In 1881, six rabbis of different persuasions formed the New York Board of Jewish Ministers which later became the New York Board of Rabbis. The six included Rabbis Gustav Gottheil, Adolph Huesbsch, Henry S. Jacobs, Kaufmann Kohler, F. de Sola Mendes, and H. Pereira Mendes. It was their hope to enrich Jewish education and advance Judaism among all segments of the rapidly growing New York Jewry. In the same year, the Board was asked by the community to provide its first chaplain.
New York was little more rural than urban in the 1880’s. The consolidation of the five boroughs did not take place until 1898. At this time in American history, although the government accepted many people from different backgrounds to allow for a diverse population hence the descriptive phrase “the melting pot of the world ”- Anti-Semitism in New York had began to intensify in the 1870s in the wake of Jim Crow legislation and other “constitutional” expressions of racism in the United States.
On March 1, 1881 Czar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated by members of the People’s Will Party. Among the small group directly responsible for the throwing of the bomb that killed the Czar was the young Jewess, Hesia Helfand, who was subsequently hanged. Six weeks later pogroms broke out throughout Russia leading to mass destruction and rape in Jewish communities and towns. This led to a mass emigration, largely to the shores of the United States.
In 1880, 280,000 Jews lived in the Unites States and there were approximately 200 synagogues. By 1925, that number had grown to 4.5 million Jews, a large majority of whom lived in New York. This growing stream of Jewish immigration to New York which inspired Emma Lazarus to write the poem, “The New Colossus,” (1883) – which is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty- necessitated a strengthening of the religious institutions in this country.
In 1883, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati ordained its first graduating class of four students in the first ever ordination ceremony in the United States.
In 1886, a group of rabbis met in Manhattan’s Spanish-Potuguese Synagogue to respond to what they believed was the radicalization of the Reform movement in America. At that meeting they voted to create an institution that would become known as the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
In 1887, a group of Orthodox rabbis met at the Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol on Norfork St. on the Lower East Side to begin the search for a chief rabbi of New York. They hoped that a chief rabbi would put an end to the disorganization and lack of discipline that characterized the Jewish community on the Lower East Side. Finally, in that same year, Yeshiva Etz Chaim was established as a small heder for boys. These boys studied Talmud for the majority of the day and were taught secular subjects at the end of the long nine hour day. This small heder evolved into what is today called Yeshiva University.
Just as each of the institutions described have undergone many changes in the more than a century since their founding, so has the New York Board of Rabbis. They all began in this period of mass Jewish immigration to the United States and grew and changed in response to the challenges which faced American Jews at different times . We hope, as we look back at our founding, this will deepen our haKorat haTov for those for came before and give us the insight and strength to confront the exciting future of New York’s rabbinical community.
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