On April 8, 1730, Jews in New York City dedicated the first building in North America constructed specifically as a synagogue. Like the Spanish Portuguese synagogues in Amsterdam and London which may have served as models for Congregation Shearith Israel’s Mill Street synagogue, the building included women’s seating in a gallery.
A 1744 visitor noted that the women of the congregation, “of whom some were very pritty, stood up in the gallery like a hen coop.” As that comment suggests, non-Jewish visitors to Mill Street did not always approve of the synagogue’s arrangements for female congregants.
While men and women were separated in many colonial Christian churches, they would generally be seated on the same level. Less desirable seats in the rear or gallery were usually reserved for marginal members of the community such as indentured servants, black slaves, or the town poor.
Shearith Israel records from the 18th century suggest how American Jewish women began, even during the colonial era, to redefine their religious identities. Although many European Jewish women of this era attended their community synagogues on Saturday mornings, it would have been rare for unmarried women to be in attendance.
Fighting for Seats
But in New York, unmarried young women (sometimes with the help of their fathers) were fighting for seats in the gallery. In 1760, for instance, Mr. Mears went up into the gallery and forced Miss Josse Hays out of the seat claimed by his daughter. In 1786, Miss Mincke Judah was fined sixpence in civil court for sitting in a seat that had not been assigned to her.
In general, the congregation was concerned about the many unmarried young women seeking seats in the front row of the gallery, as indicated by a 1792 resolution that would have barred any “unmarried lady except Rachel Pinto [who was 70 years old and wealthy]” from a front gallery seat.
The determination to find good seats suggests that these Jewish women understood that, in America, where women were a crucial presence in the churches, their own presence was important in the synagogue. American synagogues began to reflect this changing understanding with a shift in synagogue design. The synagogue dedicated in Newport in 1763 introduced an open women’s gallery, which had the effect of making women seem less marginalized in the synagogue.
When Shearith Israel dedicated a new building on the Mill Street site in 1818, discussion of the women’s gallery arose during the planning. Ultimately, the synagogue’s board determined to build a women’s gallery with an “open work” front as opposed to the “close front gallery” advocated by one member of the board. Since Shearith Israel was still the only synagogue in New York, the decision could not have been made in the interest of winning potential congregants from competing institutions. Instead, the change in architecture probably reflects the influence of American religious norms.
Open galleries like the one in Newport and the 1818 Shearith Israel building became standard in synagogues across America in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Early American advocates of mixed-gender seating introduced family pews into synagogues after 1850.