Jewish Experience in Antebellum America Part 2

The lack of proper authority which had been plaguing the American Jews for some time became a serious issue in various communities.  In 1846 there was only a handful of Rabbis who had arrived to fill in the gaps of leadership.  Yet it was not enough to truly provide an overall protection and instruction for the community.  So arguments over what is Kosher and what is not, dissatisfaction and outright distrust of the leadership in communities led to dramatic shifts in Jewish thinking.  No longer did Jews want the leadership dictating on every issue.  It had become so bad that in some cases physical altercations would occur over the content of the prayer books.  It was a land of confusion.

The Shearith Israel Synagogue in New York had operated for one hundred years with only a Cantor (prayer chanter).  The Rabbi was not at the centre of the faith as they were in Europe and the Middle East.   When Rabbis finally did arrive these new leaders were not by nature Hassidic or traditional Jews these Rabbis were ones not as attached to the traditional practices.  .  From 1842 to 1846 the three reforming Rabbis arrived in Baltimore, New York and Albany.One Rabbi in particular, Isaac Mayor Wise, would have a role of particular significance.[1] 

The arrival of Rabbi Wise to Albany signaled that Jews eventual assimilation into Protestant Christianity was over.  Wise became a virulent critic of missionary work being done against the Jews.  He spent a great deal of his early days working against these groups and pushing Jews to stand up for their faith.  Rabbi Wise was able to defend his faith using his new country as a reason for Jews to continue to grow rather than retreat.  He effectively used religious freedom to help bring the wavering Jews back to the faith by using Christianity as a historical oppressor rather than something to get comfortable with.[2]

When Wise arrived he had come to a confused land where authority had not been strong and innovations amongst the Jews had led to mild variants between Jews across the country.  Wise would not only bring the ideas of a Jewish apologist, he would also bring the ideas of German Jewish Reformers to the American Jews.   

Amongst historians examining the role of Wise, Leon A. Jick felt that he gave the American Jews a final authority to do what they were already doing reforming Judaism.  For Karla Goldman, Wise and the other Reform Rabbis were critical elements in the changing of the American Synagogue.  As one examines the situation it could be argued that without Wise there was an excellent chance that German Jews might have fallen into the trap of the Portugese Jews who started to slowly assimilate into American Protestantism.  Wise allowed these poor rural people the opportunity to have a leader who could show them a way to keep their Judaism while dealing with the reality of modern American society.[3]

These new Rabbis ended the divergence amongst a portion of the German Jews.  They brought with them the Reform values of urban German Jews and sought to spread these ideals to a wider audience.  They found their voice and slowly over the next thirty years as the Reform movement grew larger.  At the same time a backlash against this reform would bring even more innovation as Conservative and Orthodox groups presented a different and more incremental approach to change.

Once again a new group of American Jews had come to the country with their values and found them changed by the different treatment they received.  The role of the Jews in America because of this is still far reaching today.  The success bread a desire for even more immigrants to travel the ocean and to brave a difficult and sometimes intolerant new land in order to achieve greater acceptance for Jews on the whole.  This innovation would continue over time and allow the American Judaism to blossom in many forms and voices.



[1] Jews in America, 59 – 60.

[2] Jonathan D. Sarna, “American Jewish Response to Nineteeth Century Christian Missions”, Essential Papers on Jewish – Christian Relations in the United States: Imagery and Reality, Naomi W. Cohen ed., (New York: New York University Press, 1990), 24 – 29.

[3] Karla Goldman, “The Path to Reform Judaism: An Examination of Religious Leadership in Cincinnati, 1841-55,” American Jewish History, Volume 90, Number 1, (March 2002), 38-39.


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