15 W 16th St., 6th Fl., New York, NY 10011
The Jewish community is usually seen as divided into two main segments, the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi. The Ashkenazi are that branch of the community that derived from the Jewish communities of northern and eastern Europe, and in the United States, the Ashkenazi are much the larger segment of the community, at more than 90 percent. The Sephardi are those Jews who, broadly speaking, come from the lands of the Mediterranean and western Asia. More narrowly, the Sephardi are Jews who derive from the prominent community of medieval Spain and Portugal. That community was disbursed in the 1490s, and many left Iberia for the Americas and the eastern Mediterranean. The Sephardi differ from the Ashkenazi primarily on matters of culture. They have developed a distinctive culture in Spain, and have various differences in their Sabbath and high holy days liturgy.
Sephardi from Brazil were largely responsible for the founding of the Jewish community in what is now the United States. They had emerged at Recife during the period of the Dutch occupancy of that city, but were forced to flee when Portugal regained control. The initial group arrived in New York (then New Amsterdam) in 1654 and went on to establish the first synagogue, Shearith Israel. Shortly thereafter, other participants in the same migration founded the first Canadian synagogue, in Montreal. Subsequently, synagogues were opened in Philadelphia, Newport (Rhode Island), Savannah (Georgia), and Charleston (South Carolina). The Sephardi constituted the majority of the American Jewish community until around 1720, when the Ashkenazi became the majority. A century later, they were completely overwhelmed by the first wave of German Jews that began to arrive following the fall of Napoleon (1815).
After the arrival of the massive numbers of Eastern European Jews in the 1880s, the Sephardi became an almost invisible minority, even though some 20,000 Turkish Sephardic Jews arrived early in the twentieth century, and later Jews from Iran and Iraq migrated from the Middle East.
Attempts to organize the Sephardic community in America began early in the twentieth century. The earliest association seems to have been in the New York area, a single urban area with several Sephardic synagogues. As early as 1912 the Federation of Oriental Jews was founded by the synagogues in New York, Montreal, and Philadelphia; it fell apart in 1918. Other attempts were made over the years, but it was not until 1972, with the founding of the American Sephardi Federation, that a permanent organization was effected. It drew strength from many immigrants of the Jewish communities of North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, in particular. Although many Sephardi have joined Ashkenazi congregations, many others have formed their own congregations, a few nationally specific, and affiliated through the American Sephardi Federation.
As of the late 1980s, there were an estimated 150,000 Sephardic Jews in the United States, the largest percentage of which (60,000) live in the New York City area. There are organized Sephardic synagogues in 21 communities in all regions of the United States.
Elazar, Daniel J. The Other Jews: The Sephardim Today. New York: Basic Books, 1989.
c/o The Village Temple, 33 E 12th St., New York, NY 10023
In 1981 Congregation Bina was founded as a fellowship for Jews who had migrated to the United States from India. When Europeans began to invade India in numbers in the nineteenth century, they became aware of the existence of a small community of some 25,000 people who claimed that they were Jews descended from the 10 lost tribes of Israel, and who called themselves Bene Israel, Children of Israel. They traced their origin to the second century B.C.E., when they were shipwrecked off the coast of India near Bombay: Only seven families survived, and they were cut off from their fellow religionists for many centuries.
According to the accounts of Bene Israel historians, the survivors of the shipwreck lost their religious records and soon lost the Hebrew language, which they replaced with Marathi, a west India language. However, they retained the Sabbath, the practice of the Holy Days, the dietary regulations, circumcision, and the Shema (the confession of the Jewish faith). Other historians have suggested that the Bene Israel arrived in India much later, by way of Arabia or Yemen.
The Bene Israel seemed to have survived by becoming a separate caste within the complex caste system of India. They experienced a religious revival in the early 1800s when Christian missionaries, motivated by possible conversion of the Bene Israel to Christianity, translated the Bible into Marathi, created a Hebrew-Marathi grammar, and even hired members of the community to teach in their schools. However, few accepted Christianity, and the missionary efforts contributed more to the establishment of contacts between the Indian Jews and their fellow believers in Europe. European and American publications began to flow into India.
The Bene Israel were scattered throughout India until the modern era and they did not erect a synagogue until 1796 in Bombay. However, there are no rabbis; worship is in the hands of the membership.
In the years since the independence of India and the emergence of the state of Israel, the community in India has been decimated by migration. Though most have gone to Israel, during the 1970s a small number came to the United States. Thus in 1981 the Bene Israel in the United States came together and founded Congregation Bina. They seek to preserve the customs, liturgy, music, and folklore of the Indian Jewish community.
In addition to the Bene Israel, the largest of the Indian Jewish groups, the Indian Jewish community includes two additional groups. The Jews of Cochin originally settling in Cranganore and Malabar. After centuries in their adopted homeland, in the fifteenth century c.e. they were forced to flee to Cochin following attacks, first by the Moors and then later by the Portuguese. At one time they numbered about 2,500; in 2008 no more than 17 remain in Cochin.
In the nineteenth century a group of Jews from Baghdad and Syria who came to India as traders and refugees created communities in Bombay and Pune in western India and across the subcontinent in Calcutta. They initially settled in Surat, then the most important port on the west coast. They number around 5,000, but only about 200 now remain in India; the majority migrated through the British Commonwealth to the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada.
Since 1993 the Jews of Indian origin in the United States have gathered annually for High Holy Days ceremonies, with representatives from all three Indian Jewish communities coming to New York from as far away as Minneapolis and Los Angeles. These annual gatherings were the precursor of the organization of the Indian Jewish Congregation of USA in 2005. The catalyst for the group’s organization was the need to fundraise to restore the Beth El Synagogue in Panvel, India, which was severely damaged by a monsoon. Dating from 1849, the synagogue has persisted as an unitive structure for Indian American Jews.
In 2008 Cantor Romiel Daniel was the president of the Indian Congregation.
In 2008 the congregation reported 350 members scattered around the United States and one synagogue in New York City. Some 5,000 Indian Jews currently reside in India.
Indian Congregation of USA Newsletter.
Jews of India web site. www.jewsofindia.org.
Strizower, Schifra. The Bene Israel of Bombay. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.
Yankovich, Iat. “Wandering Jews No More? Indian Jews in U.S. Struggle for Unity, Acceptance.” Jewish Press (February 15, 2008): 62, 74. Available from www.jewsofindia.org/PDFs/The%20Jewish%20Press%20021508.pdf.
85 Bennett Ave., New York, NY 10033
K’hal Adath Jeshurun is an outpost of German Orthodox Judaism in the United States. In the 1880s Solomon Breuer (1850–1926) emerged as a staunch defender of Orthodoxy in Frankfurt, and in 1888 he founded Germany’s Verbund orthodoxer Rabbiner (Association of Orthodox Rabbis), an ultra-Orthodox group in that it refused membership to Orthodox rabbis who cooperated with Reform Jewish rabbis on work for the Jewish community. Breuer was the son-in-law of Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), a great Orthodox leader who had defined what was later called “neo-Orthodoxy,” a combination of strict Orthodox Jewish belief combined with an openness to the modern world and culture on secular matters.
In 1926 Breuer was succeeded as head of the congregation in Frankfurt by his son Joseph Breuer (1882–1980). In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Joseph Breuer migrated to the United States and became the spiritual leader of K’hal Adath Jeshurun. He saw himself as carrying on the work of his father in the United States. In 1944 he established a school, Yeshiva Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsh, named for a nineteenth-century German Orthodox leader who also happened to be his maternal grandfather. The school followed the pattern he had learned in Germany.
Breuer emerged as a respected rabbi, if somewhat extreme. He authored a number of books in both English and Hebrew. On his eightieth birthday he received a jubilee volume compiled in his honor.
K’hal Adath Jeshurun. www.kajinc.org/.
3 W 16th St., New York, NY 10011
The Young Israel movement began in 1912 at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It was started by two professors, Israel Friedlander (1876–1920) and Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881–1983), and Rabbi Judah Magnes (1877–1948). The movement attempted to unite Orthodox Jewish youth of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It developed an English-language program and a supplementary program not generally available in other Orthodox centers. As the Conservative movement emerged and as the seminary became identified with it, in 1922 the Orthodox leadership of Young Israel repudiated Conservatism, but found that this practice did not fit well with other Orthodox groups.
Young Israel emerged as a powerful adult movement over the next decade. The group incorporated in 1926. Within a few years it expanded through the Jewish community in the United States and entered Canada. In 1939 it reported 35 affiliated synagogues, and by 1971 had reached 100. A variety of organizations were created to carry out its program. The American Friends of Young Israel in Israel promotes the formation of Young Israel synagogues in Israel. An Armed Forces Bureau counsels Orthodox Jews in the armed forces on various issues such as Sabbath observance and dietary behavior. The Mesilah Institute for Jewish Studies promotes Jewish education at all age levels. Young Israel Youth and Young Israel Collegiates and Young Adults are age-specific programs for young people.
Beginning at the more liberal end of Orthodoxy, Young Israel has with age become more conservative. It calls for attention to Sabbath laws, separates men and women in worship services, and attacks non-Orthodox Jews. It has become staunchly pro-Zionist.
In 2008 there were more than 200 Young Israel affiliated centers in the United States, Canada, and Israel.
Viewpoint • Divrei Torah Bulletin • CYIR Newsletter.
National Council of Young Israel. www.youngisrael.org.
Rosenthal, Gilbert S. Contemporary Judaism: Patterns of Survival. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1986.
“Young Israel—Movement to Synagogue.” In The Jewish Directory and Almanac, ed. Ivan L. Tillem. New York: Pacific Press, 1984.
Rabbinical Council of America, 305 7th Ave., New York, NY 10001
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, 333 7th Ave., New York, NY 10001.
The earliest divisions in American Judaism related to land of origin, and they came about as various national groups settled in the United States. Although all groups professed a similar Old World form of faith, they were differentiated by peculiarities of the various national cultures. Orthodox Judaism remains one of the major facets of the American Jewish experience. Orthodox Jews are distinctive within the Jewish community in their punctilious observance of the plethora of Jewish laws: strictly keeping the Sabbath, adhering to kosher food laws, and remaining deeply attentive to religious tradition. The learning and use of Hebrew is emphasized.
In the process of Americanization (and the demand for English in the service and other more radical changes), and with the importation of German-based Reform Judaism, there arose champions of tradition such as Rabbi Isaac Leeser (1806–1868) of the Mikveh Israel Congregation. Orthodoxy in the United States developed as a tradition-affirming segment of Judaism in reaction to both the Reform movement and the more moderate accommodations to modernity associated with the Conservative movement. Orthodox Jews were also traditionally the poorest. The Orthodox scattered into urban centers around the country and only formalized an organization at the end of the nineteenth century.
Preliminary efforts at cooperative endeavor began among Orthodox adherents in the 1880s, in reaction to Reform activities. In 1898 the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America was formed. Only two years earlier, the first rabbinical school, the Rabbi Elchanan Theological Seminary (now Yeshiva University) had been established. In 1902 the Union of Orthodox Rabbis was formed by the Eastern European rabbis who had come to control the congregational association. However, the English-speaking rabbis retained control of the seminary, which grew as the number of English-speaking Orthodox Jews grew, and in 1935 the English-speaking rabbis formed the Rabbinical Council of America.
The Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America emerged as the primary organizations serving Orthodox Jews, with the exception of the Hasidic Jews, in the United States. Following the basic congregation-based organizational life of American Judaism, both rabbis and congregations are free in their associations, and the Union serves congregations whose rabbis are orthodox but not members of the Rabbinical Council.
Before the 1880s Canadian Jews were present in factions similar to those apparent in American Judaism. However, in Canada, the Orthodox segment remained the majority due to the significant wave of immigration at the turn of the twentieth century, supplemented by a second wave immediately after World War II, and in spite of the large advances of the Conservative movement, usually at the expense of Orthodoxy. Many Canadian Orthodox congregations are affiliated with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, though many others remain independent and unaffiliated with any association.
The Union carries on a far-reaching educational program through numerous publications, a Torah tape library, and materials for the deaf and developmentally disabled. It operates the National Orthodox Information Center and sponsors the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. Through its OU kashruth program it designates products as kosher. The Union and the Rabbinical Council cooperate in support of the Institute of Public Affairs, an advocacy think tank created to represent the American Orthodox Jewish community.
Not reported. In 1995 the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations reported about 1,000 congregations.
Yeshiva University, New York, New York. (Its Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary trains and ordains rabbis.)
Hebrew Theological College, Chicago, Illinois.
Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Baltimore, Maryland.
Mesivta Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin Rabinical Academy, New York, New York.
Jewish Action • Tradition.
Rabbinical Council of America. www.rabbis.org.
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. www.ou.org/.
Hapgood, Hutchins. The Spirit of the Ghetto. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.
Katz, Jacob. A House Divided: Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth-century Central European Jewry. Brandeis University Press, 1998.
Mayer, Egon. From Suburb to Shtetl. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979.
Schlossberg, Eli W. The World of Orthodox Judaism. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997.
Schwartz, Elkanah. American Life: Shtetl Style. New York: Jonathan David, 1967.
235 East Broadway, New York, NY 10002
The organization of Orthodox Judaism occurred very slowly in the United States but accelerated when waves of East European immigration brought more traditionalists at the close of the nineteenth century. Efforts at the municipal level met with varying degrees of success, but in 1898 the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations was created. Two years later the Rabbi Elchanan Theological Seminary (the forerunner of Yeshiva University) was opened. Finally, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, the oldest Orthodox rabbinical organization in North America, was founded in 1902.
The union, also known as the Agudat HaRabbonim, called together Yiddish-speaking rabbis. It rejected the graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary (the primary school of what was emerging as Conservative Judaism) and backed the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. It demanded of its members that they possess the traditional semikhah, ritual ordination.
The founders and earliest members of the Agudat HaRabbonim were trained in Europe. As the graduates of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary gradually Americanized, they began to lobby for more modern training and understood the need for proficiency in English more than Yiddish. Developing their strength through the school’s alumni association in 1938, they organized the Rabbinical Council of America as a rival organization.
In 1997 the Agudat HaRabbonim issued a declaration claiming that the Reform and Conservative movements were illegal, heretical expressions of Judaism. Orthodox rabbis affiliated with the Rabbinical Council denounced the union’s action.
The Jewish historian Jerome Chanes described the Union of Orthodox Rabbis as consisting of “Yiddish-speaking, European-born-and-educated rabbis,” who refused close association with rabbis trained and ordained by Yeshiva University. It still exists, but Chanes notes that it “is little more than a paper organization.”
Chanes, Jerome. “A Primer on the American Jewish Community.” Jewish Living Publications. Available from www.ajc.org/site/apps/nl/content3.asp?c=ijITI2PHKoG&b=843137&ct=1044883.
Rosenthal, Gilbert S. Contemporary Judaism: Patterns of Survival. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1986.