Congregation Shearith Israel
Founding and synagogue buildings
The first group of Spanish and Portuguese Jews arrived in New York (New Amsterdam) in September 1654. After being initially rebuffed by anti-Semitic Governor Peter Stuyvesant, Jews were given official permission to settle in the colony in 1655. This marks the founding of the Congregation Shearith Israel. Despite their permission to stay in New Amsterdam they continued to face discrimination and were not given permission to worship in a public synagogue for some time (throughout the Dutch period and even into the British). The Congregation did, however, make arrangements for a cemetery beginning in 1656. It was not until 1730 that the Congregation was able to build a synagogue of its own; it was built on Mill Street in lower Manhattan. Before 1730, as is evidenced from a map of New York from 1695, the congregation worshipped in rented quarters on Beaver Street and subsequently on Mill Street. Since 1730 the Congregation has worshipped in five synagogues:
- Mill Street, 1730
- Mill Street re-built and expanded, 1818
- Crosby Street, 1834
- 19th Street, 1860
- West 70th Street, 1897 (present building.)
Birthing of major Jewish institutions
As the American Reform Judaism made headway and changes on the synagogue scene in the late 19th century, many rabbis critical of the Reform movement looked for ways to strengthen traditional synagogues. Shearith Israel, and its rabbi, Henry Pereira Mendes, was at the fore of these efforts. Rabbi Mendes cofounded the American Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in 1886, in order to train traditional rabbis. Shearith Israel was the first home to the school. In JTS's earliest days, it taught and researched rabbinics similarly to traditional yeshivas, in contrast to the Reform Hebrew Union College. It is not certain whether at the time JTS hewed very closely to existing yeshiva-style, but significant deviations would be out of character with Shearith Israel and Rabbi Mendes.
Twelve years later, in 1896, Mendes was acting president of JTS, and promoted the formation of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (commonly known as the OU), a synagogue umbrella group that provided an alternative to the Reform movement's Union of Hebrew Congregations of America.
As JTS grew, it needed better financing and a full-time head. The seminary moved to its own building, and Mendes was replaced by Solomon Schechter. However, Schechter developed a less traditional ideology, which became the basis for Conservative Judaism (also known as Masorti). The split was not great initially, and there was a great deal of cooperation in the Orthodox and Conservative camps but, over time, the divide became clearer, and Schechter formed the United Synagogue of America (now the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, or USCJ) to promote synagogue affiliation with his conservative-but-unorthodox ideology. Shearith Israel stayed in the Orthodox camp, eventually repudiating its association with its offspring, JTS.
In a sense, then, Shearith Israel was the birthplace of three of the largest and most significant Jewish religious organizations in America: JTS, the OU, and USCJ. Shearith Israel remains a member of one of the three: the Orthodox Union.
- Gershom Mendes Seixas: The Hazzan of the Congregation and an ardent American patriot who moved the Congregation to Philadelphia during the American Revolutionary War.
- Jacques Judah Lyons
- Henry Pereira Mendes
- David de Sola Pool
- Louis B. Gerstein
- Marc D. Angel
- Hayyim Angel
- Meir Soloveichik
Some prominent members of the Congregation have been:
- First Shearith Israel Graveyard
- Jewish history in Colonial America
- Touro Synagogue (Newport, Rhode Island), the oldest synagogue building in the U.S. is owned by Congregation Shearith Israel
- Oldest synagogues in the United States
- Brockmann, Jorg et al. (2002). One Thousand New York Buildings, pp. 342–343., p. 342, at Google Books
- Congregation Shearith Israel, Building Report, International Survey of Jewish Monuments. Retrieved April 3, 2007.
- "The Orthodox Union Story, chs. 5–6". Ou.org. Retrieved October 15, 2011.
- From the Beginning...[dead link]
- Brockmann, Jorg and Bill Harris. (2002). One Thousand New York Buildings. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal. 10-ISBN 157912237X/13-ISBN 9781579122379; OCLC 48619292
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