On November 25, 1825, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of New York City was chartered under the laws of New York State as the first Jewish synagogue in America using the Ashkenazic (German) ritual. An offshoot of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation Shearith Israel, it is the second oldest Jewish congregation in New York, and the seventh oldest in the United States.
New York City was still in its swaddling clothes when the congregation, now celebrating its 110th anniversary, was organized. The city was a thriving metropolis of some 150,000 persons, of whom approximately 1,000 were Jews. What is now Fourteenth street represented the most northern part of the city. John Quincy Adams, seventh President of the United States, had recently taken office and De Witt Clinton was the Governor of the State. It was the year of the opening of the Erie Canal.
HAS COLORFUL RECORD
B’nai Jeshurun traces it past back to the early annals of American Jewish history. Few synagogues â€” Shearith Israel in New York, the Touro Synagogue in Newport and Mikweh Israel in Philadelphia being the possible exceptionsâ€”have a more picturesque background. And it is this historic past that B’nai Jeshurun is celebrating with its anniversary week festivities that begin Sunday afternoon with a pageant and Chanukuah entertainment given by the Sunday school and which ends two weeks later with a banquet in the grand ballroom of the Community Center.
Like so many other early synagogues here, B’nai Jeshurun was founded as the result of a split with an earlier temple based on ritual differences. The first German, Dutch and English Jews, when they came to New York, joined the Sephardic Shearith Israel. But they never could get used to the ritual of the congregation and so when their number grew, the establishment of B’nai Jeshurun was an obvious outgrowth.
Among the founders of the synagogue, now led by Rabbi Israel Goldstein and President Charles W. Endel, were John I. Hart, its first president; Benjamin Morange, Daniel Jackson and Abraham Mitchell.
DIRECTED FROM LONDON
Although B’nai Jeshurun was chartered in 1825, its first synagogue was not dedicated until two years later. It was located on Elm street and there it remained until 1849, the year of the California Gold Rush, when a new and larger house of worship was dedicated on Greene street. B’nai Jeshurun’s synagogues were located successively from then on at West Thirty-fourth street, Madison avenue and Sixty-fifth street and at West End avenue and Eighty-eighth street, its present home. The present edifice, representing a unique style of Semitic architecture and Coptic design, was dedicated in 1918. A six-story community center was formally opened backing the synagogue on Eighty-ninth street in 1929.
When the synagogue was founded, it had no resident rabbi, and operated under the direction of Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell of London. A layman acted as leader of the congregation and all important differences were referred to the Chief Rabbi.
In 1844, another ritual difference split the congregation. The result was Shaarey Tefila Congregation, now known as the West End Synagogue, a leading Reform temple. Today B’nai Jeshurun is, perhaps, the outstanding Conservative congregation in America.
The first rabbi of the congregation was Dr. Morris J. Raphall, who came to this country from England and with an international reputation as a scholar and orator. Dr. Raphall came to be known as the foremost defender of modern orthodoxy against the inroads of the Reform movement. He served the congregation from 1849 to 1868 and had the honor of being the first Jewish minister to open a session of Congress with a prayer.
Dr. Henry S. Jacobs occupied the B’nai Jeshurun pulpit from 1876 until his death in 1893. Under Dr. Isaacs, the congregation took an active part in the establishment of the Jewish Theological Seminary. After his death the youthful Stephen S. Wise served the congregation from 1893 to 1900.
Succeeding Dr. Wise was the orthodox Rev. Professor Joseph Mayer Asher from 1900 to 1907, Rabbi Benjamin Tintner next occupied the pulpit briefly until Dr. Judath L. Magnes, now chancellor of the Hebrew University, came to B’nai Jeshurun also for a brief period.
HAS CONSERVATIVE RITUAL
Rabbi Joe Blau followed Dr. Magnes and served until 1918 when the present spiritual leader of the congregation, Dr. Goldstein, came to it. Under his leadership, the congregation has prospered and has adopted a Conservative ritual followed by many congregations in America.
Today, as the congregation prepares to celebrate its 110th anniversary, Dr. Goldstein has received a message of felicitation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which reads in part as follows:
“Since the beginning, the Congregation B’nai Jeshurun has played a vital and important part in the development of Jewish life in New York. It has been instrumental in the establishment of numerous benevolent organizations, schools, hospitals and homes.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.