Orthodox Judaism in America

A history from colonial times to World War II.

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These Eastern European immigrants were responsible for developing America's first yeshiva institutions. Until the 1880s, Orthodox children attended public school in the morning and Talmud Torah Hebrew School in the afternoon. In 1886, an elementary yeshiva day school was established on the Lower East Side. In 1897, a higher-level yeshiva for older students was established on the Lower East Side, named for the revered Chief Rabbi of Kovno, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor (1817-1896), who had died the previous year. Several years later, under the direction of Bernard Revel, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Yeshiva established a high school (1916), Yeshiva College (1928), and numerous graduate and professional school programs. Since 1945, the school has been known as Yeshiva University [...]

Ethnic and educational tensions

The growth of Orthodox Jewish life in America brought about division among various communities of Orthodox Jews. American Orthodox Jews were ethnically and culturally diverse. Congregations and religious institutions were formed along lines of national and cultural background. Sephardic, German, Lithuanian, Polish, Hungarian, and Galician congregations were only some of the distinct communities represented in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other cities throughout the United States. They also differed in such matters as the modernization of synagogue services.

Tension between the Western-educated modern Orthodox clergy and the Eastern European yeshiva trained rabbis was aggravated when an assembly of fifty-nine rabbis representing the United States and Canada convened in New York City in July 1902 to establish a rabbinic union known as Agudath ha-Rabbonim (the United Orthodox Rabbis of America, later changed to the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada). The organization emphasized the importance of encouraging Sabbath observance, improving kashruth standards [dietary laws], developing religious education, supporting charitable activity, assuring that marriages and divorces were performed by qualified rabbis, and providing political and financial support for colleagues throughout the country.

However, only rabbis who had been trained in the great yeshivas of Europe and ordained by well-known European Talmud scholars were eligible for membership. The exclusion of English speaking, Western-educated rabbis from membership in the Agudath ha-Rabbonim was part of a growing tension between the modern Orthodox rabbis who had emigrated from Western and Central Europe prior to the 1880s and the Eastern European, Yeshivah-trained rabbis who arrived in America from 1881-1914.

Staying Orthodox: The Next Generation

Orthodoxy in general, and the Eastern European immigrants, in particular, faced the challenge of how to successfully pass on traditional law and custom to the younger generation. By the second decade of the 1900s, a growing community of American-raised, modern-educated Orthodox youth were becoming alienated from the Yiddish-oriented, Orthodox synagogues. Objecting to what they considered to be poor decorum, with the auctioning of Torah honors, and the lack of congregational singing, groups of young people negotiated with established synagogues to permit them to organize their own minyans [smaller prayer services] and lead their own services. [Such a smaller group is often called a minyan after the term for the quorum--traditionally, of ten adult males-- required for some communal prayers.]

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