publisher colophon




From the vantage point of the cultured native American Jew of the twentieth century the religious services of the mid-nineteenth century often left much to be desired. There was little if any hierarchical authority; congregationalism remained rampant. Not only were there theological differences on all sides but what was more obvious—and maybe even more significant—diversity in services, practices, and religiosocial behavior. The diversity was a constant source of annoyance. In 1859 the New York Orthodox were upset, at a charity dinner, when the Reformers present were not prepared to don their hats as the Hebrew grace was chaunted.

Orthodox and Reformers were unhappy with one another: the Reformers lost the Orthodox but won the liberals. Only in the smaller towns was there less polarization; where there was only a handful of the faithful compromise was imperative if services were to be held at all. Reform itself was riven by differences. In 1884 there was even talk of calling a general convention to consider the state of Judaism in America. It may well be that this realization of the need for crystallization of belief and practices—if only among the liberals—was one of the many reasons that prompted Kohler to call the Pittsburgh Conference the following year.1

Decorum was still a problem. Many if not most members of synagogs were immigrants who had not yet adopted the American amenities. Police, not infrequently, were called in to haul worshippers to jail for creating a disturbance in the services. Totally at home in the house of their God individuals shouted, gesticulated, chewed tobacco, and sauntered out to lounge in front of the sanctuary. Children in both the nave and the galleries added to the confusion. In October, 1864, Eugene Henry Levy, a cultured Confederate soldier, attended services in Richmond during the High Holy Days. After seeing what went on he recorded in his diary that he was “more than ever convinced of the necessity of reform.”

Congregational boards were tough and hard on rabbis. In the greatest and richest of congregations presidents ruled with an iron hand. Merzbacher of Emanu-El was reprimanded for inviting Wise to preach. Rabbis themselves were not allowed to sermonize without the president’s permission, let alone bring in another rabbi to hold forth without the authorization of the synagogal authorities. In 1870 a minister lost his job because he preached against poker playing. Congregational parsimoniousness was also typical. When the roof at B’nai El in St. Louis leaked one member said that there was no need for repairs; if necessary he would hold up his umbrella when it rained. Seemingly determined to save on light Macon Jewry kept the synagog so dark that the rabbi could barely read the service. This same minister complained that he was not paid promptly and that his congregants accorded him no home hospitality. When Moses Mielziner, a scholarly gentleman, was hired to serve Anshe Chesed in New York the congregation paid his traveling expenses but not those of his accompanying wife and children.2

Intermarriage was an ever-present hazard and its concomitants, proselytization and the circumcision of neophytes, were subjects for constant discussion and contention. The Sabbath was neglected by practically all Jews for it was the most important business day of the week for retailers. The rabbis fulminated against this disregard of the Day of Rest; Jews are more the servants of gold than the servants of God, said one minister. Ever ready to denigrate the non-observant New Yorkers, Wise said the gold dealers and stockjobbers among them had given up Judaism because it was not quoted on the board; they were contractors who had contracted their religion to zero; they were oil speculators who said good-bye to heaven for they sought their fortune in the infernal regions. And even more, he continued, they were apostates, neither Jews nor Christians, because they kept their stores open on Saturdays and Sundays. They were rationalists, theists, materialists. Wise was prone to exaggerate—if only to make his point—but it was true that by the 1860’s some societies were holding balls on Friday evening.

Apathy was common; many individuals flirted with assimilation; Jews joined the Unitarian churches and the non-Jewish liberal religious associations. One radical urged his coreligionists to observe the Sabbath and all the Holy Days on Sundays. Many refused to join synagogs. These were the nothingarians; American freedoms encouraged defections. Some blamed the indifference to the established cultural and religious institutions on the need to provide funds for the incoming East European masses. This is why congregations, Judaism, suffered and Jewish identity waned, so they said. It is true that for the secularist Jew relief was more important than religion, but for this type of man charity to Jews was in itself a form of identification. If there had been no need for philanthropy he still would not have joined or gone to the synagog. In that Gilded Age Jews, like many Christians, were not ardent religionists.3


By the second half of the nineteenth century Reform had spread to every corner of this country. Both natives and newcomers wanted to be accepted by the Gentiles; the Jews were eager to remain Jews but they were equally determined to be or to become Americans. By making certain compromises in traditional observance Reform made it easy for the Jew to enter into the parameters of American life and culture. This new liberal Judaism, which attracted many, dominated American Jewish life; it was particularly strong in the Middle West and the South where acculturation may have been faster because there were fewer immigrants. This was grass roots country for the Hebrew Union College which, astride the Ohio, was able to nourish Jewry in the heartland of the continent. In the last decades of the century the Reformers reached their peak in relative numbers and in ideological influence representing the cream of a successful middle class which evinced high visibility through their magnificent synagogs. Emanu-El of New York had $28.25 in the treasury in 1845; after the Civil War it was prepared to spend a half a million dollars for a gorgeous new temple. In the tiny congregations of the 1880’s ministers might receive as little as $400; Emanu-El, so it was said, paid its rabbi $ 10,000, an enormous sum.

The rise of Reform in the United States is phenomenal and unique. Back in Germany the Jewish liberals ruminated and crawled slowly toward the left; in the United States in a freer society these same Germans abandoned Orthodoxy in one continuous unending process. By 1878 the movement had not only reached the Pacific but had started to penetrate the High Plains reaching even into Nevada. Eastern Reformers were so sure of themselves that they participated in a liberal European Jewish conference sending a delegate in 1869 to the Leipzig synod. The future, they thought, lay with them; they were vigorous and belligerent. When a bitter struggle raged in Detroit’s Beth El over the introduction of family pews a few of the radicals entered the synagog at night and sawed off the women’s seats in the gallery. The next day the wives had to sit with their husbands downstairs and they never returned to the balcony.

The initiative in abrupt liberalizing changes came most often from dedicated laymen. Most rabbis were traditionalists who found it difficult to cope with a permissive free society. They moved too slowly to please the laymen. It was the laity who broke through not only in innovating changes but in assuming religious leadership. Mr. L. M. Loewenberg of Vicksburg is an example, possibly untypical in his energy, of the dedicated synagoggoer. Immediately after the War devastated Vicksburg had a small congregation that was inching its way toward Reform. Its president, Mr.Loewenberg, served his fellow Jews not only as rabbi but also as hazzan, shofarblower, shohet, mohel, marriage officiant, and as male secretary of the Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society. He was also a notary public and a justice of the peace. He was not a rich man but he managed to support a wife and eight children and confidently looked forward to an even larger family. It was his hope that one day the town would build a synagog of its own.

There was a continuous push for acculturation, Americanization, Protestantization, in the sense that there was a lessening of Hebrew. Undoubtedly parents were constantly being pushed leftward by their native-born children who cherished no nostalgia for European Orthodoxy. There were some radicals who were ready to banish Hebrew from the synagog, but these extremists were exceedingly few; in fact these men often defected entirely. The more typical congregant sought to pattern himself outwardly on his Gentile neighbors; he wanted a Protestant-like service with hymns and a sermon in the vernacular. By effecting some sort of a compromise between American ways and the traditional Hebrew services Reform did much to keep Jews in the fold. On the whole Reform satisfied the Jew who was eager not to be too unlike his Christian neighbor. This is reflected in a letter which Henry Berkowitz of Mobile, Hebrew Union College class of 1883, wrote to his friend Edward M. Calisch of Peoria, class of 1887. Berkowitz reported that he had a good Sunday school and good teachers, that practically every Jew in town was a member of his congregation, that there was a full attendance on Friday night and Saturday, that his Bible class met every Monday afternoon and the literary society on Sunday night. The young folks were not absent from the services. This glowing report may be accurate, for Berkowitz was an exceptionally able man. It is a picture of Reform at its best; it is not typical.4



If in Reform Judaism all Jews are priests in a kingdom of priests then the Reform rabbi is the High Priest enthroned on a pulpit talking down to auditors, not participants. Unlike Orthodoxy which is worshipper-or congregation-centered the Reform rabbi was beginning to emerge as the leader; his status in this country was on the rise. The congregational service which he now dominated was decorous but markedly diminished in emotion and devotion. This new status of rabbis coupled with the sizable and prosperous American Jewish community began to attract some leaders of quality. Unlike the Christian missionaries, rabbis are not pioneers; having no love for the howling wilderness they emigrated only to established communities which were prepared to appreciate learning and guidance. Some of the men who arrived on these shores in the 1850’s and 1860’s were cultured 48’ers, competent laymen turned rabbis who found it possible to survive spiritually in the liberal American milieu. In Europe they may well have been lost to Judaism. They could not, would not, officiate in a synagogal world which was not ready to accept the implications of the new physical and social sciences. Typical of these new imports was the Hungarian Albert (Aaron Siegfried) Bettelheim (1830-1890) who received his Ph.D. from the University of Prague in 1848. In Hungary he had been a public school superintendent, newspaper correspondent, tutor to a governor’s family, and even a rabbi. Religious liberalism may have prompted him to come to America. After he arrived here in 1867 he again played many roles: he was the editor of a German newspaper, an art critic, a novelist, and a rabbi serving congregations in Richmond, San Francisco, and Baltimore. Bettelheim died while on a voyage in 1890 and was buried at sea by Catholic priests who recited the kaddish, the Hebrew-Aramaic prayer for the dead. His young daughter Rebekah married another great American Jew, the widower Alexander Kohut, who was left with a family of eight children.

Congregations appreciated men like Bettelheim because of a desire for modern leadership, a desire that was not untouched by secularism and even indifference. New liberal preachers, brilliant, able, educated, and adaptive, exercised great influence not only on Jews but on the general community in which they lived; often they were the most distinguished clergymen in the city. Through their achievements, their communal service, they raised the status of their foreign-born constituents.5


By the second half of the century there were actually two Judaisms in this country, both in a state of flux: Orthodoxy moving very slowly to the left, and Reform rapidly approaching the standardization which was to be deemed “classical.” Despite the fact that here in America every man was his own theologian, that intramural religious conflicts among the liberals, as among the Christians, were bitter, that radical religious departures or aberrations were not unusual, a common corpus of beliefs, attitudes, and prejudices was developing among the Reformers. Unlike the Charlestonians of 1824 their approach was evolutionary not revolutionary. They were anti-Palestinian restorationists, affirmative in their acceptance of American culture. For them acculturation was a survivalist device. In the final analysis, as Jews, they were anti-assimilationist, anti-radical, and anti-secular.

By the 1880’s the Reformers, brigaded spiritually with the tolerant Christian leftwingers, began to talk of social justice, but for a generation it was to remain only talk. With the exception of Hirsch and some kindred souls, few were concerned about introducing social reforms into the general community. They were not active in agitating on behalf of the impoverished sick, prisoners, alcoholics, Negroes. They were not interested in temperance, women suffrage, and the welfare of the laborer. One of the reasons that Jews looked askance at the Christian reformers was that they were often evangelicals closely allied to the missionaries. Any relationship to conversionists was summarily rejected. On the whole, social reformers were unpopular, and the staid Jewish businessmen seeking anonymity and acceptance were anything but venturesome. If they had one social concern it was to raise the intellectual and moral level of Jewry, a goal pursued since the 1840’s by the B’nai B’rith. They were not opposed to ceremonies as long as the religionists realized that they were not an end in themselves. The liberals emphasized principles and ethics; they were universalist, world-oriented in their rituals.

Enjoying the luxury of autonomy so typical of this land Jewish Reformers of all hues fashioned their own theology, liturgy, and folkways as they moved comfortably into the open society that enveloped them. They emphasized, overemphasized, decorum. They introduced some new ceremonies such as the Pentatecost flower ritual and the harvest service for the Feast of Tabernacles and imported good music and technically-trained cantors. They developed beautiful dignified forms of worship which stressed the vernacular and made Judaism respectable in their own eyes if not in the eyes of the Gentiles. The prestige of the modernized synagog began to vie with that of the lodge and the elite charity association. They were anthropocentric, not theocentric; more and more their thinking began to reflect modernity rather than the medieval tradition. Rabbinic authority was cast off. They were more sympathetic to women religiously, less particularistic in their reception of proselytes, more open to the conclusions of science, ready to create a rational, free, viable faith. Yet with all their changes in thinking and practice, there was no question in Reform Jewish minds that theirs was a positive historical Judaism. Their influence extended even to Germany where some remigrants from the States introduced Wise’s Minhag America in certain limited circles.6


Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; the ultimate influence of the Reform Movement is documented by the fact that the three basic institutions it fashioned were copied by the Conservatives and the Orthodox in the next generation. These three were a federation of synagogs, a seminary, and a permanent conference of rabbis, all owing their existence at least partially to the creative Wise. These are his monuments; he is the structural creator. He did not fashion the theology or the practices of liberal Judaism. His was a different role. Others preached unity; he accomplished it for a substantial segment of American Jewry. By the late 1870’s, about a decade after the building of a transcontinental railroad, he had coopted congregations all the way from the Hudson River to San Francisco Bay. Union, unity, homogeneity came out of the West because Jews were fewer in numbers and were constantly exposed to the pressure of an environment where they were a negligible minority. There was a greater need to adapt. Their residual Orthodoxy, which most of them never forgot, was not fortified by constant infusions, arrivals, from traditional Europe. The east had as much élan vital, liberal, radical sentiments as the West but Orthodoxy with its mass following and its continuous reinforcements of faithful believers from the other side of the Atlantic retarded any overwhelming religious liberalization there. More than any other individual Wise is the source of unity in the Movement. Through his organizing skill and persistence he made Cincinnati the world center of the Reform Movement. The man was no doctrinaire; he was permissive, ready, if necessary, to compromise, a man of charm drawing thousands to his side like his charismatic contemporary Dwight L. Moody, the evangelist. Wise possessed an indefatigable energy that was constantly stoked by ambition. The Jewish religious leftists were in effect centrifugal; not Wise; his influence was cohesive, centripetal; he united the liberal masses by herding them under a common umbrella, working ceaselessly to enforce conformity to standards.

The Union which he helped form in the early 1870’s embraced radicals, moderates, and Orthodox; it was determined to play down and harmonize differences and create, in the fullness of time, a form of American Judaism. This it did eventually but in the process this creation was a far cry from the Orthodoxy of the European fathers. The unity, rather the federation which came into being, was purchased at a price. In order to keep the peace every congregation was conceded to be a law unto itself. Neither the older Board of Delegates of American Israelites nor the later Union ever evolved a specific theological creed. Wise accepted this basic limiting proviso of complete religious autonomy with the utmost reluctance. He wanted religious conformity not a permissive organic unity, but he was hopeful that common bonds would lead to common practices. In this hope he was vindicated by time. The Union reached its peak in 1878 when it took over the Board of Delegates. This was as close as it ever came to becoming the overall organization for American Jewry. Though it embraced the elite congregations Reform never controlled all of American Jewish religious life. It always remained a minority. It did have a national program of sorts: it set out to settle Jews on the land, to instruct and edify coreligionists in the small towns; it furthered religious schools, worked to keep the doors open for immigrants, and fought for civil and political rights for Jews both here and abroad. This was its ambitious program; much of it remained on paper never to be effectuated. Outside of the loose federation it brought to pass its only real success was the establishment of a seminary.

To a great extent the Union was actually created in order to build a college that would train Americans for an American type of Judaism; the German ethnic synagog had no future in the United States. This school which Wise and his lay associates brought into being successfully trained American collegians to cope with the American scene. That generation of immigrants and natives was so fervently patriotic that it even thought of teaching the seminarians general American history. Of the three institutions which Wise had sponsored the Central Conference of American Rabbis was the most Reform. It was a congeries of liberal-minded rabbis and functionaries who gathered together to discuss their problems and, voluntarily, to create standards in belief and practices. In this effort they were successful.7


The establishment of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the College and the Central Conference of Rabbis by the transallegheny Reformers may well be an attempt of these Western Israelites to dominate all Jewish religious life in America. To an extent this push was successful. The West did seize the initiative religiously, for Reform at least, and still continued to hold it to some degree in the mid-twentieth century. The efforts of the Westerners, however, to control all of Judaism in this country was a failure. New York had the Jews; equally important it was also the great American mart for money and goods, for exports and imports. Because the westward moving frontier occupied the minds of the Cincinnatians—the Queen City of the West—they mistook the westward wave for the all-controlling force in American life. They confused activity, growth, with hegemony. Toward the end of the century when the High Plains were penetrated and the West as a goal abated, Eastern regnancy became manifest. With numbers and wealth the Jewish East had never surrendered its sovereignty; its dominance had been constant since colonial days. Yet the East-West conflict in Jewry is not to be brushed aside as a mere chronological episode. The East-West hostility still continues in Reform. Many of the Eastern Jewish liberals have turned right, to Neo-Reform; the typical Western liberal synagog still reflects a large measure of classic Reform. Regionalism persists, and is an important factor in establishing practices and prejudice.

The East-West conflict in Reform began in 1855 with the ideological and personal hostility of Wise and Einhorn. Einhorn emphasized German; Wise laid great stress on American culture and the English vernacular. Wise wanted to unite all American Jews; Einhorn would have been satisfied to unite the liberals. History opted for the Einhorn group because Reform never captured American Jewry. The quarrel between the two leaders is one of freedom and individualism opposed to unity and uniformity. Theology? Basically both leaders shared the same common beliefs. The Orthodox masses never followed Wise. In 1886 the Eastern Orthodox, especially the New Yorkers, organized an anti-Reform, counterrevolutionary movement and by the early twentieth century they began to emerge as a separate Jewish denomination. The rise of this new group, the Conservatives, as putative Orthodox, inspired the rightwing traditionalists in the late nineteenth century to fashion their own separatist denomination. Thus by the second decade of the new century there were three distinct national Jewish movements, Reform, Conservatism, and Orthodoxy.

After the death of Wise regional differences within Reform itself were played down somewhat; unity was strengthened by the appointment of Einhorn’s son-in-law Kohler as president of the College in 1903. He embodied the common classicity of East and West as expressed in the Pittsburgh Platform, the Reform “creed” increasingly accepted from 1885 to 1937 when most Reformers made their peace with Jewish nationalism, Zionism. In 1922 Stephen S. Wise opened the Jewish Institute of Religion, a college both liberal and Zionist in its orientation. In 1950, after Zionism had attained acceptance in Reform, the College and the Institute united. The following year, 1951, the UAHC moved to New York City and vigorously inaugurated a policy of Neo-Reform, of rapprochement with traditional Jews and their practices. The center of gravity had shifted toward the East. In this post-Holocaust period the Union, centered in New York with its over 2,000,000 Jews, stressed the oneness of the Jewish people and the importance of the State of Israel. Thanks to the constant threats to the very survival of the Third Jewish Commonwealth the concept of a mission to a common humanity, socioethical universalism, was played down both in the East and the West.8


It must never be forgotten that the Jewish masses were Orthodox, an inchoate group which included cultured aristocrats whose ancestors came to America in the 1700’s, German immigrants in an advancing state of Americanization, and recently arrived Yiddish-speaking East European refugees. But all these traditionalists, whether they realized it or not, were moving to the left. It was impossible for Jewry, only a little more than 1 percent of the population as late as 1900, to offer much resistance to the overwhelming impact of the American cultural environment. Reaction and action: these Orthodox were initially hostile to innovations but hostility was nearly always followed by some measure of acquiescence. The rabbi in Washington, D. C. who dared to take a drink without donning his hat and reciting a blessing was sharply criticized for this omission, but within a generation the congregation had become classically Reform. In San Antonio where the Jews had introduced the Minhag America and doffed their hats the bosses insisted that the reader worship with a covered head. He was their lost vicarious Orthodoxy. To some degree at least all Jews were becoming Americanistic in language and decorum. As ardent patriots—and that they were—they had to be “Americans.”

Just about a year after Morais, the Italian traditionalist, landed on these shores, he urged his Philadelphia congregants to carry “the spangled banner of liberty in one hand, and the law of Horeb (Sinai) in the other.”

If the traditionalists were to survive in free America they would have to make many changes to hold their people. This they all did. No two Orthodox congregations in all the United States were alike in their concessions to the demands of the New World. Madison, Indiana, Jewry of 1862 had a school, synagog, a mikveh, a Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society, and every Jew in town bought kosher meat. Good. But the Sabbath was not observed in traditional fashion although one congregant gathered the children together on the Sabbath and held a special service for them in English with hymns and Bible readings. In the same decade Galesburg, Illinois, once typically Orthodox, allowed the women to sit with their families, kept squalling infants at home, and introduced Wise’s Minhag America. Auctioning of honors was strictly forbidden on the weekdays but allowed on the Holy Days when it produced substantial revenue. Because of acculturation, both sought for and resisted, traditional Judaism was on the defensive everywhere. Survival demanded adaptation, and the masses succumbed. Actually they were in the process of creating a new Judaism, an Orthodox American Judaism, one with almost infinite variations.9


The traditionalists were destined to remain the most numerous Jewish denomination until well into the twentieth century. On the whole the Orthodox held their people. Even in their halcyon days the Reformers probably never numbered 50 percent of American Jewry. Reform radicalism was to reach its zenith by 1900. By then there was little talk of substituting Sunday for Saturday and the cry against circumcision had faded away. The new Judaeophobia in Europe may have given many liberals second thoughts. The stalwarts, the teachers of Orthodoxy, were men of intelligence, devotion, and some learning. Leeser and Raphall were active into the late 1860’s; their places were amply filled by men like S. M. Isaacs, Jacques Judah Lyons, and Henry Pereira Mendes, among other notable New York ministers. Orthodoxy offered much to its followers, above all a sense of security, of belonging. There was warmth, emotion, in the synagogs; it was home in more senses than one. Even in Cincinnati the majority of Jews were traditional in their loyalties. One of the Cincinnati leaders was the layman Schachne Isaacs to whom Elijah Holzman dedicated a Hebrew book which he published in 1864-1865. This work, The Valley of the Ghosts (Emek Raphaim), a delightfully interesting vituperative work directed against the Reformers, was probably inspired by Isaacs. The Reform doctors of divinity are witch doctors, lepers, who are destined to burn in Hell; if the Reform rabbis in the synagog face the congregation instead of the ark it is because they want to watch the women in the gallery.

Truly pious traditionalists were found in every town. In an important trial in New York City involving Boss Thurlow Tweed, an Orthodox Jew insisted on leaving the jury box as the Sabbath eve approached; in Louisville, in 1849 when Adath Israel talked of installing an organ, a zealot threatened to burn the place down; the Jews of Pueblo sent for a mohel even though he was 120 miles distant; another Coloradoan rode eighty-five miles on horseback to spend the Holy Days at home. In Towanda, Pennsylvania, in the 1870’s there were only three Jewish families but they hired a shohet to provide them with kosher meat and to teach the children Hebrew and German. Shearith Israel, America’s pioneer congregation, resisted—and still resists—all attempts to change its Orthodox way of life. Though numerous assaults have been made for well over a century to storm this bastion of traditionalists the men still wear their hats and prayer shawls and allow neither instrumental music or family pews in their synagog. When in 1895 the question of bringing women down from the galleries was debated, a cultured young lawyer of aristocratic lineage stood with those who voted against males and females sitting together. A medieval obscurantist? Hardly! Benjamin Nathan Cardozo was to stand out a generation later as one of the great American liberals when he served as an Associate Justice at the United States Supreme Court.10


Despite intramural polemics and real differences Orthodoxy and Reform had much in common. They held to a common theology; all the catechisms from Leeser’s on to the end of the century posited much on which they all agreed although the Reformers tended to be more rationalist and universalist. But in a pragmatic sense theology was not really important for the rank and file of either portion of American Jewry. People did not think and act in theological terms. Institutions, practice, counted. Thus it is that all Jews were united through synagogs, Hebrew prayers and instruction, bar mitzvahs, confirmations, and rabbis. The last decades of the century marked a constructive concern for better religious schools, textbooks, and more competent religious leadership. As rabbis waxed in power—and they did under the influence of the role of the minister and priest in Christianity—the end result was to bring all Jews closer together.

It has been pointed out above that outstanding laymen in small towns, like L. M. Loewenberg of Vicksburg, knit the Jews together. This is equally true even in the metropolitan centers. There was no large city without several individuals who worked hard to build an integrated Jewish community. Alfred T. Jones (1822-1888) of Philadelphia is a typical example. This descendent of a colonial Jewish family was a printer, communal worker, and the editor of the local Jewish Record from 1875 to about 1886. He was an officer in almost every important Jewish social-welfare agency in Philadelphia, president of Leeser’s second synagog, and active in the Jewish fraternal orders. Like Morais he worked hard to help the Russian newcomers and encouraged them as they settled in the nearby agricultural colonies. Men like Jones were the cement that united the disparate Jewish groups of the great cities.

Common customs, observances, and ceremonies helped create a strong sense of fellowship. Jews celebrated the same holidays: eating matzo together on the Passover might well do more to unite Jews than a learned disquisition on ethical monotheism. Jews were bound one to the other when they blessed the candles on a Friday night or ate kosher or kosher style foods. They had a common Sabbath which they profaned but loved; they shared the same ethics, the same past, and were never unconscious of the ethnicity which yoked them together. They knew they were one despite different national origins. They never forgot that blood is thicker than theology. Common sufferings and enemies are important, perhaps even more important than common rituals. The Gentile brutes in North Africa and Eastern Europe intensified the loyalties of the Jews in America.

Common defense needs compelled Jews to turn to one another for comfort. Resentment of real or imagined encroachments on their civil liberties made all Jews huddle together. Religious differences did not deter them in any city from meeting philanthropic challenges. Members of Shearith Israel and Temple Emanu-El, the two extremes, sat down at one table to alleviate the distress of the Jewish poor. The hostilities exhibited by old-timers toward newcomers should never be underestimated but rarely did one Jew repudiate his fellow Jew. Differences should not be exaggerated; in no sense are they comparable to the hatreds that divided Catholics and Protestants. Even without the communal controls that characterized European Jewries, the Jews on this side of the Atlantic were concerned about one another. Leeser and Wise both wanted to unite all Jews, though their premises were different. The Jew, said Leeser, can survive only through unquestioning adherence to the ancient Law. The Jew, said Wise, can survive only through the Law which has been adapted to the changing American scene.11


After the antebellum chaos, the Jews here began to think in terms of organization, respectability. Many were religionists, nominally at least. Synagogal affiliation made for status in a Protestant-dominated milieu. The Jew wanted to be respected if not admired by his Christian neighbors. With increasing numbers structuralization was necessary and this demand was met. The secular and Christian religious patterns encouraged imitation. In 1860 there were about 150,000 Jews and 100 congregations; in 1900 there were almost 1,000,000 Jews and somewhere between 800 and 900 bethels and congregations. By the turn of the century the Reform and the Orthodox had seminaries and old-fashioned yeshivahs, rabbinic academies. Both the Reformers and the right-wing Orthodox had national federations of synagogs. The Reformers had finally succeeded in establishing a durable rabbinical association and in producing a standardized prayer book that was soon to be accepted by practically every liberal synagog. Competent, in some instances distinguished rabbis, began to grace the pulpits of the different Jewish groups. The new successful middle class built huge magnificent synagogs even though they were fully occupied less than ten days a year. In an age of conspicuous consumption and lavish display, when success was the proof of divine favor, big buildings were a virtue. Jews expanded with the land; large synagogal budgets meant dependence on the rich. Good rabbis, with college degrees, were either educated on American soil or imported from abroad. The Jews would have no shoddy; they were set on being served by the best. The new rabbi must be a lodestar for the youth and an ambassador to the admiring Gentiles.12

Feeling at home here, Americanizing rapidly, Jews relaxed, as much as they could. The problem of that postbellum generation was adaptation; a century later the problem was one of de-adaptation, or re-Judaization, survival as Jews. Americanization in the latter half of the nineteenth century was, in a measure, Protestantization. Jewish religionists followed standard American patterns. A Buffalo synagog spoke of the “Reform Temple Church.” This Protestantization is reflected in Christian clerical titles, garb, decorum, the use of the English vernacular, the disuse of Hebrew, the stress on the sermon, and the emphasis on the Jewish Deity as a God of Love as well as a God of Justice.

The traditionalists offered resistance to the enticements of the open society; they sensed that the world about them was assimilatory, destructive of their faith; they were convinced that their resistance was successful, that they had preserved the integrity of their Orthodoxy, but even in their conventicles Americanism had made its inroads. Accommodation and apologias were true even among those who adhered rigorously to the Mosaic Law. Rituals which once served to wall in the Jews against a hostile society were neglected; ethics, rather than divisive customs, was now stressed, particularly among the Reformers. But all Jews, Reformers and anti-Reformers, had become increasingly liberal; the Protestant acceptance of multiple sects had taught Jews to be tolerant of one another religiously.

The disestablishing laws of the land and the prevailing tolerance and indifference in matters of religion encouraged secession and proliferation in both Reform and Orthodox congregations. Liberal religionists could live freely and develop unhampered in the United States. Thus religious laissez-faireism expedited the growth of new synagogs. Unlike Europe where liberalism was repressed or discouraged America made it easy for the schismatic Reformers to build a great movement, one that fashioned a powerful federation of synagogs and a seminary that prospered. In turn the success of the Hebrew Union College inspired the creation of the rival Jewish Theological Seminary. Conditions were ideal here for the uninhibited development of any Jewish denomination. These immunities made the growth of Reform possible, especially in the cities where kindred souls could foregather. In the smaller towns there was less division, more religious and ethnic fusion and more democracy in the conduct of the synagog. Men members were at a premium for no service could be held without a quorum of ten males.

The courtesies shown by the state to Judaism heightened the self-esteem of the individual Jew. There was a place for him in society and polity even though he was a follower of a minority religion. Conversion for the sake of advancement, as in Europe, was notably absent here; there was no need. Accepted if not welcomed, the American Jew became a passionate patriot. Challenged and overwhelmed by the liberties of this land, the Reformer broke with hampering traditions; the Orthodox adhered in principle to the teachings of the fathers but quietly ignored them when expediency dictated.13

Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.