Board of Delegates of American Israelites

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BOARD OF DELEGATES OF AMERICAN ISRAELITES , organization representing the first successful attempt at organizing American Jewry in furtherance of the civil and political rights of Jews, at home and abroad. The experiment lasted 20 years, after which it was merged into the *Union of American Hebrew Congregations (then the Seminary Association of America) as the Board of Delegates of Civil and Religious Rights. It was finally dissolved 66 years after its creation.

The Board of Delegates was officially formed on in 1859 as a Jewish civil rights organization headquartered in New York City. Its establishment was partly in response to the 1858 case of Edgardo *Mortara, an Italian Jewish boy who had been kidnapped by papal authorities after his family's maid had forcibly converted him; the Vatican would not return a baptized Catholic to his non-Catholic parents. Among its founders were New York City businessman Henry Hart, financier Isaac Seligman, and philanthropist Samuel Myer Isaacs (see *Isaacs family), who served as secretary of the Board of Delegates until its absorption into the UAHC (whereupon he became president of the organization). The officers of the Board of Delegates included both civic and religious leaders: one of two elected vice presidents was Rabbi Isaac *Leeser of Philadelphia.

The five primary objectives set forth in the Board of Delegates' constitution were (1) to gather statistical information regarding the Jews of the United States; (2) to be the arbiter of disputes between congregations, individuals, or public bodies, in lieu of their resorting to the courts; (3) to promote religious education; (4) "to keep a watchful eye on occurrences at home and abroad, and see that the civil and religious rights of Israelites are not encroached on, and call attention of the proper authorities to the fact, should any such violation occur"; and (5) to establish and maintain communication with other like-minded Jewish organizations throughout the world, and especially to establish a "thorough union among all the Israelites of the United States."

Accordingly, the Board of Delegates, whose members comprised individuals, organizations, and congregations, acted in a twofold capacity: as a central umbrella organization for American Jews and as a relief agency for Jews abroad.

In the U.S., the Board was instrumental in arranging the appointment of the first Jewish military chaplain – in 1862, to the Union Army during the Civil War – and was the first body to collect and record information about the history and size of American synagogues. It also encouraged congregational schools and established two institutions of higher learning – the Educational Alliance and Hebrew Technical Institute in New York and Maimonides College in Philadelphia – to train Jewish teachers.

In addition, the Board of Delegates functioned as a sort of "anti-defamation league." It denounced General Ulysses S. Grant's 1862 Order No. 11 expelling Jews from Tennessee, as well as Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler's accusations that Jews were looters and liars. Grant's order was rescinded, and Butler issued a public apology for his comments. In 1872, the Board of Delegates was also successful – after protesting to the U.S. Commissioner of Education – in forcing the City College of New York to rescind its policy of scheduling examinations on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.

Internationally, in 1860, the Board of Delegates joined the *Alliance Israélite Universelle, which had been formed that year as a central clearinghouse of information and action based in Paris to monitor the plight of Jews worldwide and advance their civil rights. Together with its counterpart councils in England, France, Austria, and Romania, the Board of Delegates assisted Jews throughout the Americas, Europe (particularly Romania), North Africa, and the Middle East (where Jerusalem and other cities in the Holy Land were under the governance of Ottoman Palestine).

Although the Board of Delegates enjoyed some success in the United States, factional and ideological conflict weakened its effectiveness domestically, especially when it came to sponsoring initiatives in the realm of education. (Indeed, some organizations had opposed the creation of the Board of Delegates in the first place.) The major focus of the Board's activity, therefore, became the human rights and emancipation of Jews in countries like Morocco, Turkey, Romania, and Palestine.

One of the Board of Delegates' lobbying triumphs resulted in the appointment of Benjamin F. *Peixotto as United States Consul to Romania, in an effort to alleviate official persecution of Romanian Jewry. Peixotto's well-publicized tenure in Bucharest (1870–76) contributed to the lessening of antisemitic legislation and pogroms. In 1872, the Board of Delegates sent representatives to attend its first international conference on an issue concerning the Jewish people: a meeting in Brussels to discuss the predicament of Romanian Jews.

The plight of Romania's Jews also presented the Board of Delegates with the difficult problem of how to handle the question of Jewish immigration to the United States. In this case, the Board pressed for increased immigration; at other times, however, it argued for restricting immigration only to persons possessing certain qualifications. In 1873, the Board, via the Alliance, provided the Russian government with statistical and employment information on various aspects of Jewish life in America, particularly the integration of Jewish citizens.

The Board of Delegates also supported Jewish causes in the Holy Land; it contributed funds to such enterprises as the Mikveh Israel Agricultural School in Jaffa and the Jewish Hospital in Jerusalem and urged the U.S. government to intercede with Palestine's Ottoman Turkish rulers in defense of the rights of the Jewish minority.

[Bezalel Gordon (2nd ed.)]