Orthodox Judaism in America

A history from colonial times to World War II.

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In time, new congregations of young adults, called Young Israel, were established in the Lower East Side and elsewhere throughout New York. These synagogues employed no rabbis or cantors, services included English sermons, congregational singing, and limited pledging, if any, during Torah reading. They also sponsored lectures and social events for young adults, and arranged for kosher dining facilities on college campuses. Most Eastern European rabbis viewed these developments as problematic accommodations to American society.

Rabbinic Tensions between Modern and Traditional

The founding of the Rabbinical Council of America in 1935 aggravated the strain between modern Orthodox clergy and the Eastern European rabbis of the Agudath ha-Rabbonim. Discouraged by their exclusion from the Agudath ha-Rabbonim, and alienated from the attitudes and priorities of the Eastern European-born Lithuanian-educated scholars, graduates of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and some other American yeshivas met in Belmar, New Jersey, on July 2, 1935, to form their own rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America. By the 1960s, the Rabbinical Council became the predominant Orthodox rabbinic body, and an important institution in the politics of American Jewish life.

Differences between Eastern European-trained rabbis and modern Orthodox Eastern European immigrants were also evident in the direction of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (REITS). While the Agudath ha-Rabbonim placed their official support behind the school, there was disagreement about its direction. In 1915 the elementary school, Etz Chaim, merged with the upper-level yeshiva, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan, forming one large institution.

That same year, the yeshiva hired Rabbi Dov (Bernard) Revel as administrative director of REITS. Under Revel's leadership, the school was transformed from a small yeshiva into a large educational institution. Revel established a yeshiva high school in 1916, developed a program of rabbinic ordination, attracted high level rosh yeshivas [heads of learning institutions] to teach Talmud, including the eminent Rabbi Shlomo Polacheck and Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik. In 1928 he established Yeshiva College, a four-year liberal arts school. This alienated some members of the Agudath ha-Rabbonim who were opposed to the formal integration of secular studies at a yeshiva.

Beyond the Lower East Side

REITS was not the only yeshiva producing modern Orthodox graduates. Following World War I, several other yeshivas were established in America, including Torah Vodaath, founded in 1918 as an elementary school to serve the growing community of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. Torah Vodaath, at that time, taught religious subjects in Hebrew and emphasized the importance of modern educational techniques…

Other yeshivas founded in the 1920s included the Hebrew Theological College (1922) in Chicago, supplementing a yeshiva high school that bad been founded two decades earlier. The Hebrew Theological College, like REITS, included secular subjects in its course of study and trained young men for the rabbinate. In New Haven, Rabbi Yehuda Heschel Levenberg and Rabbi Moshe D. Sheinkop formed the New Haven College for Talmud (later called the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary) in 1923, one of the first yeshivas located outside of New York City.

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