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Shearith Israel, Oldest Synagogue Here, Rich with Hoary Memories

For years as a child the writer cherished an illusion that the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York was a dreadful place, mysteriously haunted by the dark-skinned members of the Latin race who spoke and prayed and thought exclusively in Spanish.

Today’s impressive structure on Central Park West and 70th Street does not quite coincide with the vision every Jewish child holds of the “Spanish Synagogue”, but an old print of the Mill Street Synagogue, where nearly three centuries ago Shearith Israel had its origin, is perhaps a closer approximation.

The ancestor of this modern house of worship is not unlike the tiny old Dutch Church on Kings Highway, Brooklyn. It was thirty-five feet long, built of stones and pine boards, and was surrounded with trees and a wooden fence. Adjoining was a statutory mikveh (ritual bath), used by the congregation and their families. Inside were rough-hewn pews built of wood, a women’s gallery, tabernacle, reading desk and pulpit, candelabra and an omer board (in use to this day) which marks the passing of days between Passover and the Feast of Weeks.

IMPREGNATED IN HISTORY

The old synagogue, situated between Princes and Mill, Broad and Smith Streets, conducted its Sephardic ritual in Hebrew and was strictly orthodox, a custom followed up to the present time. The original members of the congregation spoke in Portuguese vernacular but this was soon displaced by English. Whatever remains of its original identification with the Spanish Sephardim lies in the pronunciation of Hebrew and the strict orthodoxy observed in the Synagogue services.

Historic tradition permeates the very halls of the modern synagogue. The Library of the building is a veritable museum. On its walls hang reproductions of photographs of early rabbis and members of the congregation.

There are portraits of Gershom Mendes. Seixas, who served from 1766 to 1816 and who became world famous as the “rabbi of the Revolution”; of four “sons of the congregation” who lost their lives during the World War and in whose memory there are four yortzeit lamps always burning in the synagogue proper.

Peculiarly arranged is the large room of worship in Shearith Israel. The pews are placed along the sides of the Reading Desk, the “Shulchan, Banco and Hechal” where in 1744 Alexander Hamilton, of Annapolis, visited. The Desk caries twelve golden candlesticks, transformed into silver gilt. The Holy Ark is raised above stairs built of Numidian marble imported from Italy, and is reported to be priceless. The columns are constructed of Sienna marble, while the Ark itself is covered with rosewood. The Nertamid, or perpetual lamp, is of pure sterling and is forever burning. In the rear of the room are plaques commemorating Shearith’s ancient rabbinical leaders and presidents. Another plaque bears the following data: (names which are listed enumerate consecutive rabbis of the Synagogue) Saul Moreno, 1655-1682; Abraham Haim de Lucena, 1682-1720; Benjamin Wolf, 1720-1726; Moses Lopez de Franseca, 1726-1734; David Mendes Machado, 1734-1753; Benjamin Pereira Mendes, 1753-1759; Joseph Jessurun Pinto, 1759-1766; Gershom Mendes Seixas, 1766-1816; Jacob Raphael Cohen (acting rabbi) and Emmanuel Numez Carvalho (acting rabbi); Moses Levi Maduro Peixotto, 1816-1828; Isaac Benjamin Mendes, 1828-1839; J. J. Lyons, 1839-1877; Henry Pereira Mendes, 1877-1927; David de Sola Pool, 1927-present.

Prayers, ceremonials, chants, memorials as well as a living memory of the long-dead who once met in council to devise ways and means of establishing a schul, the first in North America, for the early Jews who settled in Manhattan, lend Shearith Israel dignity and solemnity that are absent from other similarly great institutions. And its rabbi, the Rev. Dr. David de Sola Pool, who is successor to the Rev. Dr. Henry Pereira Mendes, retired, who was for half a century Shearith Israel’s distinguished leader, is himself the scion of a long line of de Sola rabbis, scholars, physicians, martyrs and statesmen.

When and where was Shearith Israel born? Who were its founders? What is its history?

To meet these questions it was necessary to turn the leaves of a few communications from the past, books which cooly directed attention to absorbing information, among them a history of the Jews in New York City by Oppenheim, Stokes’ Iconography, which contains some fine prints, and an anniversary booklet written by Dr. Pool in 1930.

The Synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation Shearith Israel in the City New York, Central Park West and 70th Street, was completed May 19, 1897. Its predecessors were the Mill Street Synagogue, a frame building rented in 16#2; the Mill Street Building, erecte# in 1730 and rebuilt in 1818; the C###sby Street Building, erected in 18#4; the 19th Street Building, erected near Fifth Avenue, in 1860, and the present edifice. Moses Gomez headed the congregation in 1730. Moses Lopez de Fonseca was rabbi. Joseph Jessurun Pinto officiated as rabbi between 1759 and 1766. In 1758 members who violated dietary laws or laws regulating conduct on the Sabbath were expelled.

In 1729 the expenses of the Congregation aggregated approximately four hundred dollars. Twenty-seven years later the expenses were more than trebled and the rental and purchase of pews was initiated as a system in this first synagogue.

REFUGEES FROM BRAZIL

Of considerable interest are the facts of the acquisition and purchase of the original Mill Street Synagogue (1730-1817). The twenty-three Sephardic Jews, fleeing the Inquisition of Portuguese Brazil in September, 1654, landed in a not-too-cordial America where the Calvinists were busy enforcing their rigid doctrines of faith.

“For as we have here Papists. Mennonites and Lutherans among the Dutch,” wrote one of the pious, “also many Puritans or Independents and many Atheists and various other servants of Baal among the English under this government, who conceal themselves under the name of Christians: it would create a still greater confusion if the obstinate and immovable Jews settle here.”

But the obstinate and immovable Jews came to settle, squatted in New Netherland, braved the thoroughly intolerant Stuyvesant and succeeded within a few years in provoking the comment from a correspondent to the effect that “even the Jews have made request for the Honorable governor and have also attempted…to erect a synagogue for the exercise of their blasphemous religion.”

Apparently the request was abruptly refused but a concession was made granting permission “to exercise in all quietness their religion within their houses.”

As fate as 1685 when English power had already wrested the city from the Dutch, a petition to the Common Council submitted by Jewish citizenry received the following response; “Noe publique Worship is Tolerated by act of assembly, but to those who professe faith in Christ, and therefore the Jews Worship is not to be allowed.”

In the opening year of the 18th Century a dwelling was described in a real estate transaction as being bounded on the “east by the house and ground of John Harperding, now commonly known by the name of the Jews’ Synagogue.” What is today 22-24 South William Street, two-hundred and five years ago was a frame building belonging to John Harpendingh. Within were held religious services by the earliest Jewish congregation of North America. Leading personalities of the neighborhood including Lewis Moses Gomez, Jacob Franks, Rodrigo Pacheco, Abraham Isaacs and Moses Michalls, were working on the idea of establishing a house of prayer for local Jewry.

On October 28, 1728, a public meeting attended by members of the small congregation subscribed money for the necessary purchase of land “for the building of a Sinagoga and for a Burying place which was then Efected.” Appeals for money sent abroad won support to the extent of hundreds of dollars. An announcement on the 3rd of September, 1729, read;

“It is hereby made known to you all that the foundation stones are now for sale, with the exception of the first stone, which is to remain unsold for the present, awaiting the decision of Mr. Abraham de Mucata of London to whom it has been offered.”

Early returns from the sale: No. 1—First stone, Mosseh Br Michaell…£4.4

No. 2—Second stone, Binjamin mendez Pacheco…7

No. 3—Third stone, Mosseh Gomez sons and Grandsone…6

No. 4—Fourth stone, Jahacob Bar Naphtaly Francks…5.12

£22.16

Gifts came from Curacao, London, and elsewhere. They flowed into the hands of the little congregation, putting it on a solid financial foundation. When in 1773 a hurricane devastated the community of St. Eustatius, Sherith Israel in New York contributed about $250 toward the rebuilding of its synagogue.

Development of the house of worship has since been quiet and sure. Shearith Israel lays claim to the distinction of having adhered strictly to the faith of its fathers for almost three centuries, years which witnessed the rise and fall of republics, empires, kingdoms. This is no small achievement.

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