A Short History of Orthodox Judaism in America

A history from colonial times to World War II.


Nascent American Orthodox Communities

The earliest communities of Jews who settled in America during the colonial period established Orthodox congregations according to a Dutch Sephardic version of ritual and custom. The synagogues they formed, including Congregation Shearith Israel, New York (1686), Congregation Nephuse Israel, Newport, Rhode Island (1754, changed to Yeshuat Israel in 1764), and Congregation Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia (1771), were responsible for the early institutions of Orthodox Jewish life in America. These congregations founded America’s first mikvahs [ritual baths], kosher slaughtering facilities, Hebrew schools and charities.

Following the arrival of large numbers of Jews from the German states and Central Europe during the first half of the 1800s, most Orthodox synagogues in American reflected Ashkenazi practice. [Ashkenazim are Jews who trace their ancestry to the German lands.] By the middle of the nineteenth century, with the arrival of Rabbis Abraham Rice (1802-1862) and Bernard Illowy (1814-1871), an Orthodox rabbinic leadership emerged. Together with several talented ministers, including Isaac Leeser (1806-1868), Samuel Isaacs (1804-1878) and Morris Raphall (1798-1868), Orthodox clergy led the struggle to protect the integrity of tradition in the face of the growing influence of the Reform movement.

By the early 1880s, most Orthodox congregations were headed by non-ordained ministers. Moreover, the leading Orthodox clergy at the time were Western or American-born, English speaking, and university educated. Among the prominent Orthodox religious leaders was American-born Bernard Drachman (1861-1945), English-born and educated Henry Pereira Mendes (1852-1937), Italian-born Sabato Morais (1823-1897), and American born Herny Schneeburger (1848-1916). The institutions they founded, including the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1886) and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (1898), had a profound influence on the development of Conservative and Modern Orthodox Judaism.

Jewish Immigrants Change American Orthodoxy

Following the czarist-inspired pogroms in the early 1880s, almost one million Jews arrived from Eastern Europe, many of whom were Orthodox. Numerous rabbis and Talmud scholars trained in the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe joined the throngs of immigrants to America. By the turn of the century, hundreds of small mikvahs (ritual baths), kosher butcher shops, and Jewish bookstores dotted the Lower East Side of New York City, soon spreading to Brooklyn and across the Hudson to Newark, New Brunswick, and Trenton, New Jersey [… ]

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.]

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.

Reprinted from the American Jewish Historical Society’s American Jewish Desk Reference: The Ultimate One-Volume Reference to the Jewish Experience in America, published by Random House.

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