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Isaac Mayer Wise died in 1900. Despite his Reform protestations he looked backward; he was a child of the French and German Enlightenment who never succeeded in emancipating himself completely from Orthodoxy. Did his death make any difference for Reform? If so, how? What happened to the Conservatives and the Orthodox as they ushered in the twentieth century? Would Wise have recognized some of the new variants of Judaism as Judaism? There are almost as many Judaisms as there are Jews. Since Judaism has no hierarchy it is impossible to define the Jewish religion authoritatively. Most—but even here probably not all—Orthodox Jews today accept Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of the Faith which are included in every traditional Book of Common Prayer (siddur). The East Europeans who came in by the thousands reinforced traditional beliefs; consequently American Jews remained traditional in observance till the second quarter of the twentieth century. These true believers never questioned the authority of the Bible as interpreted throughout the ages by the rabbis; with variations and heresies and sectarian breakups, this has been the faith of all Jews from pre-Christian days to the early nineteenth century.1

But Judaism for all Jews is more than a theology, a credo. It is intimately tied up with religious practices, customary law, folkways, cherished institutions, and a host of morally-directed activities. The kosher butcher shop plays a not unimportant role in the Jewish way of life. The rabbi who in 1900-1901 wrote the article on Judaism in America in the Jewish Encyclopedia included a discussion of the “Ys,” the fraternal orders, and the settlement houses. It was, and still is, very difficult to make a distinction between the sacred and the profane. Emil G. Hirsch said that “religion must be in all things or it is in nothing.” This meant that he as a religionist had to concern himself with sweatshops, organized labor, women’s suffrage, and lynching of Negroes. Unlike the Protestants, the Jewish Orthodox newcomers were not sect-riven. The Protestants had hundreds of sects based on creedal divisions and variations in church organization; the Jewish faithful tolerated only minor variations in ritual although the emotional Hassidim had an ebullient joyous way of their own. In New York City Jewish immigrants had over a thousand conventicles built on geographic, cultural, social, and customary similarities, religious differences. They were in effect hometown religious societies (landsmanshaften). As they met in their small halls or synagogs they were set on consorting with countrymen who shared their views. The Slavic Jews coming from different European lands pronounced or mispronounced their Hebrew as they saw fit. Some of these religious associations sponsored mutual aid; the Zionists might well have had a favorite bethel where they congregated; a Chicago confraternity devoted itself to Talmud study but also provided free loans for those in need.2

Congregations, whether in the big cities or in the backcountry, were often built by the efforts of one devoted layman, sometimes even a woman. In Petersburg, Virginia, it was Abe Gellman who was largely responsible for the town’s Orthodoxy. His group built its own ark for the treasured Scroll of the Law but only those worshippers who observed the Sabbath were permitted to engage in this holy task. Intermarried Jews were not even allowed to become members. Gellman, an immigrant, also worked for the good of the larger general community into which he was integrated; he wanted Petersburg to have a large auditorium and a municipal golf course. Wherever there were Orthodox congregations they were concerned with the need for a mikveh, kosher food, a hospice, care for transients, and the maintenance of a cemetery. Wherever possible they strove to meet daily in a prayer service where a mourner could recite kaddish. This was important. In Charleston, South Carolina, the devotee who came to a mourners’ quorum was rewarded with cake and a glass of whiskey. Poor as these Jews often were they gave something to the local Jewish charities; some made sure that their mite was never missing to keep alive the talmudic colleges in the homeland across the seas. In the metropolitan synagogs, the cantor was often more valued than the rabbi. A hazzan with a beautiful voice was a financial asset for he brought in members to help pay off the mortgage. The rabbis in the Orthodox synagog were often ignored. Some so-called “rabbis” were adventurers who had come to this Jewish Frontier to hew out a new life for themselves; some of them were rogues. In the course of the years responsible spiritual leaders did arrive here, and as their congregants sensed the status of Christian ministers these Jewish officiants were increasingly admired and often revered.3


The chaos, and chicanery too, in rabbinical legal decisions in the sensitive areas of marriage, divorce, and the dietary laws induced the émigrés in the larger cities to think in terms of an authoritative chief rabbinate. They wanted discipline, order, control in matters Jewish, such as they had enjoyed in Russia. In 1879 a substantial number of congregations in New York City came together determined to establish a chief rabbinate but the distinguished scholar on whom they had placed their hopes refused to come. Finally in 1887 several New York congregations chartered an association to invite and support a chief rabbi. The budget was to be raised by a small tax on butcher shops, on kosher poultry, and on Passover flour. The total amount envisaged was minuscule and would in no sense cover the actual expense of the proposed organization.

The following year the association brought over the scholar and teacher Jacob Joseph (1848-1902) from Vilna. The rabbi was not particularly eager to come but he was heavily in debt and thought that he would improve his lot over here. This is the man who was elected to save Orthodoxy in New York, to rescue its younger generation from defection. He was called upon to supervise the kashrut of the city, to further Sabbath observance, to improve the Hebrew schools, and to issue certificates of ordination. The job was an impossible one: the butchers wanted no supervision; the people would pay no taxes, small though they were A rival group of Hungarian and Galician synagogs resented the control of Joseph and his Lithuanian followers. In a relatively short space of time Joseph was almost completely bereft of income. This unfortunate man, incompetent and sickly, finally passed away in 1902. Now that he was dead the masses hastened to honor him. When the 20,000 men and women who followed his bier passed the printing press building of R. H. Hoe & Company, jeering workmen showered the mourners with scraps of metal and garbage.4

A chief rabbinate was established in Boston under Moses Zebulon Margolies (the Remaz, 1851-1936) and in Chicago, 1905, under Jacob David Willowski (the Ridvaz). This latter, an authority on the Jerusalem Talmud, hoped to make Chicago a center of rabbinic learning. He too failed. It was impossible in large communities like New York or Chicago to command the loyalty of rival Orthodox rabbis and of all the traditional synagogs in town. Vested interest offered powerful opposition. The community as a whole was not interested in the talmudic wares of these often unworldly scholars. Slavic Europe and its Jewish cultural values was a world passed by. Unlike Russia the United States government could not exercise coercion in the levying of a tax on kosher food. In addition the Reformers resented the attempts of the Orthodox to establish an authoritarian chief rabbinate. Let these scholars go back where they came from! Nonetheless in some towns the East European rabbis, learned and competent, won the respect if not the affection of many. Such were Bernard L. Levinthal in Philadelphia, Simon H. Album in Chicago, M. S. Sivitz in Pittsburgh, Abraham Jacob Gershon Lesser in Cincinnati, N. N. Zeichik in Des Moines. There were many others too.5


In 1897 in a bitter attack on Herzlian political Zionism, Isaac M. Wise broke sharply with the Orthodox who always cherished the hope—in their liturgy at least—of the Return to Palestine. The gap between Reform and Orthodoxy was now widened even farther and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations which had hoped to shelter all American synagogs now slowly turned to the left; 1897 was thus a religious watershed. A year later the Orthodox led by the natives and acculturated traditional synagogs began to organize nationally. They established the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of the United States and Canada (1898) whose job was to stop the Reformers and to give American Orthodoxy direction; the rabbis graduating from the Jewish Theological Seminary were to confront the Reformers and to lead the East European masses into the Promised Land of acculturation and undiminished traditional observance.

Constantly before the eyes of the native traditionalists was the pattern of the successful Union of American Hebrew Congregations; the Orthodox believed they could be equally successful in fashioning a union if they could only enlist the East European masses who crowded the New York ghettos. Notable among the cultured Orthodox leaders who envisaged these hopes was Henry Pereira Mendes (1852-1937). This native Englishman, a rabbi and a physician, was one of the founders of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and its president for many years. Shearith Israel was his pulpit. Although not a scholar in Talmud or in the Science of Judaism he was nevertheless a rabbinic leader of some stature. Mendes was a cultured Sephardic Jew, a poet and musician, a man who could hold his own with the Nathans, the Cardozos, the Phillipses, and the Hendrickses. The rabbi was well known as a cultural Zionist and a patron of the YMHA. He wrote articles on American Jewish history, textbooks and plays for Sunday school children, and he distinguished himself as a social worker and a defender of his people. During the Spanish-American War he worked to secure Holy Day leave for the men in service; he interceded with the school authorities to excuse Jewish children from taking examinations on the Sabbath, voiced his objection to Christmas celebrations in the public schools, and fought the exclusionary anti-immigration bills in congress. His Orthodoxy was uncompromising; he was one of the founders of the Jewish Theological Seminary and when under Schechter it shifted to the left Mendes aligned himself with the ghetto’s Isaac Elchanan seminary. There he taught homiletics. Like the elitists of his congregation this paladin of Orthodoxy probably shunned close social relations with the Slavic Ashkenazim who had only too recently debarked at Castle Garden and Ellis Island.6

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations which the natives had fashioned was based on an almost paragraph by paragraph denial of the several articles of the Pittsburgh Platform. The new Union stood four-square on God’s Bible; its pronouncements were immutable. It accepted the Sinaitic revelation, insisted on retaining the old ceremonies and rituals, the traditional Hebrew and Aramaic prayer book, the circumcision of proselytes, the coming of a personal Messiah, and the hope for an ultimate Restoration to the Holy Land, as God had promised. The new Union was not supported by the immigrants. With the exception of Kasriel H. Sarasohn, the Yiddish newspaper publisher, the founders of this association were not their kind of Jews. The “Russians” wanted to be with their own; they refused to ally themselves with the acculturated natives and Germans despite their Orthodoxy. Cherishing their own culture the émigrés summarily rejected the graduates of the Orthodox Jewish Theological Seminary. These English-speaking rabbis had not filled their bellies with talmudic learning! The older traditional groups kept their distance. Ultimately the natives and Americanized Orthodox congregations would move into the Conservative camp; a number would even join the Reformers. They would make no compromise with a Yiddish-speaking culture. Deserted by many of its founders the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations was ultimately taken over by the East Europeans.7


The Yiddish-speaking rabbis found their home in an organization of their own, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada (1900). Adopting the title “Orthodox “ was a confession of defeat, an admission that there was a formidable body of non-Orthodox Jews. The monolithic Orthodoxy of earlier centuries was beginning to wane; ultimately the men who were loyal to the old traditions would find themselves a minority denomination here in the United States. These rabbis were frightened men; they were fighting a losing battle; they feared acculturation. They were helpless before the assimilatory appeal of the American metropolitan centers so different from the Slavic towns and cities of their oppressors. Some of the newly arrived Jewish scholars were opposed to secular studies, to the Kehillah’s Bureau of Jewish Education, and to the introduction of arts and sciences in the Isaac Elchanan seminary. These fundamentalists set out to create yeshivot, Talmud Torahs, and parochial schools of their own where they could control the mind-set of the students, where they could bar or limit secular studies.

These foreign-born spiritual leaders had a program for their followers. Contemporary and later critics derided it but their rationale was sound. They fought valiantly in support of the new Jewish Sabbath Association (1905) that strove to keep shops and factories closed on the Sabbath; they scurried about to provide jobs for the men and women who would not desecrate that Holy Day. They were in the forefront of those who sought to abolish the discriminatory Sunday closing laws; this political activity was in itself a form of Americanization. They wanted the émigrés to observe kashrut and to use the mikveh; the commandments, the mitzvahs, were to be meticulously observed. This was a wise approach; they did not emphasize ethics or theology for all Jews share common basic moral and religious principles. Orthodoxy identifies itself and can survive only through distinct separatist practices, a particularistic way of life guarantees loyalty. Unfortunately the impact of America was too strong to be countered effectively by any device. The typical Orthodox Jews shaved and dressed like their fellow Americans; in some synagogs it was difficult to find a single bearded member. These men and women worked on the Sabbath, watered down the kashrut, and evolved yet another new style of Judaism, Orthodoxy, an American one.

In the early decades of the twentieth century the Union of Orthodox Rabbis was barely able to stay alive. The European scholars tried to keep it an exclusive Talmud club. Although there were hundreds of so-called Orthodox rabbis in the United States there were only about 150 admitted to this rabbinical conference. During World War I the Union did what it could to help the East European Jews caught between the invading armies. The maintenance of the schools and scholars of devastated Russia, Poland, and Austria was of particular concern for it. After the Balfour Declaration of 1917 these rabbis came to terms with Zionism working to make sure that the established Jewish “church” of Palestine would be Orthodox.8


The traditional rabbis, those who oppose secular studies and looked upon the English-speaking Orthodox rabbi as an assimilationist, were few in number particularly after the turn of the century. More and more Orthodox rabbis and leaders realized that they had to make their peace with Americanism by introducing “profane” subjects into the rabbinic colleges. Precious though it was, Talmud was not enough. America’s appeal was sensed in the Orthodox congregations even before it confronted the cloistered talmudists. No Orthodox conventicle was immune. As early as 1901 a Des Moines traditional observant group opened a free Hebrew school for both boys and girls, hired a rabbi with a good secular education, and introduced sermons in English. One of the founders of this synagog had once attended a Reform service in New York City and was determined that the worship in his shul be equally dignified yet not suffer a departure from established practices. A Denver congeries established a Sunday school; a Chicago rabbi was active in the local Jewish charities; some of the synagogs adapted the Friday night service of the Reformers; another synagog had a treasurer who was a Mason. If he enjoyed decorum in the Masons would he tolerate indecorum in the shul? In another congregation the rabbi was not only a talmudist but also an accomplished linguist and a mathematician. His president was a Mason, an Odd Fellow, and a member of the Knights of Pythias. By 1912-1915 a number of New York Jews, oriented to the culture about them, had created the Young Israel Movement. They abolished the objectionable sale of honors during the services and introduced Friday night lectures and congregational singing. Their synagogs were to be models, harbingers of a renascent Orthodoxy. It would seem that no one could escape from the Americanistic influences that were all pervasive.9

Many of the “old-fashioned” rabbis as they are dubbed were highly intelligent brilliant thinkers; they tolerated acculturation for they had no choice. In order to comply with the laws of the land practically all elementary and secondary rabbinical academies introduced secular studies. These schools taught the new generation here the language of the land and at the same time guarded it against the heresies to which it would be exposed in the public schools. Those who entered the rabbinate would be able to address their followers in English; the youth would be saved for Judaism; Orthodoxy would survive. Even the “chief rabbis,” Margolies of Boston and later of New York, and Levinthal of Philadelphia realized the imperative need for secular studies. Tradition-true rabbis with advanced academic degrees began to abound. Drachman and Philip Klein and Revel of New York, Schepsel Schaffer and Henry W. Schneeberger of Baltimore were all Ph.Ds. Drachman and Schneeberger were native Americans; the others were born in Europe and all except Revel had received their degrees on that continent. Schneeberger who served Chizuk Amuno was probably the first native American Jew to receive rabbinical ordination (1871). This Baltimore rabbi, a leader in local Jewish welfare institutions, was eager to help the East European Jews who had begun arriving in numbers in that port town. He warned them against socialism and urged them to go on the soil. When the Orthodox Jewish Theological Seminary was founded he was one of its earliest supporters. Men of this type were found in many of the large cities; they integrated the old-new Orthodoxy into the Jewish community; by embracing the culture about them they helped salvage the faith of the fathers.

As early as 1914 Los Angeles could brag that its Orthodox rabbi, Lithuanian-born Isaac Werne, was a doctor of philosophy; the St. Paul officiant was a fine pianist, a student of Kant and Spinoza, and a talmudist. Aaron Mordecai Halevi Ashinsky (1866-1954) was another example of this new breed of rabbis. He served in a number of cities including Detroit, Montreal, and Pittsburgh. While in Detroit in the early 1890’s he attempted to establish a Talmud Torah but his bosses, who preferred to spend their money on a mellifluous cantor, withheld his salary and compelled him to move on. In Montreal he served also as a chaplain in the armed forces and spoke English of course although always with a discernible accent. In Pittsburgh where he carved out a career for himself he established a Sunday school that was as good as the best in the city. Some of his teachers were college trained. This was in 1907.10

Bernard L. Levinthal

One of the most effective of the American-oriented traditional rabbis was Bernard L. Levinthal. He was learned, friendly, hospitable; his influence reached into the White House. He was made for America. Levinthal had studied English but hesitated to employ it; his published sermons and lectures were always in Yiddish. In Philadelphia he organized the supply of kosher meat and fostered such typical institutions as a burial society, an afternoon Hebrew school, and a yeshivah. Few Orthodox Jews in the country could equal his range of interests and activity. He was a founder of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, the first president of the American Mizrachi, a member of the elite American Jewish Committee, participant in the American Jewish Congress of World War I days, and a strong supporter of Revel’s new Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical Seminary. Levinthal was no obscurantist. He did not forbid his children to teach in non-Orthodox religious schools where no skull caps were worn. Young Israel, his son, resolved this knotty problem by running his hand over his head every time he pronounced the Ineffable Name. When papa, the rabbi, went bathing in the Atlantic city surf he swam in an area where women also were bathing. This was a daring innovation.11

Bernard Revel

Levinthal encouraged his literary secretary Bernard Revel to study at Dropsie and then pushed his nomination for the presidency of the Isaac Elchanan seminary. Revel’s Orthodoxy was unimpaired yet this immigrant studied law, philosophy, economics, and wrote on John Milton and Abraham Lincoln. This socially conscious man manifested a deep interest in the Jewish welfare agencies and in the American Jewish Congress; he helped prepare an army Jewish prayer book that was acceptable even to Reform Jews. As president of the Orthodox rabbinical college he incorporated a recently established Orthodox teachers’ seminary and did not hesitate to introduce the study of Jewish history, Bible, and Hebrew as a language, ignoring the protest of those stalwarts who were interested only in Talmud. By their very nature the secular sciences which the new school taught were at variance with traditional cosmology. The inherent contradictions did not disturb him. His school was more than a rabbinical college, it was an effort to save Orthodoxy in America, to make it viable. This was all revolutionary; Revel helped rehabilitate traditional Judaism, synthesizing the ancient beliefs and American culture. In this area he was one with the Reformers and the Conservatives but unlike them his basic belief and practices remained inviolate.12


But it was to be decades before the hopes of men like Levinthal and Revel were to burgeon and to flower. The struggle for survival was a disheartening one. The attempt to be both traditional and American reflects all the religious and cultural problems of that whole immigrant generation. Opposing the conscious accommodation of Levinthal and Revel were powerful conservatives like the learned Jacob David Willowski (Ridvaz). He was noted as a child prodigy. Before he was six he had already memorized the entire Pentateuch and the commentary of Rashi. So a biographer reported. Willowski of Chicago advised his people to leave a synagog if the preacher addressed them in English; rabbis who spoke English could not be talmudists; they did not know the law. Like Einhorn, who a generation earlier had insisted on his vernacular, German, Willowski insisted on Yiddish. Their languages were almost sacrosanct. The more frightened the East European conservatives became, the more authoritarian was their stance. Having no modern education they denigrated it. The intransigent Orthodox rabbis of that generation had bodies in the West but their hearts were in the East, Russia or Palestine. They were destined to disappear. The Law was no longer a dominant interest in the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Rabbis and religious factotums of lesser repute were often mistreated and not given a living wage. Some received as little as $3 to $4 a week if they were on salary. In Des Moines the sexton was better paid than the rabbi. When the Bible translation committee met, no Orthodox rabbis were coopted; they were not deemed biblical scholars. This is eloquent testimony of their lack of standing in the total Jewish community.13

Like the antebellum “German” immigrants, these postbellum “Russians,” were a quarrelsome lot. Dissension was the order of the day; they were a struggling, impoverished group, hence unhappy men and women. Mayhap they fought because they cared, but they fought. There were times when the police had to be called in; at times they settled their differences in the court. In Charleston, South Carolina, a group of meticulous observers, resenting Reformist inroads, seceded. Let them go, said the president. “Who wants you people with beards?” Ben Sammett in Denver was spared these quarrels in his congregation; he financed it entirely himself; if his people did not like the way he ran the place, they knew where they could go. In New York and other metropolitan centers the secularists, agnostics, atheists, socialists, anarchists, snarled at the religionists among them but these hostile unbelievers, vocal and of high visibility, were relatively few in numbers.

Even the Orthodox religionists looked askance at one another, or they were convinced of the superiority of their own particular liturgical practices which had been treasured in the old home provinces and towns since days beyond the reach of memory. These customs they deemed sacrosanct. Thus there were Ukranian, Polish, Russian, Rumanian, Lithuanian, Galician synagogs, etc., etc. Though they were often at variance with one another, they also always felt a larger sense of unity. They shared common problems; they were Jews faced by a Gentile world which they believed was at best merely tolerant of them. In a crisis situation East European Jews joined hands not only with the other immigrants but with all the older established Jewish settlers.

Centripetal forces were also always at work. Wherever a handful of the newcomers foregathered they held religious services, hired a functionary, patronized a kosher butcher shop, bought a cemetery, organized a burial society, purchased an old Christian church, remodeled it or even built a modest new synagog, and then proceeded to set up a school. Sympathy for the colonies in Palestine, Zionism, was a cement that helped bind them together. They enjoyed Hanukkah as a countervailing force to Christmas. On Hanukkah young Levinthal was given toys, a sled, games, a policeman’s or fireman’s suit. When the remodeled or new synagog was dedicated a rabbi who could speak English made the principal address; more often than not he was a Reform rabbi of classical bent. Of course the mayor or a friendly Christian politician was also asked to participate in the dedication. It is true that these new settlers were only too well aware that the liberal critical spirit of America was robbing them of some of their intellectuals and many of their children, but the spirit of the times was also a welcome ally. Religious liberalism was a minority position. The Christian masses, both Protestant and Catholic, believed in the inerrant authority of Sciptures no matter what the sciences taught. Leo XIII in 1899 and Pius X in 1907 were attacking “Americanism,” and modernist trends; Protestants reacting vigorously against the new science, new ideas, and old heresies were hatching a reaction that was to emerge as Fundamentalism. It is not improbable that the new climate of thought and practice encouraged observant Jews to hold fast.14

It took time to organize for survival. Nineteen years elapsed after the first pogrom of 1881 before the émigrés here fashioned the Union of Orthodox Rabbis; it was not until 1908 that the Baltimore Orthodox synagogs federated to promote schooling and kashrut. It was 1909 before the Orthodox religious Zionists established a branch of the Mizrachi here. In 1912 the founders of Young Israel came together for the first time and in that same year the Agudat Israel, the right wing of European Orthodoxy, found adherents here too. In 1919 American Jewry published an edition of the Talmud. This is important. Traditional learning had found a new home! When in the Middle Ages rabbinic studies declined in Mesopotamia only to build a new home in the West, Spain, so now rabbinism, Orthodoxy, talmudic learning, found a secure resting place in a New West, America. Hundreds of sets were shipped to the academies of war-torn Europe. The Orthodox Jews of the New World were paying their cultural debt to the Jews of the Old World.

These immigrants had to be what they were, East European Jewish religionists. True, many were too poor to join a congregation or unwilling to pay dues; apparently they were apathetic, but when the High Holy Days rolled around they poured into the hired halls, the mushroom synagogs. This would satisfy their religious needs till the next year; they had paid their devoirs to the Holy One Blessed Be He. In the intervening months each immigrant made his own Judaism; he emphasized some form of observance if it was only to refrain from eating pork and to proudly denominate himself an Orthodox Jew. They have been excoriated for their lack of decorum during services; there was noise, confusion, talking in the synagogs, but all this was a way of life. Discipline, decorum, were Protestant worship concepts that were alien to them as half a century earlier they had been to the “German” newcomers. Orthodox services were warm, intense; these Jews found comfort and security in coming together, in gossiping in Yiddish, in reading the Hebrew prayers even when they could not understand them. They were proud of their faith: in 1906 the Rumanian Aid Society of Rochester escorted a new Scroll of the Law to its shrine in the synagog; 500 people marched in the procession led by a blaring band of twenty-eight musicians. By 1920 the Orthodox Jews of the United States had gained a great victory; they had survived; they were to persist as a distinct religious group.15


The Slavic immigrant congregations which were determinedly Orthodox yet America-oriented were slow in turning to the Jewish Theological Seminary for their rabbis; it was not yet a prestigious institution. Even the leftward moving Orthodox who were ready to reject the old-fashioned rabbis probably still thought of a spiritual leader as a bearded talmudist; the latter was nearly always surrounded by an aura of veneration and sentiment. The natives and German Orthodox congregations leaned toward Central European rabbinic leaders, learned, cultured men who sported Ph.D. degrees. By 1900 the Seminary was in limbo between the “Russian” Orthodox and the Reformers. It was moribund, rejected by both though it was loyally supported by a few rabbis and a number of devoted laymen. One of the most dedicated of these lay friends was Joseph Blumenthal (1834-1901), a New York politician who also served in the state assembly for many years. Like other Jews of the generation he was interested in good government and served on the anti-Tweed Committee of Seventy. Blumenthal was typical of those cultured Central European immigrants who remained loyal to the religious traditions of their fathers. He presided as president of the YMHA, of Congregation Shearith Israel, and guided the destinies of the Seminary from 1887 to 1901.

In his effort to keep the Seminary afloat Blumenthal was aided by the Hamburger Leonard Lewisohn (1847-1902), a student of the Hebrew Bible, a devoted religionist, and a brilliant businessman. He was a member of that Lewisohn family that had turned to metals and mining and had done much to develop the copper industry. The Lewisohn brothers were a very philanthropic lot; Leonard was a patron of the Hebrew Free School Association, the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society, the Educational Alliance, the Montefiore Home, and the Alliance Colony in New Jersey. He contributed liberally to guarantee the publication of the projected Jewish Encyclopedia. Like many other wealthy New York Jewish businessmen he was concerned with the welfare of the new émigrés and labored constructively to Americanize their children. Lewisohn also worked to reorganize this New York rabbinical school in order to ensure its viability.16

The death of Blumenthal in 1901 and of Lewisohn in 1902 exacerbated the crisis that had faced the Seminary for several years. The survival of the Seminary was so much in doubt that there was even talk about merging it with the Cincinnati rabbinical college. Wise died the year before Blumenthal passed away leaving Cincinnati bereft of a leader of national stature. Many Reform leaders including Emil G. Hirsch wanted the College to move to a big city near a good university. Hirsch of course had in mind the University of Chicago where he taught. The Hebrew Union College, these leaders believed, ought to become a graduate institution instead of ordaining men as soon as they had received their B. A. degree. New York Jews, constantly reaching out for national Jewish leadership, were to supplant the Cincinnati Midwesterners. Not only was Cincinnati Jewry only about one-fortieth the size of the New York Jewish community, but the New Yorkers felt that they were “good” Jews from traditional backgrounds, very concerned about the future of their people and their religion. Lewisohn was observant; Schiff never forgot his Orthodox origins; Louis Marshall enjoyed reading Sholem Aleichem in Yiddish. The prime motivation of the New Yorkers was concern for the immigrant masses in the ghettos; it was imperative that the process of Americanization be speeded up. These newcomers must be deorientalized religiously; it was important that the Christians be presented with an image of the Jew that would not repulse them. To non-Jews Orthodox services were outlandish.

Merger was a popular word; it was an age of mergers; the great United States Steel Corporation had just been put together in 1901. There were many New Yorkers who believed that their city was the only one suited for a college that could satisfy the needs of its huge Jewry as well as the Jews in the back country. New York City sheltered the largest wealthiest Jewish community in the republic. As late as 1921, decades after it was obvious that Reform and Conservatism were parting company ideologically, Julius Rosenwald was still advocating the union of the two. The New Yorkers justified their advocacy with the arguments that they had better universities; money could be saved by joining the two seminaries. Because they were above all businessmen they were also well aware that the Cincinnati school through the Union had a built-in following, financial resources. The Easterners were eager to concentrate authority in American Jewish life in their own hands. Their unspoken motto was: A maximum of power with a minimum of expenditure. Eager to assert themselves, they were rivals of the Union in Cincinnati and of the B’nai B’rith in Chicago. One overall school in New York could further New York Jewry’s desire for “political” and religious hegemony. Structural unity was important; ideological differences apparently were of lesser concern.17

However, those people with strong religious convictions who were unmoved by financial considerations were strongly opposed to a merger. There could be no freedom of thought if the Seminary Orthodox and College Reformers were yoked together; divergent ideologies and practices made compromise impossible. For the Seminary stalwarts merger had always been a counsel of despair despite lack of funds and following. They had already been rejected by the Reformers and the East European rabbis. The Cincinnati college trustees did not even entertain the possibility of a merger. They had local pride and dreaded the threat of Eastern control; the East-West rivalry was never absent. The New Yorkers had never supported the Hebrew Union College. In 1898 there were 300 donors to the Cincinnati school; only two—rabbis, alumni of the institution—were New Yorkers. The merger fell through.18


If the New York elite, predominantly Reform Jews, was alerted to the importance of keeping the Jewish Theological Seminary alive this was due to Cyrus Adler. This scholarly, cultured, second-generation American, a practitioner of Orthodoxy, pushed through a complete reorganization of the school. He believed the newcomers could be recruited for a viable thoroughly American Orthodoxy, a position the Seminary had maintained since its founding in 1887; some of its students went down to the East Side to teach and to lecture. It was the consensus of all those interested in saving the school that the man for the job, one who could satisfy the Reform sponsors and stand up scholastically to the émigré talmudists, was Solomon Schechter. Schechter had begun his academic career as a yeshivah student in Rumania but eventually decided to seek a new life, to westernize himself. He became a cultured cosmopolitan, yet he always remained an Orthodox loyalist. He studied in Vienna, then went onto the Berlin Jewish Hochschule where he was exposed to religiously liberal and Reformist influences. In 1886 the religiously radical Claude Montefiore brought him to London as his tutor. Schechter studied at Oxford and taught in London and Cambridge. By the time he left for America in 1902 he had achieved international recognition as a scholar. The London Jewish Chronicle said that he “had made great spaces in Jewish destiny very luminous.” His fame came not only from his sound learning but through his exploitation of the old manuscripts stored in the genizah of Cairo. Eager to emigrate here, Schechter had negotiated quietly but effectively for many years. He knew this country well for he had lectured here in the 1890’s. The English Victorian class system annoyed him; he was not the man to kowtow to anyone; his salary and opportunities in England were severely limited and he was ambitious. Finally, he was offered the position of president of the Seminary and he arrived here in April, 1902.19

The reorganized Seminary announced its new program: the perpetuation of the tenets of Judaism, the training of rabbis and teachers, the cultivation of Jewish scholarship. Under pressure from the apprehensive trustees of the older Seminary, the new school solemnly affirmed that it would teach a historical Judaism based on Bible and Talmud. It was to continue as an Orthodox institution. (Pace Isaac M. Wise in Cincinnati in 1855 who had made the same solemn promise to Leeser and his cohorts in order to reassure them!) Schechter was fortunate in securing the help of Cyrus Adler. Though a sophisticated academician Adler’s loyalty to the age-old observance could not be impugned. In religious matters he may even have been over to the right of Schechter. In the pre-Schechter days he had found time to volunteer as an instructor in biblical archaeology in the Seminary. Aside from the new president, Adler was the most important administrator in the school. After Schechter passed away in 1915 Adler ran the Seminary till 1940. At the same time he served as president of Dropsie (1908) and the United Synagogue (1914-1917). Indeed he was probably the most powerful American Jewish institutional executive in the first half of the century, for his authority extended also to the Jewish Publication Society, the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Welfare Board. Adler cherished the hope, an illusory one as it turned out, that the Conservative Movement would be able to work very closely with the older Orthodoxy. Schechter in his latter days was much less sanguine.20


The growth of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in the early 1900’s may be looked upon as East European Jewry’s rejection of the new school and its leader. The man Schechter was a very competent rabbinist but he was not interested in employing Yiddish as his instructional medium; he had one foot solidly planted in the Gentile world of secular studies. Worse, he looked askance at the East European rabbis. Gradually the gap widened between the Seminary and the Isaac Elchanan school and the allied Union of Orthodox Rabbis. Religiously the Seminary was suspect; socially the old rabbis and the new rabbis kept their distance. The enticements of Conservatism posed a real threat to the rigidly Orthodox; the heretical Reformers were no danger. Henry P. Mendes and Bernard Drachman, survivors of the Morais regime, felt isolated religiously in the Seminary and they finally left. Ideologically, religiously, and culturally the new Seminary was moving away from East European Orthodoxy.21


Almost imperceptibly the Seminary and its followers were creating a movement of their own. Viability was achieved because of the personality of Schechter, the prestige, financing, and administrative skills of the Germans and the natives who rallied around the reconstructed school. More important, a movement was to emerge because it gave immigrants and their native-born children what they sought. The Seminary’s philosophy was most attractive; it recognized the important changes that were occurring on a congregational level. It has already been pointed out that a number of traditional synagogs were accommodating themselves to the American scene; it was the people, not the rabbis, who were relentlessly pushing the religionists to the left. Overtly the Seminary teaching was completely Orthodox employing the old liturgies and chaunts in an all Hebrew service; the traditional ceremonies and folkways were respected and enjoyed. In most synagogs women were still separated from the men; shrouds and mourning customs were retained, burial societies were still active; festivals were observed for two days, not one; the mohel, not a physician, was employed for circumcisions; Zionism was encouraged. Praying shawls and phylacteries were worn; the head was covered during worship; yet it is interesting to note that in the period 1914-1915 when the faculty and the students of the Seminary sat for a group photograph, not a single skullcap was visible. Was this a portent of things to come?22

But devotion to customary practices did not necessarily mean rejection of new ideas. Observant Jews who desired to keep their children Jewish adopted changes in order to fit into the cultural milieu; it was imperative that they respect the amenities so important in American society. There must an accommodation if the new generation was to make its way in the Gentile world. The Germans discovered this truth in the early nineteenth century; now it was the turn of the East Europeans. Congregations like individuals bowed to the demands of the times; by 1920 there were many synagogs whose common practices characterized them as somewhat non-Orthodox.

Following are some of the changes these new type congregations might make: The bimah or reading desk was removed from the center of the synagog and put with the pulpit near the ark. Decorum was imposed like the service of the Reformers. One congregation called itself a temple; another, in Easton, denominated itself, Children of Israel Semi-Reform Congregation. When some of these synagogs moved out of the ghetto they built sanctuaries which included a social hall, a kitchen, a gymnasium, and schoolrooms. They met on Friday night, introduced English into their services, and listened to a sermon in the new vernacular by graduates of the Seminary. Men and women sat together in a family pew; there was a choir of males and females, Jews of course; the cantor was a modern trained musician. Some congregations, not many, tolerated the introduction of an organ. Sabbath schools for boys and girls were established and the colorful ceremony of confirmation was taken over from the Reformers. Standards of kashrut began to decline, for the Jews bought bread and wine whose production had not been supervised; they carried umbrellas on the Sabbath. There were Boy Scout troops, Young Judaea clubs, adult education classes, Zionist societies, junior congregations, programs of dancing, drama; there were lectures and entertainments, and always a ladies auxiliary. Like their sisters in the Reform congregations—and in the Christian churches—the ladies sponsored strawberry festivals, Hanukkah (Christmas) parties, and charity balls. These deviations from Orthodoxy were almost infinite in number and variety.

The leftward moving Jewish religionists were becoming a relatively affluent middle class, rubbing shoulders with the older-stock Jews. It was not common, yet a few of the older reform congregations were led back to Conservatism; the choir became Jewish; hats were restored in the worship service. Some Conservative synagogs started ab initio as Conservative; others had been secessionists. One of the former was B’nai Israel or Emanuel of Hartford. It was organized in 1919 and had established itself in a Methodist church which it had purchased. One of its leading laymen and a later president was Herman P. Kopplemann (1880-1957). He had started life as a newspaper boy and later became a distributor of papers and magazines. Ambitious, he became a politician, served in the state legislature, and then went on to Congress where he supported liberal bills. Kopplemann sponsored widows’ and teachers’ pensions, child labor laws, workmen’s compensation and strove to ameliorate living conditions in the slums. In the second decade of the twentieth century some middle-class Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn hired young Israel H. Levinthal to serve as their spiritual leader. He preached twice a week and initiated a full complement of cultural, social, and religious agencies. For a while his was the only service in his part of town where English preaching could be heard. People flocked to hear him. His officers who came to service in frock coats and high hats, had named their synagog, Petach Tikvah, the Gate of Hope. Influenced by Mordecai M. Kaplan’s Synagogue Center which had been established in 1916 a similar congregation was soon called into being in Brooklyn. Levinthal became its rabbi; his Brooklyn Jewish Center served as a prototype for similar synagogs throughout the country.

Most Conservative congregations, however, began as Orthodox synagogs which made major or minor changes as they moved to the left. Chizuk Amuno, The Strengthening of Faith, of Baltimore, founded by the Friedenwald clan, was so rightwing that in the late 1870’s it would not even fill out a statistical survey submitted by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. In 1898 it joined the newly established Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations but in 1913 switched its allegiance to the United Synagogue, the synagogal union of the Conservatives. A Denver group which had been organized in the 1890’s insisted that it was an Orthodox institution but employed a Seminary rabbi and introduced confirmation and the family pew. The Tree of life in Columbia, South Carolina, found it difficult at first to define itself. It was liberal in its membership requirements; even females age fifteen or over, could join. Dues were uniform, fifty cents a month. Worshippers were urged to keep their voices down and not drown out the reader. Services were first held in a home, then in a fire house, and when such quarters were found wanting the founders went to New York City and induced Schiff and Warburg to help them build; the new synagog was dedicated in 1905. For years the service remained in the twilight zone between Orthodoxy and Reform; there were many arguments about hats on or off; the use or nonuse of an organ was hotly disputed. Attendance was often bad; sometimes only two people were present on a Friday night; these were the two who had pledged themselves to come to services as long as they lived.23


The new third Jewish denomination came of age in a formal sense in 1913 when the United Synagogue was chartered. This was the congregational union of the Conservatives. Of the 2,000 synagogs and conventicles in the United States, twenty allied themselves with the United Synagogue. It was inevitable that this new style Orthodox-Reform group would want a union of its own. The Orthodox looked upon the Jewish Theological Seminary as a training school for rabbis on the way to Reform; the Conservatives, on the other hand, would have no part of those German leftwingers. Schechter feared that some of his congregations might drift to the Reform union; actually the United Synagogue was influenced structurally and programmatically by the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The congregations in the Conservative union were eager to establish women’s auxiliaries, to intensify the religious education of the children along modern lines, and to develop children’s services; the United Synagogue furthered youth groups, worked where it could with the Menorah Association and other students in the colleges, opposed Sunday closing laws, and fought for observant students who could not conscientiously take examinations on the Sabbath. Like the Reformers this new union was eager to help the black Jews (Falashas) of Abyssinia and the refugees caught in the war zones of Slavic Europe. Unlike the Reformers observance of the dietary laws was seen as imperative although there is reason to suspect that many of the congregants had already ceased to be meticulous in their niceties.

Schechter and his associates had to reconcile themselves to the thought that they could not win the committed Orthodox. The best they could hope for was to unite all Americanized traditional congregations under the banner of the United Synagogue. The program of the new union was well-deffined: devotion to “traditional” Judaism, observance of the Sabbath and the dietary laws, retention of the Hebrew language, restoration to the ancient homeland where once again religious idealism would flourish. The Torah, rabbinic tradition, is authentic! But having postulated all this it took full cognizance of modern Jewish scholarship and its implications. Decorum and the English sermon were de rigueur; traditions sanctified by the centuries must be adapted to modern needs, but Reform permissiveness is to be rejected at all costs. To their own satisfaction at least the Conservatives were convinced that they had resolved the conflict between faith in the Torah, ancient belief and practices, and acceptance of modern critical thought.24

After Schechter’s death his wife Matilda took the lead in establishing the National Women’s League (1918) which united the auxiliaries affiliated with United Synagogue congregations. By 1920 there were seventy such sisterhood groups. Like the women’s societies of the Reformers these conservative associations developed extensive programs of religious and social activities. In New York City they worked closely with the Reform women aiding the sick and the impoverished. During the panic of 1907 the women of New York B’nai Jeshurun brought relief to 500 impoverished families. The overall organization, the League, devised a very broad program of education for children, youth, and adults; it encouraged the introduction of home ceremonies and the establishment of libraries. The social and welfare goals set by the United Synagogue were in part, if not in large part, implemented by the women’s auxiliaries. They are the ones who endeavored to provide kosher food for university students and funds for overseas relief. The women established nurseries and kindergartens, aided the Jewish blind, and organized sewing circles.25


In 1901 an alumni association of the Seminary had been set up by the graduates of the pre-Schechter school; in 1919 it became the Rabbinical Assembly of America. It was destined to become a powerful and effective association in the second quarter of the twentieth century. Its prime concern was to reconcile Jewish laws—some of them biblical in origin—with modern-day needs: marriage laws, funeral and burial customs, Sabbath observance, dietary prohibitions, and conversions to Judaism. These Conservative rabbis were very troubled by the plight of the wife whose husband was missing. Under the Law she was forbidden to remarry unless divorced or proof of death was forthcoming. This created an almost insoluble problem when during wars a husband was reported missing in action. Though most difficulties were insoluble, given the eternal binding character of the Torch, these Conservatives made every effort to ameliorate the difficulties through liberal interpretations.26


Schechter insisted on loyalty to the Torah—whatever that means. Yet he was not an Orthodox Jew and did not wish to be identified as such. Rabbinic literature must be evaluated critically. He could not live without the western amenities, but his practices were traditional. Possibly over to the left of Isaac M. Wise, Schechter did not believe in a direct Sinaitic revelation; all Jewish institutions and beliefs had risen historically. In theory he was quite ready to admit of change; in his personal religious, ceremonial, and ritual conduct he was an Orthodox Jew. He had no interest in establishing a creed. Basic with him was the concept that all Jews must bow to the World Jewish consensus of practice. Only thus could they ally themselves with the Body of All Israel, the Universal Synagogue; he called it Catholic Israel. For the Jew, unity is imperative in a Gentile society where the Children of Israel are never fully accepted. Schechter and his followers were eager to enter the new world of tolerance and enlightenment, yet, fearful of assimilation, they always looked to the past. When faced with the need of retaining an obsolescent practice or deferring to the cultural demands of the times Schechter would probably genuflect in the direction of the amenities. He led a counterreformation against Reform; he did not seriously impede it, yet he helped save Orthodoxy by modernizing it, by acclimatizing it in the American milieu.27


Schechter was a Zionist. His immersion in Jewish religious tradition left him no choice; Zionism too might well serve as a barrier to assimilation. But Schechter, above all a religionist, had no respect for its secular leaders such as Herzl and Nordau. For years he hesitated to affiliate himself with the movement. He finally did so in 1905, yet he was never impressed with the need for a political state. He was no nationalist in the modern sense; Zionism divorced from religion was a menace; for him it was vital that the new Palestine further the Jews spiritually and morally. In 1913 when the Haifa technical school was about to be established World Jewry was riven: shall the language of instruction be Hebrew, German, or some other modern tongue? Schechter opted for Hebrew but because of the limits of its scientific vocabulary he recommended that other languages be used for instruction until the time Hebrew should prove adequate for the need. He was a much better Diaspora nationalist than a Palestine nationalist, a Zionist.28


The Reformers were never bitter against Schechter; they never felt threatened by him or his movement. They respected him for his learning and welcomed his orientation to western Jewish scholarship. Though far over to the right he was really one of them, so some of them believed. The Seminary president numbered many Reformers among his friends and supporters but he rejected Reform unequivocally; the Reformers had gone too far. He could not accept their critical dissection of the biblical texts; he was convinced they were flirting with Christianity; their adulation of Jesus annoyed him. The refusal of the Reformers to pray with covered heads was a violation of a universal Jewish practice. The missionary labors of the Reformers among the East European newcomers was as dirty as the Christian missions to those Jews. The vaunting liberals were ignoramuses. It hurt him that they declined to use more Hebrew, the language of Holy Writ. At the Seminary modern Hebrew was taught; at the College in Cincinnati it was removed from the curriculum.

The Reformers rejected the Law; this was Paulinian, antinomian, Christian. Schechter always accepted the Law in principle yet lent himself to polite evasions through adaptation and neglect. It was his contention that changes could always be made through reinterpretation, but this was easier said than done. He would tolerate no overt breaks with the past; Jews must be united; the Reformers are divisive. Schechter measured his opponents by their adherence to the consensus. What he failed to understand was that the liberals, too, had their own Jewish consensus which, so they believed, left them securely ensconced within the ambit of World Jewry. After the Central Conference of American Rabbis had permitted a distinguished philanthropist, a radical layman, to address it, the auditors would not even discuss his appeal for an extreme move to the left. That man has stepped out of the magic circle that encompassed all Jews. As a middle-of-the-road man Schechter had to fight on two fronts at the same time, the Orthodox and the Reform. The Reformers could not sanction his almost total acceptance of traditional practices and forms; the Yiddish-speaking rabbis could not sanction his western orientation which could only lead to disaster. In English the word “Schechter” means a butcher; this was the man who had come to America to slaughter Judaism!29


Schechter’s critical approach is amply documented in his editions and evaluation of rabbinic tests. It took courage and vision to establish a great seminary which, though rooted in traditional Judaism, dared to divorce itself from the concept that talmudic learning was the sole requisite of the Jewish scholar. Like that of the Hebrew Union College the curriculum of the new school was quite modern. Schechter went farther; because many of his students were foreigners he encouraged them to study good English literature. To build America as a cultural center he hoped that an “academy” in the European sense would one day be established on these shores where savants of calibre could meet together and discuss their researches. All in all Schechter is the man who is primarily responsible for making the Jewish Theological Seminary a cradle of Jewish culture. This was part of a process which had already started when Isaac Mayer Wise in Cincinnati coopted the services of Mielziner, Deutsch, Buttenwieser, and Malter, a process which was continued even more consciously by Kohler. Because of these efforts of the two schools America was to emerge by 1920 as a respected subcenter of the Science of Judaism.30


Schechter was very witty, folksy, a down-to-earth human being; he was emotional, somewhat mystical, not unsympathetic to Hassidism, intellectually honest, an enlightened Conservative, a right-wing liberal. He was also irascible, quick to attack, not always a good politician, but this may well be deemed a virtue. Schechter was more interested in Judaizing Jews than in Americanizing them. This is why he resigned from the Educational Alliance; too much emphasis was laid on Americanization, too little on Judaization. He wanted to make good Jews out of the youngsters; he was sure America would make good Americans out of them without his aid. He was naive, however, in thinking that he could resolve the antinomy of religious authority and intellectual freedom.

In 1902 Schechter, on his way to America, was given a farewell banquet. Zangwill with a glint in his eye expressed the hope that this distinguished scholar would influence the old American families who had disposed of their Sabbath lamps as ghetto grotesques to begin buying them back as aesthetic antiquities and be persuaded to relight them. Certainly in this effort, if there was one, Schechter had no success. If this man was brought to these shores to unite all traditional Jews—and apparently he was—here too he fell short. If he was brought over here to Americanize the East European immigrants religiously, even here he was found wanting. In no sense did he reach the goals set by his sponsors; it is unlikely anyone could. Though Schechter, like the aging Luther, was unhappy with his achievements there was much of which he could boast. He established guide lines for all traditional Jews. He brought new life to the Seminary. More than anyone else he is the man who created the Conservative Movement and gave it direction. He dominated it.31


If Schechter’s congregations had anything in common it was this: no two were alike. This may well be due to the fact that these synagogs, much more than the Orthodox and the Reform, were in process of finding themselves. The following is the description of a Midwestern Conservative congregation, Adath Israel of Cincinnati. It would be futile to speculate whether it was typical or not. This antebellum synagog, German Polish in its original membership, was still Orthodox in 1910. This did not in the least deter it from inviting a Hebrew Union College professor to preach on Passover. Its permanent officiant was a hazzan whom it paid $35 a month. The ladies’ auxiliary, which called itself the Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society had the job of helping to pay off the mortgage. Like most congregations, no matter their denomination, Adath Israel always found it difficult to balance its budget. Income was derived from the sale of cemetery lots and membership dues. Some of the members were from Kentucky across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Undoubtedly these Kentuckians had joined to be sure of a seat on the High Holy Days and a lot in the burial ground. Women too were members, they paid half price; their late husbands probably belonged to the synagog. There was a daily minyan: some of these “minyanaires” were hired to round out the daily quorum. The services were, as far as it is known, traditional; there were flowers on Pentecost, the citron and branches on the Festival of Booths. All members were to a large degree Americanized, not only the old-time Germans but even the Slavic Jews who had joined more recently. Decorum? A committee of two was appointed to keep order on the Holy Days.

There was a congregational school and a school board; sometime before 1920 women were appointed to this board; on Hanukkah the children were given a party. In 1912 Adath Israel joined the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations; three years later as the trek to the suburbs began the trustees realized it was time to sell their sanctuary downtown and buy or build a new one where the members now lived. This took time but by 1917 they had sold their house of worship and had dedicated a new synagog in Avondale. Adath Israel was now referred to frequently as the Avondale Synagogue. Four Hebrew Union College professors, Reform Jews of course, were among the dedication officiants. The following year Adath Israel called Louis Feinberg, a graduate of the Seminary, to serve as its rabbi, but till he appeared it employed a Hebrew Union College student to conduct Orthodox services for them. Later the synagog joined the Conservative United Synagogue. By this time most of the members were of East European stock. In a way Adath Israel had run the gamut of the denominations, for in 1876 it had joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, yet it never ceased using the Orthodox book of common prayer.32

It was no easy task for the Conservatives to find themselves. Some were modern Orthodox; others were conservative Reformers; most were somewhere in between. What they did have in common was their desire to maintain a unity based on traditional practices. Like a giant colossus they had one foot in Orthodox Europe, the other in modernist America. After a fashion they were dissenters, reluctant Reformers. They were ready to adapt the Law, to a degree, to meet the demands of the times but they were determined to hold on to that Law. For them it was authoritative; they might at times ignore it but unlike the Reformers they would never repudiate it. They struggled with their problems, moving to the left hesitantly. The Orthodox also continually made changes but only very slowly, over the centuries; the Reformers made them precipitate; the Conservatives required decades.

Congregations had numerous questions to be decided, and they were, but often not without strife and anguish: the family pew, the organ, modern art and music, acceptance or rejection of intermarried Jews, the degree of kashrut to be observed, the continued use of the old prayers. The relatively slow pace of change in Conservatism annoyed some Conservatives who wanted to speed up the process. By the 1920’s a small group among them organized the Society for Jewish Renascence. These Jews were eager for immediate innovations and did not hesitate to introduce them. In practice they were strict conformists; in belief they were radical. In the next decade this group established a movement of its own—a fourth denomination?—which they called Reconstructionism.33


Conservatism grew. Why? The Conservatives relied to a large extent on their own resources, yet it was the patronage and support of wealthy New York liberals that made it possible to reconstitute the Seminary. Without the help of the prestigious Schiff and his associates the Seminary could hardly have survived. In a more positive sense Conservatism owes its growth and success to Schechter. The school was known as “Schechter’s Seminary.” Total identification with Judaism and with the American way of life made the new movement very attractive to the Downtown immigrants who were eager to be good Americans and good Jews. Decorum, dignity in the service, the aesthetic approach, the family pew, the late Friday service, the English sermon, confirmation, improved religious schools—all these are factors making for a growing Conservatism. Scholarship was encouraged; in a latitudinarian sense all Jews were welcomed into the new the fellowships; the rank and file were historically romantic, sentimental, warm; they loved the Hebrew language and were sympathetic to the new Zionism.

Like the Orthodox, Conservatives drew moral support from the spirit of the times. It was a generation when the vast majority of all American churchgoers were conservative, if not evangelical. The political reaction after World War I tended to keep people from veering to the left. It was a period of race riots, attacks on Marxists, Ku Klux Klan excesses. American Jews were upset by the Dreyfus Affair, the Russian pogroms, the racially motivated anti-Jewish immigration laws. The East Europeans here were counting their dead in the war zones while the Reformers were still dreaming of a Messianic Age. Resentment against a Slavic Gentile world that was crushing Jews in Europe kept many American Jews on the right, committed to tradition; they looked askance at Reform and its liberalism. Jews in this new movement were at ease with one another; they were a socially integrated, relatively successful middle-class people of East European ancestry.

Unwittingly to be sure, they were working out a program for survival. They retained very many orthodox religious practices and customs, the hat, the Hebrew prayer book, the Sabbath, even the old chaunts and melodies, but they were flexible. Every man a Moses, a Judaic legislator. This tolerant approach won recruits from the new generation of Slavic Jews, many of whom had been here since the 1880’s. Erosive time was on the side of Conservatism making it a catch basin for thousands who had glimpsed new horizons. Yet it would admit of no break with tradition; what the fathers had taught was sacrosanct. Obviously this was an inconsistent philosophy but a convenient and gratifying one. It worked. Conservatives ignored logic and luxuriated in their prepossessions. They were content to be good Jews paying lip service at least to the whole past, and good Americans, welcoming the amenities, the sciences, and the folkways of their new home. Most of them were hostile to Reform for it had crossed the line of that which was allowable. But let this be clear, Conservatism did not acculturate the immigrant; America did. Conservatism made him welcome religiously; it offered him an acceptable form of traditional Judaism.34


As of 1920, this middle-of-the-road group was already organized; it had a union of congregations, a rabbinical conference, a sisterhood league, men’s clubs, youth organizations, junior congregations, and as its capstone a firmly established rabbinical seminary. It also had problems, for the synagogs the Conservative rabbis served, dominated on occasion by uncouth laymen, proved unattractive, inducing a few of the rabbis to seek Reform pulpits. There were problems of attendance and kashrut observance, and, unlike the Reformers, there was no modernized commonly used prayer book, so vital to ensure uniformity and unity. But the Conservatives could console themselves with this: they had retained their link with Orthodoxy, adopted attractive Reform practices, accepted Protestant concepts of decorum, improved the religious schools, and elevated the status of women in their synagogs. This appealing fusion of the old and the new was reflected in the statistics of growth. The number of affiliates of the United Synagogue just about doubled in its first two years; after about four years there were thirty-two Conservative congregations in New York City alone and a growing number in the hinterland.35


The Conservatives never set out to become a third denomination. It was their belief that they were Americanized Orthodox Jews whose task it was to halt the alarming advances of Reform. In the 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia article “America, Judaism in,” there is no mention of the Conservative Movement as such although the writer did believe that the ultimate faith of the American Jew would be a compromise between extreme orientalism and radical Reform. Although the Seminary was deliberately reorganized in 1901-1902 to further traditional Judaism, as late as 1905 an American Jewish scholar referred to the Conservatives as moderate Reformers. That same year when exercises were held in Carnegie Music Hall to celebrate the arrival of the Jews in this land in the 1650’s, the Conservatives were not represented. The spokesmen for American Judaism were Reform and Orthodox rabbis. In 1908 the Seminary parted company with Rabbi Drachman, an Orthodox notable who had been teaching there since it was opened in 1887. Apparently Schechter was breaking with Orthodoxy. The rise of the United Synagogue in 1913, fifteen years after the establishment of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, is tantamount to the admission that the Conservatives had finally broken with their coreligionists over to the right. Certainly by the third decade of the new century Conservatism had become a third denomination, nestling uneasily between the Reformers and the immigrant masses.36



Solomon Schechter in an address at the dedication of the new Hebrew Union College in suburban Cincinnati (1913) referred to Reform as His Majesty’s Opposition. If he was implying that Conservatism was the authoritative form of Judaism this was misleading. Conservatism was in no sense a power; it was just beginning to organize itself. When this notable English scholar landed in 1902 there was as yet no association of Conservative synagogs; the Union of American Hebrew Congregations already had 113 affiliates. Power was resident in the Reform Movement. Reform was the dominant Jewish religious group in this country; it was well-organized, aggressive, often overconfident. With some exceptions the Reformers, both rabbis and laymen, ignored or pretended to ignore the religious quality, the significance of the immigrant masses, the traditionalists. Reform was dominant because of its affluence, its culture, its flourishing institutions, the Union, the College, the Central Conference of American Rabbis. In actual numbers the Reformers were a minority; this must be constantly borne in mind; they were only the tip of America’s religious iceberg. In a way, therefore, Schechter was right when he referred to the Orthodox and his own followers as the party in power and to the Reformers as the minority opposition. Because there is a plethora of documentary materials on Reform Jews, this movement can be discussed and described in detail. This is not true of the Orthodox and the Conservatives.37


The overall synagogal organization of the Reformers, the Union, owes much to George Zepin (1878-1963). This was the man who built it structurally and planned its long-range programs which envisaged a total American Jewish society. With the exception of three years as a social worker and as a rabbi in a Texas town, he served as the executive officer of the Union from 1903 to 1941. Though some religious work was done by the Union in the ghettos in New York and Philadelphia, much of its attention, certainly at first, was directed to the Jews in small town America. This reflected a perception of nineteenth-century German Jewish need during pre-auto days. In this emphasis Zepin and his board erred; the Jews, whether Central European or East European, were in the cities. Because the lay leaders were thinking of their early days as peddlers in the countryside, the Union sent rabbis out to the smaller towns to organize the scattered few, to preach to them, and to teach them; a literature of sorts was created for all who wished to read. Later regional rabbis employed by the Union scoured the country establishing congregations and visiting public philanthropic and penal institutions. In 1913 Zepin created the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods; in 1916 the brotherhoods were federated. The sisterhoods were more successful than the brotherhoods; the men were tied down to business; the women had time; they were looking for a career and they found it in their associations.

Had Zepin been supported by a more imaginative board he might well have played a more important part in American Jewish social, cultural, and religious life. Zepin had the vision; his board members did not respond. Vision costs money; that was a thrifty generation. Nevertheless Zepin persisted. He sent tracts to the Jewish soldiers in the Philippines and worked with the students in the universities. He thought of bringing young men from Mexico and South America to train at the College. He dreamt of making the Union a Pan-American association of synagogs. This was not altogether farfetched. The Union still cherished the hope of embracing all American Jews, Reform, Orthodox, and even agnostics; actually in Zepin’s early days it did still include some Orthodox synagogs. Some of the Hebrew Union College board members maintained stoutly that the school could train men to serve Orthodox synagogs; the College did not have to move to New York to provide spiritual leaders for the newcomers; it could do all this from the vantage point of Cincinnati. However, even in those days very few of the Cincinnati graduates took non-Reform pulpits. Each congregation in the Union was completely autonomous; the only demand made on it was to support the College and to unite in defending Jews both here and abroad. For some Union leaders overall unity was almost an end in itself; it was a greater desideratum than ideological concurrence.38


After the death of Isaac M. Wise the College burgeoned. Kohler, the new president, was a scholar of international renown. He built a good faculty and through Adolph S. Oko established a great library. The College moved from what was once a private home in downtown Cincinnati to an eighteen-acre campus on the outskirts of the city. In every sense of the term the seminary became an academic rather than a professional school. Theology was taught but not stressed in the curriculum. Kohler’s courses in historical, not systematic theology, were supplemented by his long prayers in which he rebutted the errors of the student preachers. By 1920 the College was a prestigious institution; the graduates were often the ablest, the best educated ministers in the cities where they served; they were leaders in the larger general community.

Most American rabbis of Reformist inclinations joined the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The word “Central” now meant more than “Midwestern”; it had become a synonym for “national.” This Conference looked with disfavor on the Eastern and the Southern liberal conferences. The Eastern Council founded in 1912 nursed national pretensions; centered in New York, it resented any leadership west of the Hudson. The Southern Rabbinical Conference, reestablished in New Orleans in 1904, reflected the regionalism of the South that still resented northern industrial and cultural hegemony. The thirty some rabbis in this body spoke of Southern Judaism. Neither of these two associations lasted long; the problem resolved itself with the integration of the South into the larger American polity, and with the lack of rabbinical leadership in the East. With the increasing speed of railroad transportation the rabbis were more closely knit together.

The Central Conference became a very vigorous and influential organization despite the fact—or because of the fact—that it never exercised binding authority. Agreements were reached through consensus and this in turn was achieved through discussions and resolutions. The media of communication were debates and papers. The Conference programs embraced every facet of Jewish life and concern here and abroad. The members were edified by monographs on the lives of Jewish notables, on archaeology, Jewish history, the Bible and Semitic languages, Zionism, theology, ceremonies, marriage and divorce, apologetics, social justice, intermarriage, the fraternal orders, World War I, schools for the next generation. One could almost write a history of contemporary American Jewish interests based solely on the extensive reports in the yearbooks of the Conference. On the whole the point of view of this group was non-parochial, latitudinarian.39


The yearbooks of the Central Conference were after the prayer books the most important publications of the Reformers; they were usually well-edited. The Proceedings of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations were not as well-edited as they might have been but they are also a mine of information on the congregations, the College, and American Jewry in general. Other Reform writings were a hymnal, a Passover ritual (Haggadah), a manual for family devotion, a minister’s handbook, tracts and sermons that were read or preached, and congregational bulletins that began to appear in the first decade of the new century. Indicative of the thinking and the concerns of the Reformers are the titles of two of the earliest tracts: What Jews Believe and The Jew in America. Originally the Jews had a tract commission—a good Protestant institution—but when “tract” became a nasty word associated with Christian attempts to convert Jews, the Reformers adopted the name Commission on Information about Judaism. The Union Prayer Book was the cement that held the Reformers together. By 1908 over 90,000 copies had been published; it was a Jewish best seller; its prayers, universalistic and humanitarian, couched in beautiful English, were read in 150 congregations in 1909. In the following decades as the East European influence began to make its presence felt in Reform, more Hebrew was introduced; the rabbis and laymen were willing to accept changes in the revisions that were now published; there was a slow move to the right, toward closer identification with Total Jewry. The 1920’s was a decade of anti-Semitism in the United States.40


Despite the fact that the prayer book was a best seller it was only gradually adopted by congregations as their symbol of Reform affiliation. “Union” might be the important adjective, but there was no uniformity among the Reform synagogs; there was a right wing, a leftist extremist body, and a centrist group. Some of the right-wingers could well have been classed as left-wing Conservatives. Among the rightists were Marcus Jastrow, Benjamin Szold, and Frederick de Sola Mendes. These men, and others too, did not adhere to the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. Most of them tolerated organs in their synagogs. Szold’s congregation, Oheb Sholom of Baltimore, was typical of these conservative Reformers. Its rabbi after Szold’s retirement in the 1890’s, William Rosenau (1865-1943), served as president of the Central Conference in 1915-1917. When Rosenau was first called to Baltimore many of his congregants still observed the dietary laws, worshipped with covered heads, and refused to ride on the Sabbath. The scholarly Rosenau also followed many of the older traditions never failing to say grace in Hebrew after meals. He was friendly with Cardinal Gibbons, worked closely with Orthodox Jewry, and prepared dozens of young men for the Reform rabbinate. They loved and revered the “boss,” as they called him. He was a cultured gentleman, an exemplary spiritual leader.41

Judah Leon Magnes

Another right-winger was Judah Leon Magnes (1877-1948). Like Rosenau he was a graduate of the College where for a very brief period he taught Bible, history, and grammar. He was a founder of the American Jewish Committee, a brother-in-law of Louis Marshall, and thus close to the New York power elite, yet he was very often in disagreement with it. Working closely with the American Jewish Committee he became the first chairman of the Kehillah, The Jewish Community of New York City. He was a maverick Zionist, a rabbi of prestigious anti-Zionist Emanu-El which he left to become the spiritual leader of Conservative B’nai Jeshurun. During World War I he was a pacifist, yet as a stalwart of the Joint Distribution Committee he raised large sums for overseas relief. Later he helped establish and then led the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, striving at the same time to tie Jews and Arabs together into a binational community. This bold and courageous effort met with little approval. Magnes was a rabbi in search of himself; it was an unsuccessful odyssey. On the whole he faced backward, eager to hold on to the past and to a traditional Jewish way of life. He was a forerunner of those Reformers who were to turn to the right in Hitlerian days. Magnes, a romantic who very much loved his people, wanted more observance, more education in Hebrew. He opted for modern music in the synagog but not the organ; he urged that rabbis establish study circles and reintroduce the bar mitzvah ceremony. He pushed for a return to the all Hebrew prayer book, a stricter observance of the Sabbath, and minimal congregational dues for those with little means. He was a dreamer with brilliant intimations of the needs of his people. Always ready for new ventures he spread

himself very thin and though he had a host of admirers in the end he exerted but little influence upon American Judaism. Handsome, charismatic, he was a Jewish Sir Galahad in search of a Beckoning Ideal he was never to glimpse.42


It is difficult to determine how many right-wing synagogs there were but the number was substantial; there were very few left-wing congregations; it is doubtful whether there were more than a half-dozen in the United States. However there were probably several radical rabbis who served middle-of-the-road synagogs; these ministers were not free to implement their left-of-center views. There were some left-wingers who refused to remain within the bounds of Jewry. The Ethical Culturists did not consider their movement Jewish yet many deemed it Jewish because of Felix Adler and his Israelitish followers. Some of these identified themselves ethnically as Jews and were unquestionably accepted as such by their neighbors. The Ethical Culture group was small; the Jews in it, consequently, were in absolute numbers not numerous. Christian Science attracted more Jews some of whom never broke their ties with their Jewish friends. Upset by defections to this new cult, the rabbis denied that these adherents were Jews yet refused to denounce them as apostates.

Charles Fleischer, the rabbi of Adath Israel in Boston, withdrew from Judaism and established the Sunday Commons, a local nondenominational community church which lasted about a decade. His followers were few. Out in Cleveland, the leftist Moses Gries sought to remove the Scroll of the Law from the ark (1899), but was checked by some of his board members. He held no services on the Sabbath, only on Sundays and the Holy Days. The Torah, however, was taken out of the ark and read on the Holy Days. Yet the Central Conference chose him as its president in 1913; the passing years may have dampened his radicalism; his successor Abba Hillel Silver was a classical Reformer, a fervent Jew, a world Zionist leader.43

Emil G. Hirsch, Religious Radical

There were but two outstanding radicals in Reform, Emil G. Hirsch of Chicago and Stephen S. Wise of New York City. Both, good friends, exercised considerable influence on American Jewry because of their patent devotion to the people and the faith. Despite their departure from customary Jewish practices they were acknowledged to be good Jews and were highly respected. The two were very different, yet they had some things in common. Hirsch, the elder of the two, was a scholar, a rabbinical aristocrat, a brilliant man, an orator in the grandiloquent tradition. One of his later synagogs had no ark for the Torah; he loved the Bible but a manuscript Pentateuch was an archaism; he saw to it that one of Sinai’s manuscript Torahs was given to the University of Chicago. In no sense was he observant yet he stayed well within the ambit of formal tradition for he insisted that his teachings were in consonance with historical Judaism.

Hirsch was not a defender of the established social order though he was the world’s best paid rabbi. He believed in prophetic Judaism, in social reform, social justice; he was a friend of labor. Yet, and this is interesting, despite his reformist bent he was a political conservative. Hirsch was not in favor of suffrage for the Southern Negro. Ceremonialism, ritual, held few attractions for him; ethics, not creed is important. To those Jews who urged him to give up the Sunday service and to restore the Sabbath he retorted by suggesting that they first close their shops on the seventh day of the week. Zionism, the return to Palestine, to the soil, repelled him. The Jew had no future on the farm; nationalism is the antithesis of prophetic universalism. As he interpreted Judaism, there was no middle group between Orthodoxy and Reform. As a rationalist he had little understanding of the attraction of ritual and ceremonial for the masses. He was a theist who believed that Divinity must be reflected in the moral conduct of every human being. Man is free, therefore he is perfectible. Revelation is rational, continuous; if the Jew but fulfilled his Mission, the messianic age will come to pass. Reform emphasizes hope, the future; Orthodoxy accentuates the past. Judaism, as Hirsch interpreted it, was the religion of humanity; of all of the faiths it was most perfect, the most moral, the most universal.44

Stephen Samuel Wise (1872/1874-1949)

Hirsch was offered the Emanu-El pulpit in 1896; the New Yorkers wanted the best, but Chicago would not let him go even though on occasion he gave his trustees a very rough time. He could be very abrasive. In 1905 Stephen S. Wise, then rabbi of Portland, was considered for the New York plum. Hirsch and Wise shared a distaste for the somewhat pompous Reform rabbinic establishment. Indeed both had joined the Eastern Council Reform Rabbis as a protest against the Central Conference. Neither ever received any official recognition from their colleagues; they were never to become president. This was due in part to envy, in part to the lack of collegiality displayed by both of them in their relations with their fellow rabbis. They did not mix with the throng though Wise was much more friendly than the Chicago notable. Both were Sunday service men, communal workers, social reformers, fighters on behalf of good government.

At twenty-some Wise who had already served as a New York rabbi for several years, pulled up stakes and went west to Portland. He may have hoped to make a name for himself in a distant state and thus induce the trustees of Emanu-El to call him to their pulpit. He wanted to be rabbi of that very rich and prestigious synagog. It is believed that Gustav Gottheil preferred him as his successor when he realized that his own son Richard was not acceptable. In Portland the young Wise fought for civic integrity, the underprivileged Negro; he spoke out boldly against the criminal elements; there was even talk of running him for the United States Senate. Like Hirsch in Chicago, Wise in Portland dominated the trustees; they tolerated his Zionism and his political crusades, but when he left they were glad to see him go.

When Wise received the long awaited call in 1905 he certainly weighed the invitation with mixed emotions. He wanted to go but he knew the marriage would not work. The problem was freedom of the pulpit. Wise insisted on the right to speak out on all subjects though he made it quite clear that he would never speak ex cathedra. The congregants were free to believe and to do what they wanted. Louis Marshall and his friends on the board made it equally clear that the final decision on views expressed in the pulpit rested with them. The leaders of Emanu-El had no desire to give free rein to a man who would not hesitate to attack many of the economic principles to which they were committed. There can be no question that underlying the rejection of Wise was the fear that he might dominate them; that they would not tolerate. Wise rejected the call in an Open Letter, January 5, 1906.45


Wise had at least two strings to his bow; even before the break with the Emanu-El board he had discussed the idea of a Free Synagogue with Felix Adler. Wise was undoubtedly influenced by nondenominational Protestant liberals, possibly even by Emil G. Hirsch who insisted on a free pulpit. In this respect the young rabbi was no innovator. The Free Synagogue was opened in 1907; it was a synagog with a social-welfare program. It was a “People’s Church” where everyone, Jew and Gentile too, was welcome; dues were voluntary, seating was free. It was a religiosocial forum that had the support of liberal Christians, Jewish labor, Zionists, the new generation of East Europeans. Through branches on the East Side and in the Bronx Wise reached out for these young men and women; he sensed that the future of American Jewry lay with them. Even though this brilliant preacher had dispensed with ritual and the age-old liturgies he identified himself completely with Jews and Judaism. People in all walks of life came to hear him on Sunday morning; to accommodate them all he moved into Carnegie Hall.46


Hirsch received recognition in religious circles because of his learning. He also had political influence in Chicago; his congregants included some of the city’s wealthy industrialists. Wise was a national figure in politics; he lectured all over the United States to Jews and Gentiles; wherever he went he was admired. But if he became a national figure in politics it was because he was the darling of New York’s East European masses. The state was very important for its electoral vote and the Jews were sufficiently numerous to influence national elections. If Washington was sympathetic to the Zionists, to their hope for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, if Wilson was ready to guarantee minority rights for Jews in the new East European republics, it was in part due to the intercession of Brandeis and the eloquent Wise. These men had the president’s ear. As in Portland, Wise continuously sought to help the disadvantaged blacks; he pleaded for recognition of the League of Nations. His support of labor during the great steel strike of 1919-1920 did not sit well with some of the rich members of his congregation; his salary was not paid by the nickels and dimes of enthusiastic proletarians. It is very probable that by speaking out boldly on controversial issues he encouraged other Jewish and Christian clergymen to stand up and be counted in the pulpits of this country.

Wise’s free pulpit in Carnegie Hall became a national forum. There were few Jews in the United States better known than this rabbi. Wise was dynamic, charismatic. Unlike Hirsch he exerted little religious influence on his contemporaries, except—and this is important—to teach Jews and Christians, too, to interpret their faith in terms of social justice. In this sense he was in the line of the prophets. In a more formal fashion he influenced American Jewry in the 1920’s through the rabbinical seminary which he founded. His Jewish Institute of Religion was patterned on the German Jewish Lehranstalt, a nondenominational school of Jewish studies. Wise’s institution, Zionist, folkist, ultimately became part of the Hebrew Union College. Here was a man with a common touch; born in Europe, he felt close to the New York Jewish masses whom he hoped to weld together despite their many differences. He led them in the fight for political and economic rights on all levels, both here and abroad; he was one of the important leaders of World Jewry. Because of his ceaseless pounding many American Jews learned to think in sociopolitical terms, liberally.47


When the hoary Isaac M. Wise heard in 1899 that Moses Gries would not read from the manuscript Sefer Torah during his services tears came to Wise’s eyes. Yet no Jew was read out of the faith unless he read himself out. Charles Fleischer, the darling of the Boston intellectuals, merited no posthumous biography in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. In matters theological the Jews were very tolerant. There was—there still is—a tacit agreement among them that belief and practice were really not all that important as long as the Jew identified himself with his people and their problems. An Orthodox Jewish congregation was happy to have classical or radical reformers like David Philipson or Emil G. Hirsch dedicate their sanctuaries. For this purpose these reformers were quite kosher, reflecting glory on all Jews. These rabbis were great men!

American Jews, even when lumped as a whole, had their concept of the Jewish consensus. If a Jew violated it they brushed him aside and ignored him. Isaac Wolfe Bernheim (1848-1945) of Louisville was a case in point. Bernheim came to the United States in 1867, a teenager. Starting life here as a peddler, he shouldered a pack, turned westward and finally—it took him a year—reached Kentucky. After taking a job as a bookkeeper in Paducah, he traveled for a local wholesale liquor house, and was fortunate enough and able enough to organize a company that in later years became America’s largest distributor of Kentucky whiskey. His headquarters were now in Louisville. He was highly intelligent, self-educated, and early made clear that his sociopolitical goals envisaged both Jew and Gentile. He established the local YMHA and commissioned Moses Ezekiel to model a statue of Jefferson. His generosity was exemplary; the beautiful library on the Hebrew Union College campus, now housing the American Jewish Archives was built by him. The Jews who seemed to have shaped his thinking were the two Louisville rabbis Adolph Moses and Hyman G. Enelow, both on the left. But with that lack of historical perspective that often characterizes the autodidact Bernheim evolved a Judaism of his own. In an evangelical mood Bernheim wrote the Central Conference in 1918 and addressed the Union in 1921. The Central Conference read and buried his letter; the Union minutes ignored what he had to say. But they could not deny him a hearing; he was one of Jewry’s most prominent laymen. He was a distinguished philanthropist, a member of the Union board, a pillar of the American Jewish Committee, an honorary vice president of the Jewish Publication Society.

He attacked Zionism bitterly; going back to Palestine was a return to the ghetto; one cannot be loyal to America and to a Jewish state. He called for a convention that would work to make the world safe for Jews as the war then being waged would make the world safe for democracy. If his anti-Zionism was probably shared by many of his auditors, his religious views were not. He proposed a new Judaism, the Reform Church of American Israelites. The word “Jew” must be discarded; it invites prejudice. The word “church” must be substituted for synagog; the Sabbath must be changed to Sunday and Gentiles invited to join the Israelitish church. Stephen S. Wise, a religious extremist, attacked Bernheim sharply; the Conference and the Union ignored his proposals completely. Bernheim had crossed the line that marked the boundary between Jewry and the Gentile world; he had violated the consensus. Defeated, Bernheim stepped back within the magic circle; he continued to give liberally to Jewish causes and he lived long enough to learn the lesson of the Holocaust.48



The religious extremists can be counted on the fingers of one hand; the right-wing Reformers were more numerous; the centrists, the classicists, were typical of the Movement in the decades before 1930; they dominated it. Yet as late as 1920, one year before the Immigration Act of 1921, there were all told but 256 Reform rabbis in the Central Conference. This sober figure should serve to put Reform in its proper perspective, numerically at least. Most affiliated Reformers, immigrants and natives, were classicists because they and their children were thoroughly Americanized. A few had gone to the university; practically all were high school graduates in a day when over 80 percent of all Americans received no secondary education. Ideologically this acculturated laity kept pushing the rabbis to the left although there is every reason to believe that there was a real consonance between laity and rabbinate, as the participation of Hebrew Union College graduates in the radical Pittsburgh Platform eloquently testifies. Isaac M. Wise was to remain around until 1900 but he had shot his bolt long before that.

There is no question that there was a substantial number of Jews in this country including many of the newcomers who were patterning themselves culturally on liberal and emancipated Gentiles. In this sense thousands of non-Reform Jews, many of whom were traditional in observance, were classicists in potentia. What then is classicity in Reform? In an age of respect and reverence for the rational and the scientific many Jews accepted the findings of the physical and the social sciences. The Bible is great literature but it is not literally the word of God. Morals and ethics merit the greatest stress in the articles of faith. Because man is perfectible social justice is possible, if not imperative. As Isaac M. Wise had long ago preached, the messianic age was galloping over the horizon; the new century would inevitably bring to birth a humanity united by common ideals which were essentially those of the Reform Jews. However it cannot be overemphasized: these acculturated Reformers were not assimilationist. They did want to be good Americans, united culturally with their neighbors. This is why they played down Jewish particularism. They believed in decorum, the amenities. But they also believed in God, ethics, and in a socioreligious complex which they called Reform Judaism. In a way their basic theology was a reborn twentieth-century Deism; their Reform was also a social folkist, common sense faith. Rarely was it an emotional, existential, mystical experience.49


It is difficult to describe the classical Reform leaders except in the most general terms. Like the Orthodox and Conservative rabbis each of the Reformers was unique; no two were cast in the same mold. David Philipson would not officiate at an intermarriage; Max Landsberg of Rochester, an anti-ceremonialist, believed that kaddish, the sacrosanct prayer for the dead, was a superstition. He encouraged brilliant Jewish lads who lived across the railroad tracks to enter the Reform rabbinate but he did not seem particularly eager to bring their parents into his congregation. Conversely there is no question that most of Rochester’s newcomers would have had no interest whatsoever in going to his synagog. Not all the classical Reform rabbis were of Central European background; a number of them were of Slavic origin. Outstanding among these was Hyman G. Enelow of Louisville and New York City. Enelow had come to the United States from Lithuania as a youngster and after serving in Louisville was called to Emanu-El in New York because of his scholarship and his high intelligence. Claude Montefiore had once appealed to him in vain to come to England to lead the new Liberal Jewish movement. This scholarly man helped Orthodox talmudists publish their works; he himself edited a four-volume Hebrew medieval classic. It was he who influenced Nathan Littauer to establish a Jewish chair at Harvard and urged the Nathan Millers to endow a comparable professorship at Columbia. His colleagues who admired and respected him elected him president of the Central Conference.50

Joseph Krauskopf

Krauskopf of Keneseth Israel in Philadelphia was more influential than Philipson or Landsberg or Enelow; he was also more aggressive. A brilliant preacher, much more so than the above three, he attracted large crowds of Jews and Gentiles to his Sunday lectures. It is no surprise therefore that his congregation became one of the largest in the United States. Religiously he was a left-wing classicist; he too did not read from the manuscript Hebrew Scroll of the Law; he preferred an English translation. Two liturgical works came from his pen: The Saturday- and Sunday-Sabbath and The Service Manual (1892). Hebrew was kept to an absolute minimum in his prayer books; rejecting the traditional kaddish he substituted a Hebrew mélange of his own. At times it was difficult to determine whether one was in a church or a synagog. This man was not trying to escape his Judaism; he was appealing to ethical human beings who happened to be Jews. Essentially he was an out-and-out universalist, a humanitarian concerned with saving all mankind, not merely the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Among his heroes were Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Tolstoy, Karl Marx. It was his pious hope that the Christian would discard his paganism, the Jew his particularism, and that both would worship at a common altar.

Krauskopf was a social activist. This he had in common with the young Stephen S. Wise. He had begun to preach the Jewish social gospel in the 1880’s. In the course of a career that extended over almost four decades he pleaded for good government, votes for women, pure food laws, unpolluted air, rights for Negroes, better working conditions for labor. During the Spanish-American War he visited the Jewish cavalrymen who served in Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. One of the achievements of which he was inordinately proud was his establishment of the National Farm School. Little if any provision was made for the needs of the Jewish students; the Sabbath was not even observed. Because he was a clergyman to the world rather than a rabbi to Jews, he wore a clerical collar as did his associate J. Leonard Levy. After Levy had visited the Hebrew Union College—he was then the spiritual leader of Pittsburgh’s Rodeph Shalom—all the students came to class with reversed collars, but only for a day. They were not “clergymen”; they were “rabbis-to-be.” Krauskopf had been sent to the Cincinnati seminary at the suggestion of a pious Massachusetts Christian woman who sensed his ability. She recommended him to Isaac M. Wise as a youngster who had “all the Christian virtues.” After Krauskopf’s death, Russell H. Conwell of Acres of Diamonds fame said that the rabbi was a Christian at heart; in other words he was a worthy servant of mankind. He was.51

Kaufmann Kohler

Kohler was much more of a Jew than Krauskopf. His roots were in South German intransigent Orthodoxy; as a youth he had been a devoted follower of the devout Samson Raphael Hirsch and though Kohler had revolted as a university student against his Jewish teachers he always remained a pious man. God was very much of a reality for him. Krauskopf was no scholar in any sense of the term; Kohler was a great scholar by any standard. When in 1903 Kohler was appointed president of the College it was thought that he was the man who could counter the internationally recognized Schechter. It was hoped that Kohler of Beth-El in New York would bring with him the metropolitan influence and funds needed to strengthen the Midwestern rabbinical college which had been resting on its laurels for years. As an academician he began at once to turn the school into a graduate institution. Ideologically Kohler followed the straight classical line. This put him over to the left of Isaac M. Wise who had never divorced himself from the Orthodoxy of his youth. Kohler’s appointment is historically important; it was testimony that finally the Eastern and Western Reformers of this land were moving closer to one another, cemented to a degree by their common distaste for the new heresy, Zionism. In Wise’s day the East of Einhorn, Kohler et Cie bitterly resented Western leadership; through Kohler, the East came to Canossa, but instead of standing barefoot in the snow doing penance Kohler stormed the gates of the Cincinnati Reform castle. True it is that the new president of the College was the outstanding classical Jewish theologian of his day, yet he was no original thinker. His works, however, do reflect the practices and beliefs of contemporary American Reformers. What was Reform Judaism after the turn of the century?52


The new century ushered in few if any Reform innovations in religious practices; the older Reform way of life was maintained. As in the past the principle was honored that exotic practices which were seen as unsuited to the times were dropped; changes deemed necessary were made immediately; the authority for these changes lay in reason and in respect for the (American) amenities. The Reformers continued to reject animal sacrifices, resurrection, a personal Messiah, the return to Palestine; the United States is the messianic land. To keep husband, wife, and children together the family pew was adopted; separate seating was an unacceptable Oriental custom; confirmation was to replace the bar mitzvah; there was to be no praying shawl, no head covering, no futile blowing of the shofar causing tittering; biblical laws of divorce and levirate marriage were ignored, proselytes were accepted without circumcision; services were held in the vernacular, not in Hebrew, for the vernacular is intelligible, meaningful; the stress in the liturgy was always to be on the ethical.

Reform deemphasized the gulf between Judaism and Christianity. Little effort was made to moderate the differences between Reform and Orthodoxy; it was difficult to bring the two closer together in their thinking and religious conduct. The liberals emphasized prophetic universalism, not the particularism which separated the Jew from his neighbor. The Orthodox and the Conservatives believed in the halakah, the binding authority of traditional practice; the typical Reform layman did not know what the word meant. The early twentieth century brought with it a massive wave of Slavic Jewish immigrants whose language, religious services, and customary practices alarmed the Reformers and forced them even farther to the left. Fearful for their status in a Gentile world, most Reformers wanted to enlarge the gap between themselves and the newcomers.

These Jewish religious leftists were very selective in their choice of teachings from the Bible and rabbinical literature. They were of course not unmindful that all Christians accepted the Old Testament. No Bible readers themselves, the Reformers nevertheless emphasized this book rather than post-biblical, rabbinical works because in their opinion it accentuated justice, peace, universal brotherhood, rather than numerous ceremonial observances. There is no question that their attitude to custom and religious practice was most permissive yet they were careful not to veer too far to the left; they wanted to remain in touch with the total group, World Jewry. This is certainly one of the reasons why Kohler insisted that Reform was a natural evolutionary development in Judaism, a response to the demands of the modern world. First, said the Reformers, came biblical prophetism, then post-exilic Judaism, then the Pharisaic revolution, then the rabbinism of the Middle Ages, and finally Reform Judaism, the culmination of 3,000 years of religious development. Were Kohler and his generation deluding themselves when they said that they were in the main line of Jewish tradition? Did it in this resemble Pharisaism? Pharisaism too was a radical break with the past but it was careful to create the fiction that its roots reached back to the Wilderness, to the Sinaitic revelation, and to the Mosaic code. Pharisaism paid allegiance to all that came before it. Classical Reform refused to accept the authority of its predecessors; it broke abruptly with them. It was and still is schismatic, but it glosses this over unhesitatingly, for folk ties are stronger than theological and ceremonial differences.53

It is obvious that no liberal who wanted to be numbered among his people would admit that the Movement was schismatic, but because of the absence of any binding authority every Reformer tended to formulate his own theology and establish his own practice. Thus there were many differences, apparent anarchy. The leaders were embarrassed; they were torn between their insistence on freedom of conscience and their desire for uniformity. What are the “articles of faith” which most Reform Jews accepted, at least in a formal sense? There was always an unwritten creed, a belief in ethical unitarianism, communion with God through prayer, ongoing revelation, the perfectibility of men, reward and punishment, free will, repentance and atonement, immortality. As in earlier decades, the Reformers of the twentieth century laid no emphasis on the salvation of the individual soul through specific tenets and forms of conduct; they were not interested in saving individuals for the world to come; they wanted to save society through justice and peace, through a messianic age to be ushered in by Jews, but until that age dawned they were determined to remain a separate spiritual brotherhood. Actually the Reformers of that generation had no real interest in theology; they were too busy tinkering with this best of all possible worlds. In 1912 the Central Conference decided to publish a comprehensive work on theology; it never appeared; it was too dangerous; acerbities were keenest where differences were least, so someone once said. The 1917 Minister’s Handbook speaks of the principles of faith to be recited at confirmation but the manual discreetly forgot to record them. The reason that Reform never promulgated a formal creed was the fear that it might split the Movement; it would have damned the Reformers as a separate Jewish sect; this the rabbis did not want; a new theology meant a new religion; that was how Christianity started.


Reform theological and religious concepts were primarily subjects for rabbinical not lay discussion. What then of the laity? If it is possible to speak of a typical Reform layman what then did “Mr. Cohen” believe? When a Jew in Rome, Georgia, a judge, married a Gentile woman she made a public profession of faith after conversion. She said she believed in one God, no mediator, in immortality of the soul, the validity of the Bible, and the mission of the Jew to bring the truth to the nations of the world. She solemnly declared that she was ready to die as a martyr for Judaism. This statement of belief was very probably dictated not by the judge but by the rabbi who had come down from Chattanooga to perform the conversion and marriage ceremonies. What then did “Mr. Cohen,” the judge, believe? He believed in a beneficent deity, in a universal system of ethics, in the practice of a few favored ceremonies, particularly the recital of the Hebrew-Aramaic prayer for the dead. Every Jew had a different level of identification and of commitment but “Mr. Cohen” was always willing to acknowledge his responsibility for his fellow Jews wherever they dwelt.54

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