Modern Orthodoxy Builds a Cathedral

In 1887, Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun (KAJ) of New York City opened the doors of its monumental new synagogue on Eldridge Street, on New York's Lower East Side.

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This towering structure of Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun was adorned with elaborately carved woodwork, glistening brass fixtures and luminous stained glass windows. Artists stenciled its vaulted ceilings, painted its walls with trompe l’oeil murals and elaborately carved its ark. For grandeur, architectural critics argued, only the great Reform synagogues–Temple Emanu-el on Fifth Avenue, and Central Synagogue, an elaborate Moorish structure on Lexington Avenue–could compare.

Between 1880 and 1920, the Jewish population of the United States increased tenfold to 2 million people. Much of that growth occurred on the Lower East Side. Our image of the newcomers, indelibly engraved by Emma Lazarus, is of “poor, huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” Indeed, many new immigrants were impoverished and unskilled. However, the life they built on the Lower East Side–and especially the grand Eldridge Street Synagogue–indicates that the Jews of the Lower East Side were a more accomplished group than many may have imaged.

The comparison between KAJ and the uptown Reform “cathedrals” tells us much about how late 19th-century Orthodoxy responded to American culture. Founded under the name Congregation Beth Hamedresh (House of Study) in 1853, KAJ suffered through a number of controversies and schisms. In 1856, Congregation Beth Hamedresh purchased the Welsh Chapel on Allen Street and converted it into a synagogue. Three years later, the congregation argued over whether Rabbi Abraham Joseph Ash or the lay president, Mr. Rothstein, deserved credit for acquiring the building. When the Rabbi Ash’s adherents seceded, President Rothstein and his followers remained in the Allen Street building. They kept the name Beth Hamedresh until 1890, when they took the new name Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun. The congregation viewed itself as Americanized, that is, democratically controlled by its lay leaders and not its rabbinate.
Eldridge street synagogue

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