publisher colophon




In the final analysis all Jews, the religionists and the Marxists, and the Nothingarians, too, identified themselves with their people without regard to religious practice or non-practice. All Reform leaders, even the most radical, accepted and even proclaimed the fact: The Jews are a people. As Marx of Atlanta put it: “We are all Jews and should not be separated in serious problems by mere adjectives.” It is not easy to plot the influences that made for identification. One of the reasons, an important one, is that Jews believed that they were being rejected by the Gentiles; they were very proud. More obvious and more important is the impact of home, family, the larger Jewish community with their demands for conformity to the prevailing mores. In compensation those who complied were offered security both of a physical and an emotional nature. This was very important. Most American Jews of that generation had come from Orthodox homes; even though many had revolted against their past, moving to the left, they still retained some degree of loyalty; they still had a wistful longing for some religious practices, for dietary habits, for a Jewish way of life. All this made for a sense of community with all other Jews.1

The source materials on the religious life and practices of the traditionalists have not yet been adequately exploited. Many of their records were thrown on to the rubbish heaps when they started moving out of the ghettos. Because of the abundance of Reform synagogal records the data exploited in the following pages will emphasize its religious life, but it bears constant repetition that though the Reformers dominated practically every community of size they represented only a minority of America’s religiously affiliated Jews.


The historian in his effort to summarize would like to speak of the typical Reform synagog. This is not easy. There was a great deal of fluidity in the movement; the homogeneity was only apparent. As late as 1900 only one Reform congregation in all of Chicago used the Union Prayer Book; the others still held on to more conservative or employed more radical liturgies. Some congregations with traditional leanings moved only slowly into Reform. By 1908 the Gates of Prayer congregation in New Orleans had joined the Union but the worshippers refused to doff their hats; they employed the old Jastrow ritual and retained their cantor. Temple Israel of New Rochelle voted down a motion in 1910 to forbid the wearing of headgear; the Reform services on the High Holy Days that year followed an early morning assembly where all the standard Orthodox prayers were chaunted. The rabbi was to hold no Sunday services unless the board had first approved. Under the impact of the cultural milieu worship in all Reform synagogs was decorous and aesthetic.

By 1920, the organizational structure, program, and practices of Reform congregations had much in common. The chief service was on Friday night; many if not most congregations had Saturday morning services where the elderly women were much in evidence. The liturgy and the sermon were in English. There was an organ, a mixed choir, men and women, Jews and Gentiles. On special occasions there was instrumental music; one could even hear the dulcet tones of Massenet’s Last Sleep of the Virgin. Husband, wife, and children sat together in a family pew; no hats were worn; the two-day Holy Days were reduced to one, and large crowds turned out to enjoy the pageantry of the confirmation. Increasing recognition was given to women in synagogal administration. Board meetings were constantly preoccupied with financial problems; savings were sometimes achieved by whittling down the teaching staff in the Sabbath schools. Yet despite the sometimes petty devices of thrift there was nearly always something left to help another congregation build; appeals for the distressed Jews of Europe were seldom rejected; the response to the call for aid to the victims of the San Francisco earthquake was a generous one.2


Not all congregations had rabbis; some were too small, too poor. Often a dedicated layman would conduct the service out of the Union Prayer Book and then read a tract or sermon sent by the Union, the Conference, or a nearby community. Richmond provided neighboring towns with the latest sermon of their rabbi. The 1898 community of Meridian, Mississippi, did have a rabbi and a printed constitution which proudly announced to the world that its Jewry was ready to perpetuate a “pure” Judaism. The phrase was taken from the founding document of the Union itself; ultimately it stems from the Deists of earlier centuries. In this town any young man of eighteen or over could join the congregation; the president was required to attend all Sabbath services; during the High Holy Days non-members sat in the “charity seats.” The officers were charged to keep an eye on the building, the services, the school, the choir, the cemetery, and the employees. Individual members who wanted to rent the synagog for a wedding were charged $25. Two men received salaries: the rabbi and the sexton. It was the duty of the latter to take care of the building and the ritual equipment, to attend all marriages and funerals, and to report daily to the president for orders. No one could be buried from the temple if he had died from a prevailing epidemic, usually yellow fever. Harmony in this tight little community? No! Dissension, yes! One can almost formulate a rule: the smaller the group the greater the contention. This explains why Beaumont, Texas, in advertising for a rabbi asked for “a good mixer.” The Anglo-Jewish press sneered and said that what the congregation really wanted was not a rabbi but a bartender.

Very frequently the rabbis in the small towns were foreign born; they found it hard to compete with the native-born, college-trained, American-accented, aggressive youngsters who were favored for the better posts. Some of the country parsons were not successful in their ministries, but they were never uninteresting personalities. Julius Mayerberg officiated in Goldsboro, North Carolina, from 1890 to 1928. His father, a Lithuanian, had come over in 1867 and had saved enough in four years to bring his family. Julius had been trained in Jewish disciplines in Europe and continued his studies here but he made his living as a cigar maker. Years later it was his custom to roll cigars for himself and his intimates in the congregation. As an East European he felt close to the immigrants in town and helped them when he could. He studied law and represented them in court till his congregants objected. The rabbi was always supposed to be something of a stuffed shirt and he had disappointed them. On Saturday night when the farmers shopped he would go downtown, stand behind the counters, and help his landsleit wait on customers. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah he would attend the Orthodox services and would even lead the prayer. As a mohel he traveled throughout the Upper South circumcising the newborn; when the family had no money he paid his own way. His son Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg was one of the courageous men who helped break up the Tom Pendergast gang in Kansas City; his grandson Selig Adler was professor of American history at the University of Buffalo.

In addition to a synagog, a cemetery, and a school, practically all smaller towns could also boast of a Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society, a B’nai B’rith lodge, and, on occasion, a men’s social welfare society and a section of the National Council of Jewish Women. Services were not always held regularly on the Sabbath, yet in their own way these people were determined to remain Jewish. The Southern Jews were, it seems, devout, reflecting the evangelical influence. The Northerners were less pious, more rationalist, more interested in cultural matters. But whether they lived in the North or the South they gave to charity, if only modestly. It was very difficult to shape them into a homogeneous whole because of the social gap between the acculturated and the aliens but a union of some sort was usually effected. They knew they had to have a synagog if only to avoid the reproaches of the Christians; they had to prove to the world that they were not godless freaks; even the Negroes had their churches.3


By the turn of the century the more affluent Jews, the Reformers and their congregations, were moving to better neighborhoods, to the suburbs. They built new synagogs, often close to one another; “synagog row” was not an unusual phenomenon; huge sums were spent on magnificent sanctuaries. The architectural pattern was nearly always the Protestant church; sometimes congregations bought an older Protestant structure and renovated it. Ever since postbellum days the traditional reading desk (the bimah) in the center of the building had been removed; this desk and the altar were put close together at the eastern end of the synagog. The new structure now had stained glass windows; this of course was typically Christian. The electric light bulb began to replace the gas mantle. In 1890 Isaac M. Wise and Rabbi Israel Aaron dedicated Buffalo’s Reform synagog. It was a dramatic moment when Aaron thundered forth in Hebrew, “Let there be light,” pressed a button, and the beautiful chandelier became a blazing sun illuminating the entire sanctuary.


The Meridian Jews, it was pointed out above, accepted members at eighteen; most congregations were glad to get members under almost any circumstances as long as they could and would pay dues. The typical Reform Jew was probably as latitudinarian as Felsenthal. He was ready to accept any man who said he was a Jew and was willing to live a religious life. In addition to the main services on Friday night synagogs were ready to open on Saturday morning if they could be guaranteed a baker’s dozen. An additional Sunday assembly was built around a lecture but the number of temples conducting such services on the first day of the week was relatively small. People thronged the synagogs on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; Purim and Hanukkah, the fun holidays, were celebrated by the children in the Sabbath and the Sunday schools, but the pilgrimage festivals, Passover (Pesah), Pentecost (Shavuot), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) were something of a problem. Sukkot was salvaged by a children’s harvest pageant which many turned out to witness; Pentecost, the festival of the revelation of the Ten Commandments, became confirmation day. In many places this holiday was celebrated on the closest Sunday; members would not leave their stores in the middle of the week; the children did not want to absent themselves from the public schools.

Estimated Jewish population in the United States, 1920.

Jewish Population density in the United States, compared with total population, 1920.

Special services were not uncommon; Detroit Jews met to mourn the men who went down on the Maine; they memorialized the assassinated McKinley, celebrated the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, and worshipped with Christians on the Thanksgiving holiday. Some larger congregations, possessed not only of means but of a sense of responsibility, made provision on the High Holy Days for the unaffiliated; no charge was made. From 1890 on services were held for vacationers at the Atlantic Coast resorts; some congregations even decided to give themselves a vacation; they closed down for the summer; they gave God a whole summer to recuperate from his labors.4


The normal big city Reform congregations were influenced by the Protestant institutional church only to a limited degree. These very special churches had elaborate programs of religious, social, and cultural activities directed largely to the recent immigrants and the underprivileged. In their work and goals they were closely related to the settlement houses. Most Orthodox synagogs and conventicles had no such plans of action; they had no means, no leadership, no vision. Their sole desire was to communicate with their God. The Reform institutional temples, far from the zones of deterioration, catered not to slum dwellers but to their own people and those young immigrants who were eager to patronize their facilities. These modern synagogs were not engaged in social-welfare work—that was the job of the benevolent societies, of the new federations—but they did seek to become sociocultural as well as religious centers.

Except for the larger metropolitan temples where the sense of “community” was not very perceptible, most Reform synagogs were indeed associational in nature but they were not social centers. Not many temples were actually of the institutional types; the few that were had a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a social hall, a playroom, a stage, a library, and a kitchen. (It is interesting to note that late twentieth-century synagogs have all these facilities except the pool and the gymnasium.) In 1912 Hirsch in Chicago had a separate Sinai Social Center with 7,500 members. The cultural was emphasized; there were classes, lectures, discussion groups, training in the drama. The department of music included an orchestra and instruction in piano and violin; there was an opera club where one could listen to Wagnerian recitals. The German Jews here had long forgiven Wagner for his anti-Semitism. Sinai Social Center had an athletic department with over 2,000 members. One could even study ballroom dancing. When Marx of Atlanta permitted dancing in the sacred temple precincts one of his shocked members resigned. Atlanta was in the Bible belt. By 1916 Mordecai M. Kaplan had founded his Jewish Center in New York City. It is not improbable that he was influenced by the YMHA and St. George, the country’s most famous institutional church. Kaplan stressed Jewish culture and helped initiate the Reconstructionist Movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s with its unique combination of modernism, Jewish education, traditionalism, and ethnicism. The goal of the Reform and Conservative institutional synagog was to further Americanicity, togetherness, a sense of “community.” Whether the associational emphasis furthered religiosity is a moot question. Its cultural impact was impressive.5

Though the typical Reform synagog was not institutional in nature, it was often a hive of activity; by 1905 the larger temples had begun to publish bulletins describing their programs. The bulletins spoke of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, of the YMHA, the Council of Jewish Women, the ladies’ auxiliary, the B’nai B’rith, all of which at times might meet on their premises. There was a choir and a choral society. On occasion Beth El of Detroit gave a special Sunday afternoon sacred concert. The Central Conference appealed for “Jewish” choirs and Jewish organists in the congregations and for cantorial training and courses in synagog music in the Cincinnati college. Congregational libraries began to take on form; there were art exhibitions. Constant emphasis was placed on the religious schools. In the battle to save the younger generation these schools were made more attractive; teacher training classes were initiated. The amount of Hebrew to be taught, if at all, was always in dispute; there were a few who thought that Hebrew was unnecessary; teaching it was even un-American. Eager to pay its teachers, impoverished Akron compromised by giving them trolley car checks for transportation; later they were able to pay $1.50 for a Sunday morning stint. The children looked forward to picnics and to the plays, food, and gifts on Purim and Hanukkah. During World War I the youngsters participated in patriotic programs.6

Nearly all temples had Bible classes, social and literary clubs for the adults and the adolescents. Baltimore teenagers staged plays, studied the Bible, and current events. One group had 500 members. In some cities the students at the local or neighboring colleges were invited to attend services. Rabbi Mayer of Kansas City taught a ten-year-old to box; he thought that was important. The Central Conference constantly came forth with good ideas. It talked of a national lyceum to provide speakers who would give Jewish talks to the congregations, lodges, and societies. Like the other Jewish denominations the Conference had no money to finance its projects; they were all stillborn. Congregations had brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and sewing circles; a few had parsonages for the rabbi; Galveston called theirs, the rabbinage. Temple Sholom of Chicago organized committees to help the blind, visit the sick, and comfort the bereaved. During World War I many congregations worked with the soldiers in the camps, showered hospitality on them in their homes and synagogs, and worked like beavers in their vestry rooms to help the Red Cross. Many went out on the streets selling Liberty Bonds. The cemetery, whether separate or part of a larger non-Jewish complex, was given a great deal of attention; it was important if only because it was a source of income. Goldsboro Jewry bought additional ground for its cemetery because the original tract was water-soaked; the new plot, on high ground, met with the complete approval of one of the local merchants; the old parcel he told his friends, was unhealthy.7


Contrary to commonly held views, Reform was not opposed to ceremonial in Judaism; its followers did object to those practices that had no relevance to modern needs or were performed mechanically. Ceremonies are needed; they make for better human beings. All this was stressed by the Reform theologian, Kohler, and many of his contemporaries. Children in the Sabbath schools were taught how to conduct a seder for Passover; the Passover meal was inaugurated in the synagog in order to encourage members to hold this family celebration in their own homes. A new ceremony was introduced, influenced to a minor degree possibly by a somewhat similar Christian practice: infants were named and blessed in the congregation. The members were urged to light the candles every Friday night and at the time of the December Hanukkah festival.

Cremation was not forbidden; kashrut was not encouraged though Felsenthal, always sui generis, approved of dietary laws, to a degree. For some reason or other the classicists objected to the huppah, the wedding canopy, and they rejected summarily the breaking of the glass at the wedding; this was superstition. Circumcision for male proselytes was not required; the objectionable laws of divorce and marriage were ignored. In many temples the trumpet was substituted for the shofar, the ram’s horn. Early in the 1890’s the Akron congregation hired a man named John McTamany to blow the shofar; judging from his name he was probably a Gentile. The Akronites then turned to a Jew to serve as a Master of the Blowing; they picked a tall robust man; he blew till his face turned brick red, but no deafening blast shattered the walls of the local Jewish Jericho; out came a tiny squeak and the congregation tittered and laughed.8

It is not always easy to understand how Reformers made some of their choices, viewing some ceremonies as superstitious—to be discarded—and accepting others. Reformers turned against some ceremonies which if not edifying were certainly innocuous. More important these ritual acts were often deeply rooted in tradition. Sometimes the Reformers provided substitutes: the rite of confirmation was stressed replacing the bar mitzvah ceremony when the youth of thirteen was accepted as a man. The rabbis said no boy of thirteen was a man; the ceremony was Oriental and antiquated; girls were excluded; all this is not in the spirit of modernity. The Rabbi’s Manual for 1928 dismisses the bar mitzvah service in one page. Confirmation which included girls was a more attractive practice. Was it preferred by many Jews because it was also a Christian practice and furthered identification with the religious mores of the majority? This is probable.

The Conference was troubled about many religious matters; it wanted guidance because the rabbis and the members, too, rooted often in Orthodoxy wanted to follow the “Law” even though in principle they rejected its authority. In crises members turned to tradition and became observant. To satisfy these needs a Committee on Responsa was established; its job was to “respond” to questions. Many of the decisions of the committee are illuminating despite the fact that there was no compulsion to accept the opinions proffered. Head covering was not required in prayer. Burial of Jews in a general cemetery was tolerated; interment of a non-Jewish spouse in a Jewish “eternal home” was also permitted. The old-fashioned mourning customs such as tearing of the garment, sitting on the ground or on a low stool were frowned upon; grape juice instead of fermented wine was acceptable for religious purposes; some parts at least of the biblical weekly portion (sidra) must be read in Hebrew during the Sabbath services; the prophetic selection may be in English; as the kaddish, the prayer for the dead, is recited, the congregation also may rise to manifest its sympathy for the mourners. Any day is good for a marriage, except the Sabbath and the Holy Days; this decision eliminated a number of days where marriages were taboo. It is obvious from the reports of the Responsa Committee over the years that the Reformers were slowly on the way to formulating a code of their own.9


A synagog was a microcosm, a little world of its own embracing a number of organizations intimately tied to it; among them were the brotherhoods and sisterhoods. Male synagog auxiliaries, whatever they were called, were rarely outstanding. The temple itself served as the religious club for the men; it satisfied their religious needs. Socially more demanding men found outlets in the dining, card-playing, and literary clubs which they founded in every Jewish community of size. After a fashion the New York Emanu-El brotherhood was exceptional for it engaged in social-welfare work on the East Side (1903). Most brotherhoods did not win many adherents with their programs. Thus it was that the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods, established by the Union in 1916, did not cut a wide swath.10


Three years before the Union united the brotherhoods it called into being the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. This soon proved to be one of its most successful, flourishing, and influential arms. The word “sisterhood” was probably taken from the Roman Catholic church which long included sororities engaged in contemplation and good works. Modern Jewry had no contemplative women’s associations; the Union’s women interested themselves in education, culture, and to an extent, philanthropy. American Jewry began to employ the term “sisterhood” in the late nineteenth century. Prior to that time it had a host of female synagogal auxiliaries with a variety of names. The institution as such antedates the Reform Movement in this country going back to the early decades of the nineteenth century. Some congregations had more than one women’s society; these subgroups were in effect confraternities where charity rather than religion was emphasized.

What did the sisterhoods do? What did they not do! To a substantial degree they were the money-raising arm of the synagog. They held fairs, whist parties, rummage sales, and published cookbooks, thus raising the funds to build the organ and to outfit the temple; they equipped the kitchen, catered the annual seder and the congregational dinners. It was the “ladies” who paid off the mortgage and provided scholarships for the Hebrew Union College students. They gave musicals, organized classes and lecture series, and worked with college students. Funds to maintain the Sabbath schools frequently came from their coffers; they would even provide clothes for an impoverished confirmand. It was the sisterhood which gave parties for the school children on the holidays, which established a junior female auxiliary, and called a parent-teachers association into being. Occasionally, rarely, the women themselves would conduct a service in the sanctuary. In Atlanta when the East Europeans started arriving the women opened a soup kitchen in the basement of the temple. The men were glad to let their wives do the work; busy in their stores they were happy to delegate responsibility; charity was woman’s work. These female auxiliaries were always a very important link between the synagog and the home.11


The sisterhoods flourished like the psalmist’s green bay tree. In two years Kansas City’s auxiliary more than tripled its membership; Nieto’s Sherith Israel in San Francisco had 70 members by 1900. The congregations were dependent upon them, for on the whole they did an excellent and very useful job. Recognition of their efforts, however, was slow; it was only at the end of the century that the women themselves began to demand consideration. The rabbis, an enlightened body, admitted the justice of their plaints. In 1892, in convention assembled, the rabbis declared that women were entitled to more than a secondary position, that they had the right to membership and office in the synagog. The congregants moved much more slowly; in some temples in the early 1900’s women were allowed to vote and to serve on committees; in Atlanta the president of the sisterhood was put on the board in 1916. Yet three years earlier the Conference refused to go on record favoring women’s suffrage. With the passing of the nineteenth amendment enfranchising women, the Reformers could not afford to be less patriotic than Congress and the states. From then on women were admitted as members and made eligible for congregational office, but it was to be a long generation before the first woman was elected president of a synagog.12

One would think that certainly by 1920 the Hebrew Union College would be ready to ordain women. It was not. There was rarely, if ever, a decade since the 1870’s when women were not studying at the College. Even before Wise died some women had received Bachelor of Hebrew degrees, yet as late as 1922 Jacob Z. Lauterbach declared in a responsum that the ordination of women would be contrary to the spirit of traditional Judaism. It probably did not occur to him that Reform itself was a radical departure from rabbinical Judaism. At the same time, however, Lauterbach himself signed a resolution of the Conference that women not be denied ordination. Stephen S. Wise refused to ordain women in his Jewish Institute of Religion.13


The Role of the Rabbi

What role did the rabbi play in the Reform synagog? The congregation was often—or too often—the lengthened shadow of its minister. The Orthodox rabbi was often a talmudist who devoted much of time to his studies though there were, it is true, quite a number of learned immigrants who were active in the communal life of the newly arrived East European Jewry. Conservative clergymen influenced by their innovative Reform colleagues began to evince an interest in the needs of the larger Jewish community. The Reform rabbis had radically changed the scope of rabbinical work as it had been conceived for almost 2,000 years. Although most of the Reform Jewish leaders had some scholarly interest and a few were actually scholars, the typical Reform clergyman was something new, something different. He was a pastor, counsellor, social worker, educationist, fund-raiser, and officiant at most of the rites of passage.

Much of all that was done in the synagog was sparked by him; he was the leader, the man in the limelight. The entire worship service centered around him for he read most of the prayers solo. The role of the congregants in the pew was not too important; the minister spoke and they listened. He was a preacher in a day when oratory was all-important. The rabbi declaimed, almost ex cathedra, on Jewish and on non-Jewish topics, on anything of a national or international character which might appeal to his congregants as Jews and as Americans. The sermon was central; from his elevated tribune he spoke down to his people. Above all he was an ambassador to the Gentiles. For many of his flock this was his most important function. The local merchant, often an immigrant, was respected in his home town but not accepted socially. Even his native-born children received little social recognition. Thus both the parents and the younger generation were often troubled by a feeling of insecurity that was heightened by the arrival of the “Russians,” many of whom were poor, some of whom were uncouth. It was important to have an eloquent, educated, cultured rabbi speak for them, defend them against calumnies, and emphasize the virtues of Judaism. In many West European towns and in most non-Reform American congregations the rabbi was little more than a religious functionary; in the United States the Reform rabbi was the prime Jewish agent in town to establish rapport with the Gentiles. This was an important and very necessary responsibility. Often the Reform rabbi was the most educated clergyman in the city. Jews of means and social aspirations joined his congregation because they were eager to shine in reflected glory. Even the Slavs accepted him as their secular leader. In Pittsburgh, J. Leonard Levy was adored by most of the city’s observant Jews despite his clerical collar and his disregard of the dietary laws.14

The Rabbi in the Jewish Community

Even a small community like Meridian, Mississippi, had a rabbi in 1898, although his role is not delineated in detail in the constitution. This, however, is clear: he was to lead in worship, preach, conduct services for mourners in their homes, go to choir rehearsals, run the Sabbath school, and register all births, marriages, and deaths. He was not permitted to serve any non-member without permission of the president. William Rosenau of Oheb Sholom, Baltimore, was not an untypical example of the big city minister. In 1904 he gave fifty-six sermons, made twenty addresses in town and out of town, performed one conversion and thirty-four marriages, conducted thirty-five funerals, made 637 calls with his wife, and 1,122 calls alone. At the same time he was teaching at Hopkins, writing articles, and working on a book. In addition to his normal rabbinical duties Morris Lazaron of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation prepared liturgies for the Sukkot harvest festival and for Simhat Torah (Rejoicing of the Law) where grandfather, father, and son carried Torahs in the circuit procession. He encouraged the Boy and Girl Scout troops in his synagog, kept an eye on a club for adolescents and on a drama group, led Bible study classes, helped Jewish social workers on their cases, set up an art exhibition, presided at a congregational seder, and planned the programs of the brotherhood and sisterhood. The more traditional Rabbi Samuel Deinard of Minneapolis made it his business to get a Ph.D. in Semitic languages. He gave leadership to the local Zionists, spent the second day of the Holy Days in an Orthodox congregation, addressed it at times in Yiddish, and edited the local Anglo-Jewish newspaper.

If the rabbi had even a modicum of ability and tact he exercised considerable influence. He married, buried, and was respected if not loved by the families he serviced; the congregants deferred to him. David Marx came to Atlanta at the ripe age of twenty-three and almost from the first day began to hand down the “Law” to his people, the Reform law. That generation of rabbis was nothing if not authoritarian. Yet Marx’s job was not always a bed of roses. When he was elected to office the vote was thirty-seven to thirty-four; the traditional Jews looked askance at him; Marx had to fight for his innovations. These Georgia Jews, living in an area where the Bible was the word of God, had no relish for the young rabbi’s theories on Higher Criticism. He opposed bar mitzvahs, made the old-timers take their hats off during the services, and finally induced them to dispense with their more traditional prayer book. The rabbi was indefatigable, working with the charities, the Council of Jewish Women, with the YMHA, and the settlement house. He visited the Jews in the penitentiary and even found time to help organize congregations in nearby towns.15

If a rabbi had a problem it was his board; the trustees were his bosses. Marx’s board called a special meeting in 1912 and instructed him to go to a Shrine convention in Los Angeles. Because the convention date coincided with Pentecost, the rabbi refused to go. He carried the day in this struggle. Marx was a great Mason, a thirty-third degree notable, but his religion came first; obviously the board had other priorities. In many congregations boards and rabbis were often in conflict; the tradition that the rabbi was a hireling never died. A Milwaukee Reform congregation had a ritual committee which presumed to instruct the rabbi but did not assume the obligation to attend services regularly. Isaac Moses, its rabbi, once slapped the face of an impudent thirteen-year-old; this indulgence brought him a stern rebuke from the board; he was fortunate that it did not call for his resignation. The trustees of the San Antonio synagog reprimanded their preacher because he had scolded them; they ordered him to dispense with the Saturday service and limited the Friday service to one hour, the holiday services to two hours. All this in the 1890’s. About twenty years later the pulpit incumbent in this same synagog was rebuked for publishing an article in the newspaper attacking Prohibition; he had not previously obtained the approval of the president of the board. Yet the leaders of this congregation passed a resolution that all members must keep their places of business closed on the High Holy Days.

This tough approach by the congregants in dealing with the minister was not uncommon in synagogs and in churches too. Even in the best of Protestant churches the minister was to preach but never offend. Synagogal pulpits tended in the twentieth century to be somewhat more free; Emil G. Hirsch, Joseph Krauskopf, and Stephen S. Wise had taught congregations to move discreetly in admonishing their spiritual leaders. Allen Tarshish is of the opinion that by the 1880’s more leeway was given to the officiants but the Reform rabbi’s right to free speech has continued to raise difficult questions. The Orthodox rabbis stayed well within the four ells of the Jewish Law and rarely expressed themselves on controversial issues; some Conservative ministers, harassed by their boards, moved into the Reform rabbinate much to the dismay of Schechter. But in every congregation there were at least a few devoted laymen who labored alongside the rabbi; these men loved Judaism and the synagog; they were not adversaries. Charles Hutzler of Richmond is an example. He had been choirmaster, secretary, treasurer, a teacher in the Sabbath school, and its assistant superintendent. On occasion he led the services himself; when he died he was president of Beth Ahabah. Without the support of men like Hutzler rabbis would often have been discouraged; they helped make the rabbinate worthwhile.16

The Rabbi in the General (Gentile) Community

In the early 1900’s David Marx’s board may have reproached him for neglecting his pastoral calls. The complaint was very probably justified. He was too busy being a good citizen; most Reform rabbis were. It is probable that many of these men spent more time away from their congregations than in them. The rabbi was the town’s renommé Jew, the one the Gentiles knew best. Why was he known? This was the man who was active in nearly all civic affairs; he gave the baccalaureate address and received a degree honoris causa. It was he who fought political corruption, who pleaded for peace, who attacked capital punishment, and like Philipson of Cincinnati raised his voice against imperialism after the Spanish-American War.

It was the rabbi whose voice was often heard in the Protestant churches, who led interfaith work, who took the initiative in launching interdenominational services on Thanksgiving. A St. Paul rabbi was even called upon to install a Christian minister. All rabbis took pot shots at Christian missionaries, often apostate Jews who were out hunting for Jewish souls. Most of these Jewish divines were active in the general philanthropies, certainly on the local level; they were on the different charity boards; they worked with the blind and the Big Brothers, helped the victims of tuberculosis, and assumed responsibility in the drives to raise money for the Red Cross and the persecuted Armenians. A number of these Jewish ecclesiastics were given high office and recognition in the state and national philanthropic associations, in the National Conference of Charities and Correction, in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Unless repulsed by snobs the rabbis were active in the art societies and on the symphony boards. Calisch of Richmond made an address at Mount Vernon on the 100th anniversary of the death of Washington; in 1915 he dined with Woodrow Wilson in the White House and made the blessing in Hebrew. David Marx had sufficient influence with the city’s Board of Education to induce it not to give Jewish children unexcused absences on the High Holy Days. He was a member of the biracial committee that attempted to stop the recurrence of lynching in Atlanta after twelve Negroes had been murdered by mobs. The rabbi, said one of Marx’s congregants, “made us proud to be Jews.” Max Samfield of Memphis was a highly respected member of the Elks and Masons, a leader of the community during the sad days of the devastating yellow fever epidemic (1878-1879), and founder of the state Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals and Children.17

Reform Jews had diverse interests and concerns, many of which they shared with other Jews; some of them were specifically linked to their own Reformist philosophy. Intermarriage disturbed them, hence, unlike the other Jewish denominations, they made conversion to Judaism relatively easy. They wanted to judaize the non-Jewish spouse. They were always worried about the assimilatory impact of the cultural milieu, about the grosser forms of anti-Semitism. They did what they could to help oppressed Jews wherever they were to be found. Keeping the wall between church and state unbreached was always a challenge; the Protestants never ceased their efforts to Christianize the public schools. Above all, the Reformers never stopped attacking Zionism; they thought it reflected on their American loyalties. As the East Europeans began to arrive in numbers the acculturated Reformers helped them at the ports of debarkation, and as the incoming émigrés enveloped them the liberals urged acculturation. They even made an attempt, a half-hearted one, to integrate them religiously. By 1920 the Reform rabbis began to ally themselves with the social justice movement.

Circuit work in the small towns, preaching to the adults there, and educating their children were always of prime importance for the Union. The Reformers created a body of liturgical literature; they tried unsuccessfully to rehabilitate the Sabbath. As early as 1895 the Central Conference of American Rabbis wanted to work with students in the colleges of the country, although there were few Jews who were then seeking higher education. By 1906 the Conference had a committee busying itself with the men and women on campus; at that time the Jewish students had already begun to organize themselves; there were Jewish Greek letter fraternities, social clubs, Menorah societies, Orthodox prayer groups, and by 1914 at least one Reform student congregation. That year the Central Conference of American Rabbis had already emphasized the need for a full-time rabbi on campus, one who would work with the students; this was not to come till 1923 when the first Hillel association was established. The Conference was not happy about Jewish Greek letter fraternities. It made one exception; it had no objection to the honorary academic society, Phi Beta Kappa. The Jewish youngsters in the colleges needed no urging or stamp of approval from the rabbis; many of them had already earned the right to wear the coveted key. The goals of the Reformers, the Central Conference and the Union, were cultural, intellectual, and religious but these religionists had little influence with the college students; with exceptions that generation had little desire to stress religious loyalties.

The Reform congregations also took the lead in working with soldiers during World War I, organized synagog brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and succeeded in raising the status of women in Judaism. The following incomplete list of standing committees of the Conference in 1921 is an index to its religious interests: there were committees on synagogal music, on prayer, on religious work in the universities, on responsa, on cooperation with national organizations, on church and state relations, on a survey of Jewish religious conditions, on systematic Jewish theology, on religious education, on contemporary history, on marriage and divorce, and on social justice. In 1912 in a formal statement the Conference expressed its willingness to cooperate in all lands with all parties in Judaism, morally, culturally, and economically.18


One of the achievements of Reform was the democratization of the synagog. This was due, possibly, to the example of the Protestant churches and the impact of the liberal spirit of the Progressive Age. Constitutions were revised to provide for rotation in office; presidents could no longer stay in power for decades; there was to be no more one-man rule; others were given a chance to serve and to lead. There were some synagogs where those who paid little were not enfranchised. Slowly but surely the open pew or unassigned pew system was adopted; any one could sit anywhere; the rich were given no special privileges. Many hoped that voluntary or low dues would bring in people of lesser means. Gone was the day when an impoverished saintly Jew could not even hope to become a member; no longer was the dues structure to serve as a perpetual blackball.

In 1896 Isaac S. Moses started a synagog in Chicago where fees would be modest and where there would be complete freedom in the pulpit. His synagog was not to be a rich man’s club. Originally the dues seem to have been fifty cents a month but when Moses dedicated his sanctuary in 1898 he had to raise the minimal dues to $1 a month; just a few weeks later they were doubled again. Thus the annual charges were $24, a great deal of money in 1898; apparently he had no choice. A Milwaukee congregation warned those local Jews who could afford to join but had not yet affiliated that if they wished to use its facilities for marriages and burials they would first have to pay a full year’s dues. The open pew system was adopted by Franklin of Detroit in the early 1900’s; Stephen S. Wise’s Free Synagogue apparently had no fixed charges; it certainly reserved no seats. Yet the Conference in 1911 refused to opt for low dues and an unassigned seating system. Were the rabbis afraid of their boards? Did these clergymen believe that with a minimal dues plan they would never be able to budget a viable program? In the course of time—it took decades—private pews were abolished; all seats were open except on the High Holy Days when members were admitted by card only, but even then seats were not reserved.19



Religious indifference has always been a problem in American Jewry. (This was true too in Central and Western Europe.) To be sure, all synagogs were crowded on the High Holy Days; most Jews even those whose religious loyalties were weak, attended at least one of the services on Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). But rarely were they filled on other days. The bar mitzvah family always brought its own crowds and the confirmation ceremonies on Pentecost jammed the sanctuary with the confirmands’ kin. There were synagogs where even the Sunday lectures failed to entice large audiences; Sabbath services in some towns were so poorly attended that the morning worship assemblies were cancelled. This was not uncommon. The National Council of Jewish Women passed a resolution at one of its conventions that the seventh day must be sanctified; the caustic Hirsch suggested that the Council would do better to keep the day than to pass resolutions and then ignore them. Mamma was too busy on the Sabbath to take her children to the synagog but always found time on that day to spend hours at the dancing school watching the aesthetic gyrations of her offspring. In many towns there was so little interest in the synagog that offices went begging. One of the contributing reasons for the prevalent indifference was that the role assigned the layman in the service was negligible; he was a passive auditor. The service was focused on the man in the pulpit.20

Speaking of the religious apathy of English Jews, Zangwill once told Schechter that they were dead but didn’t know it. This was an exaggeration; it would certainly not be true of American Jewry. There was indifference. The apathy of Jews in the early twentieth century is reflected in the refusal of many to affiliate, in the disregard for religious observance. Orthodoxy lost ground all through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Cyrus Adler remarked that there was considerable neglect of the ceremonies and the rituals, constant religious drifting, but little apostasy. As early as 1901 the American Hebrew had already pointed out that the rabbis of the more traditional synagogs were observant but the members were not. It was obvious to all that the native-born children of the newcomers were not synagoggoers. Those among them who were recruited for the Menorah Movement were interested in Jewish culture but, as they made clear to the Central Conference, they and the organization had no interest in Reform, the religion (1912). Was this because they were cold to all forms of religion and certainly to the alien Orthodoxy of their immigrant parents? Not necessarily. They had an interest that was paramount in their lives. They had little time for anything but themselves; they were hurrying to carve out careers for themselves. Some, not the Menorah men, sought low visibility as Jews for they were students at colleges that were barely tolerant of Jews. The historian Charles Beard said that nine-tenths of all Jews in the United States were not affiliated; this is a statement that would be very difficult to prove. There is no question that most American Jews were not members of synagogs; many could not afford to join; most of them were too busy becoming Americans; non-affiliation, however, is not proof of religious rejection.21


The statement vox populi vox dei certainly applies to American Judaism in the first two decades of the twentieth century. If Reform rabbis made changes it was often because they were being pushed by their congregants who insisted that the clerics sanctify the concessions which the laity had already made to the contemporary American culture. The Reformers were Americanizing themselves. Einhorn was lucky that he had died in the 1870’s. Had he survived he may well have been retired against his wishes, as was Samuel Hirsch and, probably, Samuel Adler. The synagogs wanted English-speaking, not German-speaking spiritual leaders. Even the arriving East Europeans started shaving their beards, ignoring the dietary laws, and dropping many of their religious practices. The young Reform Jews in Denver refused to shift their New Year’s Eve dance when it fell on a Friday night; the editor of Atlanta’s Jewish paper said that ceremonies that separated the Jew from his neighbor must be dropped; such customs were not congruent with twentieth-century civilization (1900). The students’ H.U.C. Journal for October, 1902, carried the old dictum on its masthead in Hebrew, “Custom (practice) annuls the Law,” meaning follow the new American tradition.

There were those who were convinced that cultural integration would reduce anti-Semitism; such people were prone to genuflect in the direction of the Christians. By the turn of the century many of them looked upon Christmas as an American national holiday; even congregational leaders were known to have Christmas trees in their front rooms; others gave Christmas dinners. Protestantism was making its impress on the American Jew, on Judaism. This was inevitable; the Jews were such a small percentage of the population, they were culturally overwhelmed by the millions of Gentiles about them. An Orthodox congregation of West Roxbury in Massachusetts bought a church chapel and turned it into a synagog; it had stained glass windows with portraits of Christian heroines, Mary, Martha, Dorcas, and others. When reminded by a Reform rabbi that it could not pay homage to these Christian women the congregants simply changed their names to Miriam, Sarah, Rachel, and Deborah. There were always individuals—how many will never be known—who were ashamed to be Jews. Some of these, breaking with their friends and associates, divorced themselves completely from Jews and Judaism.22


Indifference to religion was not a characteristic of Jews alone. In the Fifteenth Assembly District of New York City, in 1897, half of the residents did not belong to a church or attend services; some of the Protestant churches had pitifully small memberships. Many of these Christian communicants were not primarily interested in saving their souls; they had joined for social and business reasons or wished to give their children the benefit of a good Sunday school. The educational motivation was also decisive for many if not for most Reform Jews. Harold Laski was probably right, however, in saying that the largest church in the United States was the Church of the Indifferent. Zepin of the Union warned his colleagues in 1905 that even a well organized national synagogal program would not necessarily fill the pews. He was right. If there was unaffiliation, indifference to organized religion, it was in large part due to the zeitgeist; the spirit of the times had shattered traditional religious beliefs. Yet many of these unaffiliated men and women, Jews and Christians, who could not find a spiritual home in the liberal churches and in the synagogs were not necessarily hostile to organized religion and its institutions; they channeled their idealism into other areas of service to humanity.23


Those unaffiliated Jews with strong social concerns found spiritual and emotional satisfaction by turning to social-welfare work. For them providing philanthropic and educational aid to the immigrant was very important. Congregations were faced with many rivals, attractive ones. It was difficult to compete with the clubs, the lodges, the social gatherings, above all, the card table. The Zionist conventicles, the labor organizations, and especially the immigrant hometown societies all had devoted followers. These sociophilanthropic cultural confraternities, these landsmanshaften, offered the immigrant an intimacy, a sense of comforting togetherness that was noticeably absent in the larger synagogs.

Like their Christian neighbors many Jews did not venture far from their homes, unless it was to spend an evening at the cinema. Others, natives and Americanized newcomers, joined those non-Jewish associations in the general community which were fighting for social and political reform; for them getting rid of disease and civic corruption was more important than a Friday night service or a Sunday morning lecture.24


Having no knowledge of their long history, many Reformers had no pride in their past and its traditions; there was not sufficient cultural content in these men and women to generate loyalties. Religious programs for the children and the youth were inadequate; there was not much interest in the Hebrew language. The Reform synagog was not a poor man’s institution; social and economic differences often made for intramural prejudices. Only too often the “successful” rabbi was a prima donna who tended to ignore the needs and sensitivities of his flock; he was not a pastor. The universalistic ethical reach of Reform was conceptually superb; its theology was unsurpassed in its logic and liberality, but the movement failed to emphasize folkist elements, the particularistic; there was a very perceptible lack of warmth. The Orthodox and their religious cousins, the Conservatives, encouraged congregational participation in the services; everyone joined lustily in the singing; the Orthodox were very much at home in the house of their God. The Reformers were rational, disciplined, disinclined to accentuate the supernatural; their cold unyielding irrefutable classical tenets made of their faith a petrified orthodoxy of its own. The templegoers may have been impressed even satisfied with their services, but were they moved? A contemporary critic said: “A church should not be an icebox”; another had remarked, “decorum is a cool substitute for devotion.”

Euphoric nineteenth-century Reformers believed that all Jews would accept their new Jewish way of life but by 1900 they realized that this was wishful thinking, rhetoric. Their rivals, the Conservatives, cherished the hope that they would win the loyalties of the American Jewish masses. The leaders of this new Jewish denomination realized soon enough that this prospect was unreal, though this group was destined within a generation to win thousands who were slowly moving to the left. Every Conservative advance was a defeat for the liberals; the Conservatives proved to be very formidable rivals.

The Reformers, the “Germans,” rejected the East Europeans religiously and were rejected with equal vehemence by the latter. This confrontation was inevitable. The reasons for this mutual hostility were to a large extent valid. The Reformers made no real effort to win the newcomers and the historian can offer no assurance that the liberals would have been successful even had they tried seriously. Neither the Orthodox religionists nor the assertive Zionists could or would make compromises in matters of ritual, kashrut, the use of Hebrew, decorum, or the determination to establish a national Jewish state. For the Russian, the Pole, the Rumanian Jew, the Reform service was Christian in tone. Actually the divisions between the newcomers and the old-timers were ethnic and social. Was not the rejection of the Catholic masses by the Anglo-Saxon Protestants a similar social rejection of untutored and impoverished immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe? The “Germans” and the “Russians” would have to die off in America’s affluent wilderness before their children would bridge the gap between the two in this Promised Land. It was not until 1950 that the Reformers set out earnestly to win the children of the East Europeans; in the process the former were all but taken over by the East Europeans.25


The Reform leaders knew they were making little impress on the newcomers; indeed one wonders if they ever nursed any real expectations of winning over these denizens of the metropolitan ghettos. The prime concern of the liberals was to salvage their own followers religiously. Throughout the period the Reformers were well aware that they could not restore Saturday as the day of rest; their congregants could not and would not come to worship on the biggest business day of the week. These templegoers were shopkeepers; bread and butter came first. But the Reformers did make an attempt to attract worshippers on another weekend day, Sunday. Was this effort a failure or a success? Actually by 1890 the substitute Sunday service had already been rejected although a few individuals as late as 1897 continued to flirt with the thought of substituting Sunday for Saturday as the weekly day of rest. At that time Sinai of Chicago was the only congregation in the country that limited itself to a Sunday service; it would later be joined by Wise’s Free Synagogue (1907).

The debate therefore from 1897 to 1920 was not on a Sunday-Sabbath but on the question of a supplementary service on Sunday to solve the problem of synagog attendance. By 1901 about twenty congregations conducted additional services on Sunday; some of these, it would seem, were in small towns where the circuit rabbi would come only on the first day of the week. Retaining the Saturday-Sabbath was never in doubt among Reform Jews at any time; the laity would never have tolerated the abrogation of Saturday as the Sabbath. That would have been a step in the direction of Christianity. There were, however, some rabbis who felt that the Saturday rest day was obsolete; their hope lay in emphasizing a Sunday assemblage. Krauskopf, always on the left, put his hopes on the Sunday supplementary service, though he never gave up his Saturday worship and continued it twelve months a year. In many towns, not all, these Sunday gatherings drew crowds, bringing in Jews who otherwise would not have come. Krauskopf bragged of the large numbers of his printed Sunday discourses that were widely distributed. Sunday meetings were to continue in his congregation for a generation after his death; they came to an end with the rise of Nazism in Germany.

In 1903 the Central Conference went on record that it intended to retain the historical Sabbath; it was the bond that united World Jewry. However, this is strange: the vote on this occasion was small, many rabbis did not vote or so it would seem. Did the cautious clerics fear the few lay radicals in their congregations? The following year the Conference officially sanctioned the supplementary Sunday service but it took but two years to teach the rabbis that this innovation was no panacea. Its prime attraction—no gain for the religious-minded—was the lecture where current problems and issues were ventilated. Indeed the Jewish lecture platform was looked upon as a communal institution to which even Gentiles came in relatively large numbers. It was important for that generation that Gentiles visit the synagog; the Jews were flattered. The supplementary service never became popular; in 1912 a survey of more than 100 congregations showed that only twelve met for worship and a lecture; nine had no Sabbath service. This may well be because they could not muster a quorum of ten. The Sabbath as such had not been rejected.26

Statistically then in 1912 probably less than 10 percent of all Reform synagogs conducted Sunday services or lecture forums. Obviously the Sunday “service” was not the answer to a passé Sabbath. In 1905 Hirsch had already lamented that Sunday services were not successful; apparently even his crowds were diminishing. It is a fact that the Sunday service did appeal to Jews who otherwise would not have come. Why then did the Reformers ultimately reject even the Sunday service? Is it possible that they were already turning to the right in the early twentieth century because of American anti-Semitism and Russian pogroms? Was it because the Sunday service was a form of identification with a Christian world that had not yet ceased to disable, to murder Jews? This is certain: the Reformers were determined to remain Jewish and the Sunday service tended to become a symbol of schism. The solution eventually worked out by the liberals was to accept the Friday evening gathering as the most important religious exercise of the week. The Saturday morning assembly was retained despite its poor attendance; it was a holding operation; the Sunday convocation was deemed a lecture forum. In sum, Reform failed to recruit large numbers for worship. It was no consolation that affiliation and attendance in the Orthodox and Conservative synagogs left much to be desired. The demands of the economy and the indifference engendered by the spirit of the age kept Jews of all beliefs and unbeliefs away from synagogal services.27



It is obvious that only a minority of Jews of the three denominations was affiliated with synagogs and temples; these Jews were the bearers of the religious traditions; in a free and open society those who joined synagogs did so voluntarily. Very many European Jews, under strong social and even legal controls, were nominally members of the Jewish community, but it is questionable to what extent they were religiously committed. Romantic hindsight is prone to exaggeration. Here in the United States the small ratio of affiliation and the lack of observance distressed all religious leaders yet Jewish religionists were not without their achievements; the picture was not altogether bleak.

After the Spanish-American War the United States government began to move toward imperialism, nursing aspirations to world hegemony. These hopes of the secular state were probably reflected, unwittingly at least, in the growing American Jewish community. America reached out for authority, power; to a degree its Jewry, too, began to sense and to exercise its influence. By 1900 this was the third largest Jewish community in the world after Russia-Poland and Austria-Hungary. The Jews here intervened politically and philanthropically on behalf of their coreligionists in Europe and Palestine. The gifts they so generously sent to suffering communities abroad added to the stature and authority of this young transatlantic Jewry. As late as the first decade of the twentieth century the Union of American Hebrew Congregations still dreamt of uniting and dominating American Jewry; the need for unity seemed imperative after the Kishinev massacre of 1903. Ostensibly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was a Reform organization; actually its goals were in large part latitudinarian and secular; it sought to tie all Jews together, not in order to “Reform” them but to strengthen them in their effort to confront the problems that faced Jews in all lands. Its vision was international, subtly hegemonic. There were no Jewish tests for the admission of any Jewish congregation into the Union. And when the appeal to unite under its banner was rejected, it was willing to invite the cooperation of every Jewish national association and society in this country in order to create a federation that would undertake to cope with the needs of American and World Jewry. In such a federation the voice of the Jewish religionists would at least be heard. The new and powerful American Jewish Committee ignored the religious denominations as such; the pragmatic, realistic businessmen of the Committee had brushed them aside as ineffectual agencies.

The Union was ineffectual and when it stopped its drive for one overall truly representative American organization the struggle was carried on by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. It had the identical goal in mind. These rabbinical religionists refused to abdicate their right to representation in the effort to aid Jews; they wanted to be accorded equality with the lay elite. The pleas of the rabbis were also in vain though they had correctly sensed the coming power of the American Jewish community; they foresaw American Jewish hegemony and they wanted religious influences to be very much in evidence. After World War I when Germany and Austria-Hungary had collapsed and Eastern Europe had been shattered, Israel Friedlaender of the Seminary was convinced that American Jewry would emerge as the Diaspora’s dominant community. Almost a generation earlier Schechter had already prophesied that Jewry’s religious future lay in the United States; his friends even hoped that he would became America’s master craftsman uniting the Jews here through a faith that would be exemplary for all Jews in all lands. In the belief that America would one day give birth to a Jewry of spiritual and religious magnitude, the rabbis were right.

The desire of the Union and the Central Conference for one umbrella organization embracing all American Jewish national organizations was effectuated in part in 1916 with the rise of the American Jewish Congress which addressed itself solely to the political needs of European and Palestinian Jewry. Because its goals were severely limited it never met with the approval of the national Reform institutions. The narrow programs of the powerful American Jewish Committee and the successful but temporary American Jewish Congress were a warning to this country’s Jewish religionists that they had been bypassed; the secularists were in the saddle. From now on national leadership would be neutral in matters religious; the denominations were deemed divisive; American Jewish hegemony would be political, philanthropic, never religious.28


Ultimately the Jews of the United States did exercise a large degree of hegemony over World Jewry, a leadership that was shared but in a very minor degree by the Jewish religious denominations of this country. There is no evidence that American Orthodoxy and Conservatism influenced transatlantic Jewry prior to 1921; the Reformers did. The various European Jewish liberal religious movements of the nineteenth century were undoubtedly patterned on German Reform; the twentieth century liberal religious movements in Europe, even in Germany, formed themselves to a degree on the American model. This influence is particularly evident in twentieth-century England. One of the prime sponsors of the Jewish Religious Union (1902) in the country was Claude G. Montefiore, a left-wing classicist. When he addressed the Central Conference in 1910 he expressed the pious hope that Reform would one day become the religion of the races and peoples of the world. Two years later he and his friends brought the American rabbi Israel Mattuck to London where he succeeded in developing a large liberal congregation with leftist tendencies. The Berlin Jews who petitioned in 1898 for Sunday worship were repulsed by the communal chiefs but were told they could have a late Friday evening service, a suggestion obviously patterned on the American compromise. The Union of German Liberal Rabbis (Vereinigung der liberalen Rabbiner Deutschlands, 1898) laid down Guidelines (Richtlinien, 1912) which were similar to those of the American classicists. The twentieth-century liberal groups in Sweden, France, and Holland were minuscule in size; the German and the English congregations were more numerous.29


The impact of the American brand of liberal Judaism on European Jewries is certain though it is not always easy to document. It is equally true that the Reform rabbis here through their personalities and teachings influenced thousands of Christians; in turn these very rabbis had already drawn heavily on the writings of distinguished socially-minded Christian clergymen. Rabbis, some of them scholars of note and religious liberals, were frequently called upon to teach in the colleges of the country. Hirsch in Chicago, Voorsanger in California, Feuerlicht in Indiana were among the Jewish clergymen who over the years taught thousands of Christian students, many of whom were preparing for the ministry. There was hardly a Reform rabbi in the United States who was not engaged in some form of interfaith work. They joined literary societies where they had an opportunity to expound their radical views to the Christian intelligentsia, but their strongest impress was in their Sunday morning lectures. Ultimately thousands of non-Jews came to listen; the writer James Michener wrote in one of his best sellers that he had been profoundly influenced by Krauskopf. In these talks the insistence of the preachers that religion make its peace with the sciences served as an encouragement to enquiring Christians and as a challenge to evangelicals. Every Christian who listened to a rabbi was moved perforce to reexamine his basic beliefs. The teachings of the Reformers were a source of encouragement to the Unitarians, the Universalists, and to many liberal preachers in the mainline churches. In their zeal to appeal to Christians who sat in their audiences some rabbis tended to forget their particularism. When Rabbi Morris Newfield dedicated his synagog in Birmingham in 1914 his words would have been welcomed in any Christian church: “I consecrate this whole house and the whole congregation to the worship of the Living God and Humanity.”30


The Conservatives and the Orthodox continually attacked Reform for its departure from tradition, yet both groups patterned themselves structurally on the liberals. Congregational members and cultured Gentiles were not the only ones who listened to the Sunday sermons of the rabbis. The younger generation of East Europeans who had come here as children or who had been born here flocked to listen to Harry Levi of Boston, Hirsch of Chicago, Krauskopf of Philadelphia, Philipson of Cincinnati, Leon Harrison of St. Louis, and Stephen S. Wise of New York City. Through these addresses men and women became conversant with the historicocritical method; they were introduced to modern thought if they were not already college students. There were other gains. They were taught the amenities of American religious worship, the importance of praying in an intelligible vernacular; they learned to associate decorum with worship. In the sanctuaries which these newcomers later built many of them introduced the Friday night service and the pageantry of confirmation. Their acceptance of this rite was a forward step in the emancipation of women among those Jews who were still loyal to the older traditions. Back in Baltimore of the 1880’s an immigrant Russian Jew, discontented with Orthodoxy, sent his children to the Reform Sabbath school where David Philipson was then rabbi. Later this man migrated to England and became wealthy through a cigarette-making machine which he had invented. He joined Mattuck’s Liberal Synagogue in London and was one of its most generous members. This man, Bernhard Baron, gave huge sums to England, his adopted country, but refused to accept a title. After his death his son Louis accepted a baronetcy.31


In 1900 United States Jewry was still an immigrant community. Some of the émigrés were born in Central Europe, most of them hailed from Eastern Europe. The majority was nominally Orthodox, even the workers in the garment industry, though not their leaders. Actual affiliation with Orthodox synagogs was minimal though there can be no question that these unaffiliated religionists were overwhelmingly sympathetic to Orthodoxy. At that time there were about 791 congregations in the country; only about fifty were formally members of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations; about ninety temples were enrolled in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; the Conservatives as yet had no national congregational federation. Thus practically all Orthodox synagogs were unaffiliated. It is estimated that by 1920 there were over 700 Orthodox conventicles in New York City alone. In the United States with its population of some 43,500,000 people and about 3,500,000 Jews there were, it is said, close to 400,000 Jewish householders affiliated with houses of worship. In 1900 there were some 525 rabbis in the country; in 1917, about 1,500. The title “rabbi” must not be taken too seriously; almost any Jewish officiant could assume the title with impunity. Los Angeles in 1899 had one congregation; in 1920 it had ten. By 1920 there were about 2,000 congregations and prayer groups in this country.

In comparison with the Central Europeans, the Slavic newcomers had little status but these Russian and Polish immigrants were perfectly content in the shuls where they gathered and where they could chat in Yiddish with their neighbors. Many of these “synagogs” were hired halls, at best modest buildings. This new immigration had no impact on Reform, none on religion in the United States. These worshippers were unconcerned about their “image” in the larger general community; they were not pretentious. Conservative Judaism often accompanied acculturation and affluence; these traditionalists began moving out of the core city into the better sections of town and into the suburbs. By 1920 there were over thirty Conservative congregations in New York City. It was a growing movement. The Reformers were growing too; in the two decades since 1900, they had about doubled in size; they could then boast of more than 220 congregations. Despite the fact that they numbered but 10 percent of all America’s synagogs they were powerful and prestigious. Their congregations were the most important; their national institutions over-shadowed all others. Most of the laity in the public eye were pillars of their “church;” this was true of any town in the United States whether it was a Schiff in New York City or an Isaias Hellman in Los Angeles or San Francisco.32


Though the Reformers were few in number their high degree of visibility in the community and their more than adequate history source materials make it possible to evaluate their accomplishments. Actually their achievements after 1900 were but a continuation of programs that had been initiated in the 1840’s. Growing numbers, administrative improvements, and a willingness to loosen purse strings produced a series of successes. The Central Conference established in 1889 gave Jewry its first permanent rabbinical organization; in 1921 it was the largest Jewish association of its kind in the Diaspora. Its all-embracing program excluded nothing of Jewish interest; it worked with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, identified itself religiously and philanthropically with all Jews both here and abroad, and opposed all Christological encroachments of both the state and the church. Yet these rabbis, consistent libertarians, set out to cement good relations with their Christian neighbors; in this effort they achieved a measure of success.

In his own bailiwick the Reform rabbi was regarded as one of the city’s outstanding ministers. The College had educated him to meet the challenges of the times; often he was the only religious liberal in town, in the forefront of the movement for progressive legislation. His was an all-encompassing humanitarian philosophy that appealed to both Jews and Gentiles. Liberal Christians realized that they had a strong bond with Jews in their common dependence on the social idealism of the Hebrew prophets, an idealism that was mirrored in the humanitarian teachings of the Christian gospel. For those Christians who wished to become Jews because of religious conviction or for reasons of marriage, conversion was made easy by many Reform rabbis. The Reform clergy made a bold but unsuccessful attempt to save the Sabbath; moved by expediency the daring among them inaugurated Sunday services. Despite their public repudiation of halakah, the authoritative way of life, they adhered to it when certain problems arose. They looked for guidance to the Committee on Responsa whose decisions helped keep these rebels in the mainstream of customary law. The move away from rabbinism and its prescriptions was not an arbitrary act of rebellious ecclesiastics; the rabbis were but responding to the demands of the people they served. How many of these leaders realized that theirs was the greatest revolution in Judaism since the first century when the Pharisees broke with the priests and the temple cult to build a new faith that would ensure the survival of the Jewish people?

After a fashion the Reform rabbis were “home” missionaries; these ministers worked closely with the Council of Jewish Women, the “Ys” and the settlement houses to help the newcomers. Reform “missions” among the “Russian” adults were a failure; the children were won over for they attended the Sabbath schools by the thousands until they were confirmed. Throughout the Midwest dozens of small towns were visited biweekly by the Hebrew Union College students; during the High Holy Days almost every HUC youngster was given a pulpit that he might learn to barber sermonically on the beards of the grateful auditors. After a stirring address (borrowed of course from a notable rabbi), some of these sixteen and seventeen-year-old neophytes were solemnly greeted by the congregational patriarchs: “Doctor, you done noble.” This was heady wine. Beginning with Mattuck in London the Cincinnati men carried the Jewish gospel abroad; fifty years later it was literally true that these Reformers were found on every continent of the globe; since then the sun has never set on a graduate of the Hebrew Union College.

It is probable that the outstanding achievement of these rabbis on this soil was to forge a homogeneous Reform community. This sense of solidarity was effected through negative and positive factors. Anxious concerns lest the East Europeans threaten their status yoked the Reformers together through commonly shared prejudices; anti-Semitism bound them even tighter. In a positive sense the Union Prayer Book brought real unity; ultimately it was adopted by almost every Reform congregation in the United States. It was a beautifully written book, harmonizing the prayers with the highest moral aspirations of the worshippers. As early as 1906 Stolz said it was the most popular Jewish book ever produced in this country. As a work in the vernacular it reflected the intention of the Reformers to make worship a rational, intelligible experience, decorous and dignified, enhanced in its beauty and appeal by vocal and instrumental music. The Reformers were pioneers in improving the Sabbath school curricula, in adult education. Through the Conference and the Board of Delegates on Civil and Religious Rights they led the fight against disabilities and the constantly recurring Judeophobia.

Inevitably all immigrant Jews here would have to adjust themselves to the new American way of life. The Reformers helped prepare the way for a synthesis of Jewish tradition and the country’s cultural demands. As exponents of the Science of Judaism they taught their people to evaluate their past critically, intelligently, thus instilling within them a pride that was often an effective deterrent to defection. It was they who were the leaders in the attempt to dispel misunderstanding in non-Jewish circles about the Jewish way of life. They stressed the importance of secular education for the immigrants, urging them to embrace the teachings of the social and physical sciences and thus emancipate themselves from outmoded concepts. Because Reform was completely dedicated to the findings of the sciences, it shone, with liberal Protestantism, as a beacon of rationality in a Christian world that was still very conservative. Yet in all its turning away from the older traditions it insisted on complete loyalty to Judaism and to the Jewish people. By encouraging coreligionists here to reject what was unacceptable, by aiding them to enter into a new world of critical thought and knowledge, the Reformers brought them intellectual freedom. All this served to strengthen their ties to Judaism. When the Reformers brought their wives down from the latticed and curtained galleries and accorded equality to their daughters in the Sabbath school, they helped emancipate the Jewish woman religiously. Women were gradually admitted as members into the congregations; they began to serve on committees and on occasion even as officers. The process was not a rapid one but progress was perceptible by 1920.

As a rational idealistic faith Reform had no superior during this period; its constant emphasis was on the ethical, the spiritual in the Jewish tradition. It was not difficult for it therefore, by 1920, to begin addressing itself to the evils of contemporary industrialism. The rabbis talked of social justice in the prophetic tradition. Allied to this concept of a better world for the workingman was the dream of a messianic age for all humanity. The Reformers persisted, at least in the pulpit, in preaching the gospel of the Mission of Israel. Denuded of hallowed practices Reform for many had almost ceased to be a folk religion. Whether this departure from traditional rituals was a virtue or a sin was decided in the negative by the Reformers of a later generation. For the present Reform prospered by opting for the universal rather than for the Jewishly national. Reform prospered in the 1920’s when Jews reared in Orthodoxy finally began to find their way into the temples in substantial numbers; they felt that its English service was Americanistic and their greatest ambition was to become exemplary Americans. For these neophytes, as for all adherents of the liberal movement, the Reform way of life was a means of surviving in the modern society that had first begun to accept them after the fall of the Bastille.

No one can doubt that the rabbis were the men who led Reform; they are certainly to be credited with many of its achievements. This emphasis on them tends to obscure the part played by laymen. Every congregation sheltered one or two devoted workers who not only supported the rabbis loyally but assumed leadership. These are the men who took office and not infrequently set and implemented the religious policies of the synagog. In their own way they were dedicated, devout, although their mode of piety, of religious expression, had little in common with the mystical posture so characteristic of Christians. The Christian modes of religious expression were avoided if only because they were Christian.33


Though American Judaism was making notable strides in the first decades of the twentieth century the seminal thinkers and religious leaders in Judaism, with few exceptions, were in Europe. Hermann Cohen, Leo Baeck, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber were all writing in Germany. Among the leaders in Orthodoxy—and they were very numerous—were Isaac Meir Kahan (the Hafetz Hayyim), Isaac Jacob Reines, Hayyim Soloveichik, and Abraham I. Kook. The last lived in Palestine; the others, in Russia. Recognizing the importance of Judaism as the faith of several million American citizens, the United States government granted it equality with Catholicism and Protestantism. This was certainly true in the armed forces.

By the end of the second decade of the new century the three Jewish denominations were clearly differentiated; each went its own way; within each group there were numerous differences and shadings. Over on the left the Reformers, still in the vanguard, were busy with their prayer books, their services, their schools, and their efforts to cultivate good relations with the larger Christian community. The Conservatives, still small in number, were beginning to recruit the acculturated East Europeans and their native-born children. Willing to make their peace with the arts and sciences they gladly accommodated themselves to American culture by neglecting any religious practice which they found unacceptable. Their pragmatic compromises and their devotion to tradition augured a bright future for them. Over to the right stood the Orthodox, a massive block of natives, “Germans,” and East European immigrants, groups that were still loyal to the teachings of the fathers. For the “Russians,” the process of deslavicization had already started. Taking root here they were learning to survive religiously, securely ensconced in the ambit of their ancestral beliefs. One thing all three denominations noticeably had in common: the stubborn insistence that each congregation was totally autonomous. Each was determined to make its own decisions and mistakes, and it did.34


Like their Christian counterparts the Jews also faced the problems of unaffiliation, inadequate religious schools, financial stress. As late as 1920 religion and the synagog were still dominant in the Jewish community but they were already faced with a threat that was ultimately to overpower them, the increasing spirit of secularization. Religion was not the prime interest in the lives of many laymen; many able affluent Jews identified through non-religious institutions; they gave their time, their money, their devotion to the charities, the “Ys,” the hospitals, the orphan asylums, the new community centers. But changes were coming. The universalist Jewish religion of the 1910’s preparing to usher in the Kingdom of God was confronted in the 1920’s by a rising tide of American anti-Semitism. The German torment of the 1930’s dampened humanitarian ardor; Jewish particularism was no longer denounced; by the middle of the century the Reformers began to turn to the right. Adolf Hitler guaranteed the rise of a common American Jewish front; he brought to the fore the strong sense of accord, identity, among Jewish religionists that had always been present in all periods of American history. An acceptance of the same spiritual verities and the pressure of the common American culture made Jews think and act as one. Far more decisive was their conviction that all Jews were kin, that they had to work closely together if they were to cope with the common problems of outer pressures and internal cultural and religious needs. In 1901 Frederick de Sola Mendes, a right-wing Reformer, had written that the American Jewish religion of the future would be a compromise between extreme Orthodoxy and extreme Reform. In 1920 there was as yet no sign of this. Two generations later the impact of the Holocaust on all American Jews would tend to make Mendes a true prophet.35

Additional Information

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

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