A Short History of Orthodox Judaism in America

A history from colonial times to World War II.


The following article is reprinted from the American Jewish Historical Society’s American Jewish Desk Reference: The Ultimate One Volume Reference to the Jewish Experience in America, published by Random House.

Nascent American Orthodox Communities

The earliest communities of Jews who settled in America during the colonial period established Orthodox congregations according to a Dutch Sephardic version of ritual and custom. The synagogues they formed, including Congregation Shearith Israel, New York (1686), Congregation Nephuse Israel, Newport, Rhode Island (1754, changed to Yeshuat Israel in 1764), and Congregation Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia (1771), were responsible for the early institutions of Orthodox Jewish life in America. These congregations founded America’s first mikvahs [ritual baths], kosher slaughtering facilities, Hebrew schools and charities.

orthodoxy in americaFollowing the arrival of large numbers of Jews from the German states and Central Europe during the first half of the 1800s, most Orthodox synagogues in American reflected Ashkenazi practice. [Ashkenazim are Jews who trace their ancestry to the German lands.] By the middle of the nineteenth century, with the arrival of Rabbis Abraham Rice (1802-1862) and Bernard Illowy (1814-1871), an Orthodox rabbinic leadership emerged. Together with several talented ministers, including Isaac Leeser (1806-1868), Samuel Isaacs (1804-1878) and Morris Raphall (1798-1868), Orthodox clergy led the struggle to protect the integrity of tradition in the face of the growing influence of the Reform movement.

By the early 1880s, most Orthodox congregations were headed by non-ordained ministers. Moreover, the leading Orthodox clergy at the time were Western or American-born, English speaking, and university educated. Among the prominent Orthodox religious leaders was American-born Bernard Drachman (1861-1945), English-born and educated Henry Pereira Mendes (1852-1937), Italian-born Sabato Morais (1823-1897), and American born Herny Schneeburger (1848-1916). The institutions they founded, including the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1886) and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (1898), had a profound influence on the development of Conservative and Modern Orthodox Judaism.

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Moshe D. Sherman is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Touro College.

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