against abuses by the steamship companies; he defended the B’nai B’rith on the charge of aiding and stimulating immigration; he tried to halt all extradition legislation that would treat political exiles as criminals; and he opposed the deportation of worthy Jews and the breakup of their families. It was in part through his efforts and those of the Board that the government acceded that persons dependent on private charity were not a public charge and the Bureau of Immigration finally agreed to stop listing immigrants by religion. This type of registration, the Jews believed, was a violation of the laws separating church and state; they were fearful that these religious statistics were a prelude to exclusion of Jews; Catholics and Protestants had never been tabulated by religious affiliation. Wolf successfully urged the acceptance of Yiddish as a recognized language as he struggled to hinder the passage of literacy tests for admission to this country.23


In the effort to help the incoming immigrants the Board worked closely with the B’nai B’rith, other Jewish national fraternities, and with important European Jewish organizations such as the Anglo-Jewish Association of London and the Alliance Israélite Universelle of Paris. This latter group which had established a system of schools throughout North Africa and the Near East was aided generously by the Union and the Board. The initiative for action on behalf of troubled European Jewry usually came from these two societies; American Jewry was quite willing to work with them and to allow them to take the lead. Even here on American soil, the Board had no illusions that it represented all of American Jewry. A committee of the Union whose function it was to review the activities of the Board suggested that a union of all American Jewish synagogs be established in order to help the Jew abroad more effectively. It was this same reviewing committee that wanted another all-American Jewish organization in this country to devote itself solely to any threat to civil rights and religious liberty. It is interesting to watch this unsuccessful drive, in the early 1900’s, for a national overall association that would make provision for the needs of Jews in this land and abroad. Today as the twenty-first century approaches there is still no effective and all-inclusive national organization uniting the Jews of the United States.24



Foreign affairs engrossed a great deal of the time and attention of the Board. It is sad and somewhat startling to note that the areas of concern in the late nineteenth century—Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East have remained worrisome all through the twentieth century. North Africa was a canker for generations where the native Jews, and even an occasional American citizen, were grossly mistreated. In the Western Mediterranean area the Board of Delegates of American Israelites did what it could to enlist the aid of America’s diplomatic representatives and later the BDCRR continued this tradition. Most, not all, of the consular and embassy officials were helpful, and their support was supplemented by the assistance of local Jewish merchants. An American minister to Persia once intervened to stop a riot in the Jewish quarters; the problem in Palestine was primarily one of relief, philanthropy, and in this area American Jewry has always been most generous. In general, however, there was little that the Board and the United States government could do in the areas of harassment because of the established policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of foreign lands. American consuls were helpful when Jewish citizens got permission to enter and settle in Turkish Palestine.


The festering sores in Europe were Rumania and Russia where millions of Jews languished under brutal autocratic governments. These two states did not wish to accord equality to American Jewish citizens who visited their lands, fearing that the example of these free men, often returning natives, would stimulate oppressed Jewry to demand similar political rights. The mistreatment of the Jews in Balkan Rumania was so distressing in 1902 that John Hay, Secretary of State, moved by influential Jews, wrote a formal note directed to the attention of those European states which in 1878 had guaranteed the freedom of Rumania. The Congress and Treaty of Berlin that gave Rumania its sovereignty had also exacted a promise from that new state that it would enfranchise its Jewish natives. This solemn obligation it cheerfully evaded. Inasmuch as the Rumanian Jews were not American citizens Hay had to chide Rumania obliquely. His contention—and he was quite frank—was that this Balkan land so mistreated its Jews that they were compelled to emigrate and their coming here imposed burdens on this country which it was not prepared to assume. Oppressed Jews make bad emigrants; stop oppressing them. It was unfortunate that in order to make his point Hay denigrated the Rumanian newcomers implying that they would not make good citizens and that they would become charges on American charities. The fear that these refugees would require substantial help after they landed was shared by some unsympathetic leaders of the New York Jewish philanthropies. Nevertheless it may be assumed that in dispatching this note to the European capitals Theodore Roosevelt and John Hay were moved by the laudable desire to aid Jews in distress. The Israelites of this country, who were over generous in their thanks to Washington, saw only the good intentions implicit in the letter, although some of them took umbrage at the unkind references to Rumania Jewry. Flattered by the government’s concern, the BDCRR reprinted the note and accompanying documents in its very detailed report for 1902.25


Jew-baiting in Rumania was but a reflection of the conduct of its exemplar, Russia. The czars had consistently mistreated their Jews since they inherited them in the days of Catherine the Great and she in turn only continued the anti-Jewish policies of the Poles from whom she had acquired them. Back in 1832 the Americans and Russians had signed a commercial treaty guaranteeing each other, apparently, the same rights and privileges, but the Russians, no later than the 1860’s, had refused to abide by its spirit. Russia with its millions of unemancipated Jews certainly had no intention of treating American Jews as equals. Foreign Jews who came to Russia were given the same rights accorded native Jews, that is, they were subject to the same disabilities. The privileges implicit in the American passport were neither recognized nor honored. American citizens of Russian birth who went back to their old homeland were harassed. One of these returning Russo-American Jews, about to be sent to Siberia, was saved only by the intervention of the State Department on the request of the Board of Delegates on Civil and Religious Rights.

The relationships between the Muscovites and the Americans threatened to break down after the riots of 1881 and the expulsions of 1891 when large numbers of Jewish refugees sought a haven in this country. By the late 1890’s Jews in the United States, almost a million strong, wielded political power, especially in the key state of New York. They now began to press the State Department to urge the Russians to recognize an American passport when borne by a Jew. Even more they wanted this government, as in the Damascus Affair of 1840, to exert its influence to secure more humane treatment for Russia’s Jewish subjects. The Board of Delegates went along with all this agitation. Americans in general were aroused by the mistreatment of Russian Jewry; congressmen and state legislators introduced resolutions of sympathy, and the Jews who now began to take their seats in the national House of Representatives were not backward in their anti-Russian protests. President Harrison in his annual message to Congress in 1891 referred to the persecutions abroad; the general press rallied to the defense of the Children of Israel and Christian clergymen spoke out on their behalf. Russia had few friends in the United States. Simon Wolf in 1891 urged the calling of a national convention of Christians and Jews to voice their abhorrence for Russian brutalities but the Jews of that day seeking anonymity hesitated to take such action on a nation-wide scale; protest meetings on a local scale, however, were held.

On the whole the State Department, the ambassadors, and ministers were sympathetic to the Jews if only because the remonstrances of American Jewry could no longer be ignored. Andrew Dickson White, the noted educator and writer, minister to Russia in 1893, wrote a laudatory letter about Russian Jewry to his chief Walter Q. Gresham, the Secretary of State. This report was much more friendly in spirit than the later John Hay Rumanian note but then it must be borne in mind that Hay’s letter was a formal diplomatic statement for public consumption; White’s letter was a confidential communication to his superior. The American minister explained the Russian persecutions as part of the government’s intense program of Russification that affected not only Jews but also Finns and Germans. White quoted the St. Petersburg authorities as saying that the handling of Jews was internal business, just as was America’s mistreatment of the Chinese and the lynching of Negroes. By the turn of the century, the Jews, assessing the moral support they were receiving, began to move for the termination of the treaty of 1832.

In 1894 Joseph Krauskopf, Hebrew Union College class of 1883, more or less forced his way into Russia. Once there he was given a courteous hearing as he appealed to the authorities to relieve the congestion on the American labor market during the prevailing panic by giving Jews land and putting them on the soil. American Jewry, he promised, would finance this project. In the spirit of the later Hay note Krauskopf seemed to imply that these forced émigrés were not welcomed on these shores. Had the rabbi interviewed the fabulously rich Baron Maurice de Hirsch who had already offered huge sums to Russia to help her Jews he would have learned that Russia did not relish any interference with her treatment of her Mosaic subjects. The untold millions spent by American Jewry to colonize the Jews in Russia in the 1920’s and in the 1930’s in the days of Stalin ended also in failure because the Russians, whether Czarists or Soviets, had no sympathy for Jews. The Russian authorities never had any intention of helping their Jewish subjects survive as Jews; their goal was to assimilate them; this is cultural genocide.26



How effective were the BDCRR and the Union in carrying on the national and international political and philanthropic work of the earlier Board of Delegates of American Israelites? Did the BDCRR accomplish the tasks to which it set itself in 1878? This is difficult to determine. One has the impression—and it may be wrong—that the new Board was not a very powerful institution. It never had a budget of more than a few hundred dollars. For the approximately thirty years of Simon Wolf’s rule, the BDCRR was an office in his hat, although he was accorded some secretarial assistance. The protests of the Board were probably not without influence both here and abroad. No one really knew how weak the organization was though, officially at least, it represented thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Jews. Superficially the Union and the Board appeared to be important national organizations and there is reason to believe that the Washington government gave them a respectful hearing. As the United States increased in world power the protests of its Jews were increasingly heard and respected.

The Union and the Board did gather some valuable statistics. They evinced an interest in agricultural colonization and it is very probable that they were effective in countering threats to civil liberties and in hindering legislation directed against immigrants. Simon Wolf spent many hours lobbying with his friends in Congress and appearing before important committees. Officially the Board was the only national body in this country concerning itself with the furtherance of civil and political rights for Jews both here and abroad; it was the prime instrument for a generation in sending financial relief to the distressed Jews of Europe, Asia, and North Africa. By bringing in the Eastern congregations through the BDCRR the Union did succeed in uniting the most important and representative synagogs in this country, but as the Orthodox increased in power and in organizational structure, the authority of the Union decreased in proportion. And as the Jewish secular societies grew in vigor and in scope, the Union had no choice but to restrict itself to its Reform religious work. Yet as late as 1900 Reform Jewry and its institutions were still regnant on the American Jewish scene.27

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