A History of Torah Judaism in America

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Introduction to A History of Torah Judaism in America

When I was in college, American Jewish History did not exist. In 1957, I won a Yeshiva College undergraduate essay contest on Jewish history with the topic of the 1924 rabbinic delegation to the White House. However, the judges debated whether to award me the $50 prize (no small amount at that time), because American Jewish history was not a subject of academic study. Jews came to America, assimilated and disappeared. What is left to say? A prime example is the great tennis player Vic Seixas. In the 1940s, he was a household name. A Christian from birth, this one-time American sports hero was a direct descendant of the first American rabbi, R. Gershom Mendes Seixas of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue.

Thankfully, the judges agreed to award me the prize and American Jewish history is today a vibrant field of study. Historians now recognize that the American Jewish story is complex. My lectures at Yeshiva University’s Gruss Kollel are primarily on responsa literature (shas and poskim) but I also teach a class on Jewish thought and history. This series of essays originated in a series of Jewish history lectures in 2012-2013, in which I explored the history of Torah in the United States, focusing on key figures (when I refer to America here, I mean the US). This first essay is an introduction, an overview to establish the historical framework.

I. Immigration Trends

The first Jews came to America in 1654 and settled in the Dutch colony now known as New York. While the governor, Peter Stuyvesant, was anti-semitic, among the owners of the Dutch enterprise that sent the boats to America were wealthy marranos, descendants of converts from Judaism, who insisted that Stuyvesant allow in Jews. By the 1820s, there were 4,000 Jews in America; by the Civil War, 150,000; by 1900, one million; and by World War I, three and a half million Jews resided in the United States.

The first Jews to come were Sephardim who were worldly and sophisticated. In order to make the trip from Europe, you had to know that there was a world beyond your provincial surroundings; you had to be educated and worldly; you had to know languages and business. After the Enlightenment, which began spreading in the eighteenth century, Ashkenazic Jews were slowly exposed to the general world. In the world before computers, ideas took decades to travel. First Germans and then Hungarians gained exposure and immigrated to America. However, very few East Europeans made the long journey because the Enlightenment had not yet reached them.

The Civil War changed this formula. East European Jews were puzzled by the entire war. How could brother kill brother over slaves? They heard about this from Jews in Central Europe and did not understand it. This surprising development drove East European Jews to discuss the news extensively–they anxiously anticipated new developments and dissected them, which in turn made America seem more real. This was the exposure that previously only Enlightenment had brought. After the Civil War, East European Jews began moving to America in large numbers. In the 1870s, tens of thousands of Jews moved to America. In the 1880s, twenties of thousands. In the 1890s, over one hundred thousand until in 1900 there were one million Jews in America, the overwhelming majority of them East European. While there were certainly external pressures–pogroms–that drove Jews out of Eastern Europe, the spectacle of the Civil War made America a viable destination.

II. First Wave of Jews

Originally, all of the Jewish immigrants–Sephardim–were religious. They outwardly followed the basic religious laws, such as Shabbat, kashrut, milah, etc. But “America” happened to these Jews. Let me explain, informed by The Rise of the Jewish Community in New York 1654-1860, an important book by one of my Yeshiva University professors, Hyman B. Grinstein. He wrote it based on the extensive minutes of the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in New York, Shearith Israel, the oldest functioning synagogue in America. It has remarkably retained its archives for centuries, unique among American synagogues and Jewish organizations.

Prof. Grynstein quotes a Swedish traveler from the mid-eighteenth century who wrote about New York Jews, “they commonly eat no pork yet I have been told by several men of credit that many of them, especially among the young Jews, when traveling did not make the least difficulty about eating this or any other meat put before them.” Here we have testimony by an impartial observer that young Jews at that time kept kosher at home but not while traveling. The synagogue records from that time show that any member who broke “the rules of the Torah” was expelled from membership, refused honors and denied burial in the synagogue’s cemetery. Clearly, the community leadership cared about mitzvah observance. Open religious disobedience was harshly punished.

Years later, in 1786, the situation had changed. Records tell us that one member insulted the leadership and made fun of Tisha B’Av, for which he was fined. He was not expelled. Note the issue of Tisha B’Av, mourning for Jerusalem, which presumably conflicted with American patriotism. Jews were Americanized, less observant and less devoted to Jewish tradition.

By 1809, the situation had deteriorated further. There were no yeshivas. Jews were Americanized and had developed a Catholic-like attitude. According to synagogue records, a teacher was called to account for eating in a non-kosher home. Notice that the home owner was not punished, just the teacher. Similarly, a shochet was investigated after being accused of failing to put on tefillin. The community felt that laymen need not observe Torah scrupulously but religious leaders must be observant.

There was a total breakdown of religious observance. This was America; you could do whatever you wanted. The German Jews brought Reform with them and no one had the right to protest. They could be as extreme as they wanted and there were no great rabbis to object. Religiously, America was a spiritual wasteland for Jews. However, the feeling of Jewish kinship did not disappear. There was still a sense of belonging to the Jewish people.

III. Troubling Events

Three events of the mid-nineteenth century had tremendous impact on Jewish history that we still feel to this day. The 1840 Damascus Blood Libel followed the typical pattern. Monks accused Jews of killing Christians to use their blood for baking matzah, which is absolutely false. Thirteen prominent Jews were arrested and tortured; only nine survived. Jews around the world cried out. Meetings were held in major American cities. For the first time, American Jews spoke out together. Interestingly, Shearith Israel refused to hold a meeting, arguing that Jews should lobby behind the scenes. This is a debate that recurred in the 1930s regarding the Holocaust and in the 1980s about protesting on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Should we protest publicly or apply pressure behind the scenes? Either way, the Damascus Blood Libel was a wake-up call to American Jewry about the need to organize.

In 1850, the United States officially recognized the Swiss confederacy of cantons. However, Basel–the biggest canton–openly discriminated against Jews. Jews were denied certain rights and were not allowed to hold public office. American Jews protested, placing a lot of pressure on the government. President Lincoln appointed a Sephardic Jew as the American consul in Basel. By the 1870s, the issue was resolved and the Jews were given full rights in Basel.

But in 1858, an earth-shattering occurrence changed everything. An Italian boy named Edgar Mortaro grew deathly ill and his governess baptized him and prayed for him. She told her priest and the story rose all the way to the pope, who declared the boy Christian. On June 23rd, 1858, a group of papal guards burst into the Mortaro home and took six-year old Edgar away from his parents to be raised in the Catholic faith. The outcry was universal. The great Moses Montefiore traveled to Rome and met with the pope, to no avail. Edgar went on to become a priest, maybe even higher in the church hierarchy. It is reported that, years later, the next pope met Mortaro and said, “We paid a heavy price for you.” As a result of this episode, the church lost a great deal of prestige and power.

American Jews were enraged over this kidnapping. Shearith Israel became one of the focal points of the protest and outcry but American Jews felt impotent due to disorganization. In France, Jews had the Alliance; in Britain, Jews had the Board of Deputies. Both bodies continue to function today as representatives of Jewish citizens. In 1859, American Jews formed a similar body, called the Board of Delegates, uniting all Jewish congregations and speaking on behalf of all American Jews. The Board of Delegates was a forerunner of the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress. For the first time, Jews were united. It ceased functioning in the late 1870s because Reform synagogues shifted their representation to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

IV. Success and Failure

The Civil War brought tremendous prosperity to the German Jews (called Yahudim). They were, by then, the majority of Jews and successful businesspeople. The largest department stores were founded by German Jews. They also made significant profit by illegally trading across Civil War lines.

R. Bernard Revel once explained why until the 1920’s and 30’s, Jews found no religious success in America. The German wave focused on chesed, following in the footsteps of Avraham Avinu. When German Jews came to America, they built hospitals and other chesed organizations. The Polish wave focused on prayer, following Yitzchak’s example and building shtiblach. But the Litvish wave focused on yeshivas, adopting Ya’akov’s paradigm, and–like Ya’akov–succeeded in building a nation. Only through Torah study can you perpetuate a legacy across generations. In the 1890’s, the first yeshiva day school began. This trickled over many decades into a vibrant yeshiva network, including Yeshiva University and many other advanced yeshivot.

However, this recipe for success was not obvious at the time. Americans looked at English Jews and asked why they are so much more observant, why there is little Reform in England. They concluded that it is because England has a chief rabbi. In July 1888, R. Yaakov Yosef’s (R. Jacob Joseph) boat arrived on Shabbat–he did not get off until after Shabbat ended. Dozens of carriages came from the East Side with torches–it was night–in order to welcome the first major talmid chacham to arrive in the United States. He came in answer to an invitation to become the Chief Rabbi of New York. The Jews of the Lower East Side had a dream, a vision, but it turned into a nightmare.

We will later examine this episode in great depth. At his funeral in 1902, there were tremendous riots. As his coffin approached the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn, Italian and Irish workers threw metal at the 90,000 Jews walking with the procession. They began fighting and the police maliciously arrested the Jews, the victims. There was later an investigation and politicians got involved–there were hundreds of thousands of Jewish voters. As a result of this investigation, the Police Commissioner resigned and the police force cleaned itself up. In fact, during the course of the investigation, a police official said that 50% of the criminals consisted of immigrants, who were only 25% of the population. However, records reveal that in 1908, 175,000 people were arrested and only 12,000 were Russian (Russian being a codeword for Jew), many of them arrested for pushcart violations. The police apologized and changed their attitude. This was the last major anti-semitic incident of the New York Police Department in the over 100 years since.

V. Organizing

American Jewry came of age with World War 1. Many were assimilated, few were Shomer Shabbat but the basic commitment to the Jewish people remained strong. The flame was not extinguished. Unbelievable sums of money were raised to help the Jews suffering on the battlefield of World War 1. The Germans fought the Russians in Poland and Russia, and the Jew always seemed to be in between.

American Jews were touched to their very core. In October 1914, Orthodox Jews–including millionaires like Harry Fischel–founded the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering Through the War to assist victims of World War 1. One month later, the American Jewish Relief Committee formed. A year later, the People’s Relief Committee, a communist or socialist organization, formed. All these groups united under the JDC, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (or “the Joint”), which continues to operate today. There are famous pictures in which you see Jews from across the religious and social spectrum sitting together and raising dozens of millions of dollars for overseas relief.

After the Yom Kippur War, Israeli yeshivot were in dire financial circumstances because philanthropic funds were diverted to the State. Rav Joseph Soloveitchik (“the Rav”) went with Rav Moshe Feinstein and others to request the JDC’s assistance for Israeli yeshivot. The Rav began his speech by saying that he long owed the Joint a thanks which was finally able to deliver. When he was a child in a small Russian town during World War 1, he once arrived in school and found the other children dancing and singing, “Thank you, Mr. Joint.” He learned that the Joint had distributed cocoa to the town, which was an unbelievable treat. The Rav said that he owed the Joint profound thanks for that joy. R. Israel Klavan, President of the RCA, said that the head of the Joint then took out a piece of paper and said, “Rabbi Soloveitchik, what is your request? Whatever you want, we will do our best.” (See my book The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, vol. 1 p. 263.)

With World War 1, American Jewry accepted on itself responsibility as leaders of world Jewry. Europe is impoverished; Palestine is struggling; America became the leader. Additionally, American Zionism blossomed. Before that war, people were content with the status quo despite the problems. The land of Israel was undeveloped and disease ridden. Who wanted to leave a comfortable exile for a tough agricultural life? Before World War 1, the budget for the entire American Zionist movement was $12,000. One year into the war, the budget approached $400,000. American Jews realized that we need a homeland; we need to be able to defend ourselves; we cannot rely on others.

VI. Beginnings of Leadership

After World War I, all eyes turned to America. The European yeshivot were struggling and sent a delegation of three Torah giants to America to collect money–R. Avraham Dovber Kahane, the Kovner Rav; R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine; and R. Moshe Mordechai Epstein, head of the Slobodka yeshiva. They stayed for a year with a goal of raising a million dollars. I believe they only raised almost $400,000, still an astronomical sum. There was no other place to go for this kind of fundraising.

Jews also achieved great political influence in the United States. Herbert S. Lehman, a Reform Jew of German descent, became Senator and then Governor of New York. There has long been at least one Jewish Supreme Court Justice–Cardozo, Frankfurter, Brandeis, Goldberg, to name just a few.

We have many smart and successful Jews but they all missed Hitler. Cyrus Adler, a German immigrant who served as Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and in other communal leadership positions, published his memoirs in 1940, titled I Have Considered The Days. He doesn’t even mention Hitler. No one foresaw his terrible plan. Reform rabbis, Zionist leaders, even Agudath Israel refused to publicly protest even while tens of thousands of Jews were killed every day. Agudath Israel was totally opposed to the demonstrations against Hitler. The Rav said a number of times in public that we need to add an “Al Chet” to the Yom Kippur liturgy for failing to protest sufficiently while Jews were being slaughtered in Europe. This failure and its hard lesson might be why the Jewish community rose in such unity in support of Russian Jewry’s plight.

VII. American Judaism

When the German and Bavarian Jews came to America in the 1820’s, they brought with them classical Reform Judaism. The spirit of Reform matched that of the Wild West–complete freedom, do whatever you want. Reform in America at that time was extreme and American. In the nineteenth century, American Judaism was Reform Judaism.

In the twentieth century, millions of East European Jews arrived in America. Even if they weren’t traditionally religious, the synagogues they knew were Orthodox. Their children–the second generation of East European Jews in America–could not become Reform; they grew up in a shtieble speaking Yiddish. But they wanted a more Americanized synagogue experience, where they could sit next to their wives, the rabbi spoke English and the congregation sat in decorum. They did not want a synagogue with a spittoon, as was common in Orthodox synagogues. This led them to the Conservative movement, where Shabbat and kashrut were followed, at least in name. It was an Americanized version of Judaism that merged popular American values with a taste of Jewish ethnicity.

Following World War 2, Conservative was triumphant. Huge numbers of graduates of Yeshiva University, Torah Vodaas and Chaim Berlin went to the Conservative movement. People really believed that Orthodoxy had no future. R. David De Sola Pool, an Orthodox leader, wrote an article in which he predicted that the only synagogues that would retain a mechitzah separating the men and women would be those of the Spanish-Portuguese tradition, like his own. In the mid-twentieth century, American Judaism was Conservative Judaism.

Beginning in the late 1930’s and growing after World War 2, Gedolei Torah–great Torah scholars, men of immense learning and spiritual stature–came to America for the first time out of necessity rather than choice. Before that, those who came consciously decided to risk their children’s Jewish observance. Those who came by compulsion adamantly clung to their old ways and insisted, as the prior Lubavitcher Rebbe said, on changing America to be like the “old home” in Europe. With that determination, the newcomers changed the Jewish world. The Torah giants who arrived at the time made huge impacts on the Jewish community. They created communities and chasidic courts, established yeshivot, taught Torah and influenced the youth. Today, American Judaism is Orthodox Judaism.

VIII. Conclusion

When you look at American Jewish history, you can be very cynical. There was enormous assimilation. When I grew up, they said there were six million Jews in the United States. Now, seventy years later, they say there are over five million. And if we look for halachic Jews, there are probably no more than three and a half million, while there should be twenty five million. I sympathize with those professors who did not want to award me the prize.

But from another perspective, American Jewish history was an unbelievable success. Jews came to this country and there were no rabbis or yeshivot, no communal structure to welcome them, which they could join. It is true that the original Sephardic Jews all but disappeared and Vic Seixas is a perfect example. However, we now see the developing attitudes. From the gradually assimilating early community, to the developments surrounding the Civil War that changed Jewish attitudes, to the attempt to hire a Chief Rabbi, to the awakening due to World War 1, to the blossoming of Zionism in America and then to the influx of Gedolei Torah due to World War 2 and their transformative impact. The history is long but vibrant and varied.

This essay was adapted from the audio by R. Gil Student and reviewed by Rav Rakeffet.

About Aharon Rakeffet-Rothkoff

Rabbi Dr. Aharon Rakeffet-Rothkoff is a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University's Gruss Institute in Jerusalem. He has published a number of books, mostly recently his scholarly memoirs, From Washington Avenue to Washington Street. This series of essays are adapted from R. Rakeffet's 2012-2013 lectures on the subject.

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