Isaac Harby

Isaac Harby petitioned his synagogue for changes in the Shabbat service, introducing a spirit of reform in American Judaism.

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The introduction of reform into American Judaism is usually associated with the arrival of intellectual German-speaking Jews fleeing Europe’s failed republican revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and with German-born rabbis such as David Einhorn of Baltimore and Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati. However, the first stirrings of American reform had native roots in Congregation K. K. Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina.

In December of 1824, forty-seven Charleston Jews led by Isaac Harby petitioned the leaders of Beth Elohim for major changes in the Shabbat service. At that time, Beth Elohim followed the Spanish and Portuguese minhag (customary ritual), which the leadership saw as the service used by observant Jews since the time of the Second Temple. The dissidents asked that each Hebrew prayer in the service be immediately followed by an English translation; that new prayers reflecting contemporary American life be added; that the rabbi offer a weekly sermon–in English–that would explain the Scriptures and apply them to everyday life; and that services be shortened.

Descended from a Sephardic family that had fled Spain for Portugal and then Morocco, London, and Jamaica before moving to Charleston in 1782, Isaac Harby was an unlikely Reformer. Harby’s father Solomon married Rebecca Moses, the daughter of one of South Carolina’s leading Jewish families. Born in 1788, Isaac became a noted teacher, playwright, literary critic, journalist and newspaper editor.

Harby demonstrated little interest in religion in his younger years, but in the early 1820s he became alarmed by organized Protestant efforts to convert American Jews and the emergence of anti-Semitism in politics. Harby wanted his fellow Charleston Jews to defend Judaism from its critics and themselves from proselytizers, but worried that they knew too little about their religion, were ill-tutored in Hebrew or other languages, could not understand the traditional Spanish and Portuguese rituals at Beth Elohim, and were thus defenseless against the Protestant challenge.
The interior of Congregation K. K. Beth Elohim, Charleston, South Carolina.

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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