The Trefa Banquet and the End of a Dream

The serving of tref food at the banquet to celebrate Hebrew Union College's first ordained graduating class led to the formal break between tradition and reform.

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On a hot and humid Cincinnati evening in July 1883, over 200 distinguished guests, Jews and non-Jews alike, gathered at the exclusive Highland House restaurant to celebrate a milestone in the history of American Judaism: Hebrew Union College, which Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise founded, had just ordained its initial graduating class. America had finally produced four homegrown, ordained rabbis. Most of the diners had just attended the eighth annual meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the first association of American Jewish synagogues, which Rabbi Wise had also organized. The graduates and guests looked forward to an evening of gastronomical pleasures. What they witnessed was the beginning of the end of Wise’s dream of American Jewish religious unity.

For the nearly four decades after his arrival in America from his native Bohemia, Isaac Mayer Wise envisioned creating and sustaining a unified American Judaism that balanced European tradition and New World realities. He built the Hebrew Union College to train American rabbis and created the Union of American Hebrew Congregations as a forum for traditional and reform-minded rabbis and congregations to air and resolve their differences.AJHS-logo1

By 1883, the fact that some traditionalists had introduced a degree of modernization such as English sermons and English prayers into their services and the more liberal ones even allowed organ music and mixed choirs of men and women encouraged Wise to hope for convergence. He was aided by his close friend, Reverend Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, a leading traditionalist figure who, like Wise, focused more on uniting American Jewry than on doctrinal differences.

Other rabbinical voices were not so united in vision and purpose. Especially contentious were the so-called Eastern radical reformers, led by Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore. Veterans of the radical reform German rabbinical conferences of the 1850s, the liberals intended to expunge what they deemed outmoded religious practices such as kashruth–derisively called “kitchen Judaism”–and the second day of holiday observances. Some radicals even advocated observing Shabbat on Sunday.

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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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