Tuesday, January 14, 2020

America’s First Synagogue

In 1656, Shearith Israel, the first synagogue was established in the territory that came to be known as the United States. The synagogue, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, was founded in New Amsterdam (today known as New York City) by 23 Jews who immigrated to the New World from Dutch Brazil. Despite, the anti-Semitic governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant’s attempts to bar the Jews from settling in the colony, official permission was granted in 1655. A cemetery society was established in 1656 and the congregation was organized the same year, although securing a building would only come decades later.

Congregation Shearith Israel of New York, purchased a lot on Mill St. in Lower Manhattan, on December 17, 1728, corresponding to the 17th of Tevet, for the purpose of erecting the first synagogue structure in New York. They dedicated the synagogue on April 8, 1730, corresponding to the 21st of Nissan. The Spanish Portuguese Synagogue is the first of six synagogues dedicated during the Colonial period. The others were: Mickve Israel in Savannah, GA (1735); Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC (1749); Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI (1763); Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, PA (1773) and Beth Shalome in Richmond, VA (1789).

Eventually Congregation Shearith Israel was rebuilt and expanded in 1818 and moving from location to location. The congregation first moved to 60 Cosby Street in 1834, to 19th Street in 1860 and finally to West 70th Street (the current location) in 1897.

In the 19th century, before the immigration of thousands of East European Jews at the end of the century, most Jews arriving in the United States came from Germany and were interested in the Reform movement. The Spanish Portuguese synagogue always conducted a traditional service. Shearith Israel’s rabbi, Henry Pereira Mendes, helped found a rabbinic seminary to counterbalance the progressive ways of the Reform Movement. The American Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was founded in 1886 to train traditional rabbis and its classes initially met in Shearith Israel. He was also integral in founding a traditional synagogue umbrella group and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (known as the Orthodox Union, or OU, as an alternative to the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). In 1896 Rabbi Mendes was elected president of JTS. As the U.S. Conservative movement slid further away from tradition, Shearith Israel disassociated from JTS. The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue remains a member of the Orthodox Union.

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