Congregation Shearith Israel, Records
Scope and Content Note
The records of Congregation Shearith Israel represent the congregation's administrative, religious, educational, and social activities dating from the eighteenth through the twentieth century.
Researchers interested in the following subject areas will find this collection valuable: Jews in early Colonial America; Sephardic Jewish history; Jewish involvement in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, and World War II; women's involvement in war relief; anniversaries of the Congregation and Jewish settlement in America; Jewish patriotic celebrations; the early burial ground at Chatham Square; the oldest existing Jewish philanthropic organization in New York (Hebra Hased Va Amet); Sisterhoods; probation work; settlement houses; men's clubs; early Sephardic Hebrew education in America; adult educational and social programs; and Congregation Mikve Israel in Philadelphia.
The records contain material regarding later Ministers of the Congregation, particularly: Louis Coleman Gerstein, Henry Pereira Mendes, and David de Sola Pool. Other clergy represented in the collection include: Marc D. Angel, Abraham Lopes Cardozo, Solomon Gaon, Jacques Judah Lyons, Yitzhak Nissim, Gershom Mendes Seixas, and Isaac Benjamin Seixas. Presidents that figure prominently in the records include: Mortimer Morange Menken, Napthali Taylor Phillips, and Sisterhood President Alice Davis Menken.
The early eighteenth and nineteenth century material is available on microfilm only. This material consists: of financial, property, and trustee records; forms of service and prayers; lists of offerings and congregational honors; a library catalogue for a religious school; and items pertaining to the Shearith Israel Sisterhood and Hebra Hased Va Amet societies, and the Chatham Square Cemetery. Of interest is a book of misheberag ascaboth listing honors, special occasions, memorials, the sick, and births among congregation members for the year 1759. Also of significance is a bound ledger recording tombstone inscriptions and grave locations for Chatham Square Cemetery.
Later materials document: the Congregation's services and celebrations, societies, dedications and memorial services held at Chatham Square Cemetery, relief work conducted during World Wars I and II, trustee meetings and reports, and papers pertaining to clergy.
Types of material found within the later period of the collection include: addresses, administrative and trustee records, announcements, bulletins, calendars, historical summaries, invitations, news clippings, newsletters, orders of service, pamphlets, prayers, press releases, programs, reports, sermons, and souvenir journals. Of interest is a typescript taken from Jacques Judah Lyon's memorandum book pertaining to the New York Jewish community's response to the Civil War. Synagogue publications include: issues of the Bulletin which contain summaries of Sephardic American and international history, sermons and addresses by Ministers, and congregational news.
The collection is organized into ten series: Series I: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Material; Series II: Histories; Series III: Administration; Series IV: Clergy; Series V: Services and Celebrations; Series VI: Education; Series VII: Societies; Series VIII: Chatham Square Cemetery; Series IX: War Activities; and Series X: Synagogue Publications.
- undated, 1755-1996
- Congregation Shearith Israel (New York, N.Y.) (Organization)
Language of Materials
The collection is predominantly in English, with some Hebrew, Portuguese, and Dutch.
The collection is open to all researchers, except items that may be restricted due to their fragility, or privacy.
No permission is required to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection, as long as the usage is scholarly, educational, and non-commercial. For inquiries about other usage, please contact the Director of Collections and Engagement at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For reference questions, please email: email@example.com
Historical Note - Congregation Shearith Israel
This historical sketch is divided into the following subject headings: Founding Congregation; First Mill Street Synagogue; Revolutionary War; Kashrut; Charity; Children's Education; Second Mill Street Synagogue; Crosby Street Synagogue until Today; Prayer Books; Religious Leadership; Involvement in New York Jewish Institutions; Women's Work Pre-Sisterhood; Shearith Israel Sisterhood; Shearith Israel League; Adult Education; Cemeteries; and List of Ministers.
The history of the oldest congregation in the United States is intertwined with the history the United States' first Jewish settlements. The first Jew to arrive in the New World was most likely Louis de Torres, a Marrano, who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his expedition. More adventurers, who either stayed or continued their journeys, followed. The arrival of twenty-three penniless men, women, and children in 1654 marked the first settlement of Jews in North America. From this "Remnant of Israel," a congregation was born, named: Shearith Israel.
This group had originally settled in Brazil, when the Dutch won the colony from Portugal in 1630. However, Portugal reconquered the territory in 1654, and gave the several hundred Dutch Jewish families living there three months to leave. Supplied with sixteen boats, the Dutch Jews fled the Portuguese Inquisition, with all but one returning to the safety of Holland. That final ship fell prey to Spanish pirates, but was rescued by a French Man-of-War, and, eventually, and brought to New Amsterdam.
Once in New Amsterdam, the French captain of their rescue demanded payment. Their meager possessions were auctioned off, and two of the group were held prisoner. Fortunately, the ship's crew was eager to depart, and finally left after assurances that the Jewish community of Amsterdam would pay off their brethren's debt.
Jews in New Amsterdam held a sizeable interest in the Dutch West India Company. The governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, disliked non-Calvinists and, did not want any unwelcome charges on his hands during the winter. However, the Company ordered Stuyvesant, on April 26, 1755 to allow the Jews to settle in New Netherland, "provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the Company or to the community, but be supported by their own nation."
By 1655, there were more than ten Jewish men in New Amsterdam, fulfilling the required prayer quorum by Jewish law. The group, used to freedom of worship in Amsterdam, was prohibited from holding services publicly. Stuyvesant did grant them one concession: a place to bury their dead. The location of a "little hook of land...outside of this city," bestowed in 1656, remains a mystery.
When the British took New Amsterdam in 1664, they granted Lutherans the right to worship freely. In 1683, the Charter of Liberties, passed by the Colonial Assembly, extended this right to those "who profess Christianity." Jews were allowed to worship publicly by 1692. A description of New York by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac includes Jews among those who had their own church. In 1695, Rev. John Miller, Chaplain of the Grenadiers in New York, drew a map of the city by memory. His map cites "the Jewes Synagogue" as being on the South side of Beaver Street. A different site, on the north of Mill Street, is described in a real estate document, dated 1700, as a synagogue. This site was rented from John Harperdinck for eight pounds a year, and was used for worship until 1728.
Although the custom of the religious services followed Spanish-Portuguese (Sephardi) practices, there were more Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews living in New York than Sephardic. The use of a minority's traditions for the synagogue is in part due to the affluence and leadership of the Sephardic community, and to the appeal their culture held for Ashkenazi Jews. Marc Angel writes, "...They could never have survived unless Ashkenazim were attracted to Sephardic culture. Ashkenazim wanted to be part of the Sephardi community..." Interestingly, the records of Shearith Israel were kept in Portuguese until the early eighteenth century, when an English copy was added to give access for Ashkenazi members.
First Mill Street Synagogue
The first building built intentionally to serve as a synagogue was constructed on Mill Street in 1728. The lot, purchased from Cornelius and Catherine Copper, cost 100 pounds, one loaf of sugar, and one pound of Bohea tea. The transaction was conducted through trustees, since only the Dutch and Episcopal Churches were permitted to incorporate. Bound by "ties of blood and commerce," Jews in Barbados, Boston, Curaçao, Dutch Guiana, Jamaica, and London sent generous donations. Mill Street Synagogue was consecrated on April 8, 1730, and included a mikveh (ritual bath), ladies gallery, and a community center (built in 1731) for use as a school and meeting hall.
The Revolutionary War gave Jews the opportunity to be full participants in the New Republic. Jewish patriots, including the Hazzan (congregation reader) Gershom Mendes Seixas, fled to Philadelphia when the British overtook New York. Loyalist congregants retained the synagogue, and conducted services when they were able.
A special service was held prior to Seixas' flight, in support of the Continental Congress' appeal for a day of fasting and prayer. Seixas incorporated several patriotic prayers once he returned to New York in 1785. Among these prayers was the beginning of Thanksgiving Day Services, in support of George Washington's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation in 1789. Future congregation leaders continued Thanksgiving Day Services, and instituted other new services in response to proclamations by local, state, or national governments, or to memorialize the death of public figures.
The effect of the Revolutionary War on religious practice and authority in Shearith Israel was profound. The war had forced Jewish soldiers to cease observance of the Sabbath, and eat non-kosher food. Because of these circumstances, the soldiers were not punished for their actions; prior to the revolution, the congregation practiced ostracism as a form of punishment. A record book entry from 1752 states that a Jew who has "absented himself from the synagogue or was no way a benefactor to the congregation, his corpse and those of his family may not be buried within the walls" of the Jewish cemetery unless the President gave his permission. Complaints from congregation members led the President and the Elders to soften the proclamation the following year, with words such as: "... like faithful shepherds, call into the fold the wandering sheep." By 1805, there was no longer any mention of punishment for religious laxity in the congration's by-laws or constitution.
The sole Jewish congregation in New York City until 1825, Shearith Israel was the religious authority for the city's entire Jewish community. The elected officers were responsible for providing kashrut supervision, charity, and children's education.
Kashrut was known to have been available in New York since 1660. That year, Asser Levy and Moses de Lucena were permitted to conduct their business as butchers by the Dutch government. Records indicate that New York exported kosher meat, particularly to Curaçao and Jamaica, from 1730 until after the Revolution.
The congregation still elects a shochet (ritual slaughterer) to perform and supervise kosher meat production. In the early days, the shochet would slaughter animals from non-Jewish butchers, who would then sell the meat in the market with an identification seal made out of lead. When mistakes and sometimes outright deception arose the Congregation appealed to the City Council. In 1805, Caleb Vandenberg offered unkosher meat for sale that had been identified as kosher. The Mayor revoked Vandenberg's license. When he apologized and promised to obey kashrut laws, Shearith Israel trustees requested that the City restore his license.
In 1803, trouble arrived in the form of Jacob Abrahams, elected in that year as the Congregation's shochet. A rift grew between officers and leading members of Shearith Israel as they took sides over Abrahams' lack of religious observance and questions concerning his job performance. Abrahams' contract ended in 1813, at which point he set himself up as an independent shochet, challenging synagogue authority, and putting the system of kashrut supervision into the control of individual ritual slaughterers. The congregation made an apeal to the mayor. and briefly halted Abrahams' activities. Supporters of Abrahams issued a petition to the City, and the previous ordinance was withdrawn. Kashrut supervision was now open to any shochet.
The congregation's first organized charitable society was formed in approximately 1758. The minutes mention a Hebra (society) in that year as being permitted to receive synagogue offerings and loans; previously, the congregation's President and Assistants distributed charity. Traveling Jews were given eight shillings for up to twelve weeks, and if need be, passage and kosher food. A system of life pensions was provided for needy members of the congregation. This system is first mentioned in the 1760 minutes, and most likely followed an example set by the London congregation, Shaar Hashamayim. Hyman Grinstein writes: "...The creation of a pension system by Shearith Israel went beyond anything attempted by any mutual aid society in New York and was the most remarkable development in Jewish philanthropy in the city prior to the Civil War."
The early years show charity being dispensed for visiting Rabbis soliciting funds for overseas communities, refugees from the French Revolution, Jews traveling from the West Indies to other location, Jews who had sold themselves into servitude to pay for their ship passage, and to those victims of epidemics of infectious diseases. As immigration into the United States increased in the 1820s, charitable organizations focused their efforts on assisting the new arrivals.
In July 1802, the congregation established the oldest existing Jewish philanthropic organization in New York. Named Hebra Hased Va-Amet (Kindness and Truth Society), it maintains the congregation's cemeteries, helps poor Jews obtain a Jewish burial, and assists communities which have experienced disasters. Prior to the development of Jewish undertakers and funeral parlors, Hased Va-Amet performed religious burial rites, watched over the dead, and helped those in mourning. Among its most significant contributions to New York has been educating the Jewish community on laws of burial and mourning. A booklet, published in 1827 was used extensively by other funeral societies, and was followed by later publications.
Shearith Israel began other charitable societies over the years. Some lost energy and faded away, but others merged with existing societies and are still in operation. The following societies are no longer in existence: Hebra Gemiluth Hasadim (1785-1790), the Society for Dispensing Acts of Kindness, provided financial and medical assistance, visits for the sick, assistance in funerals and help for mourners; Hazzan Gershom Mendes Seixas formed Kalfe Sedaka Mattan Basether (1798-1816), the Charity Depositary Gift in Secret, during a yellow fever epidemic, after city residents fled to the suburbs and charity funds needed to be replenished; and Hebra Leezrat Ani Veevyon (1839-?), the New York Hebrew Assistance Society, which was unique in that all of its funds were completely distributed to poor Jews, rather than maintained for future needs--the Society was nonetheless able to contribute money for synagogue building repairs in 1841, and for a capital building fund for Jews' Hospital in 1851.
Societies still in operation include: Meshibat Nefesh, founded in 1822, known as the Hebrew Benevolent Society, and grandfather to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Founded by Ashkenazi members, it moved its offices to Congregation Bnai Jeshurun after the Ashkenazi congregation was established in 1825.
In 1828, Shearith Israel formed Hebra Hinuch Nearim Veezrat Ebyonim, a long title that translates to "Society for the Education of Poor Children and Relief of Indigent Persons of the Jewish Persuasion in the City of New York." In 1860, the name was shortened to the "Hebrew Relief Society of the City of New York." The Society's duties included: providing annual stipends for widows and orphans, educating poor children, and distributing necessities to the poor. The Society consolidated with the Female Benevolent Society in 1870, and became a constituent of the newly formed United Hebrew Charities in 1874. Since 1881, the Society has also granted life pensions to needy congregation members.
"Men trained in New York were grossly ignorant even of the pronunciation of Hebrew," wrote Hyman Grinstein, adding that, "The reasons for this paucity of knowledge lie primarily in the low standards of achievement which were set as the goals of Jewish education in America." Later congregations felt additional obstacles Shearith Israel experienced in Jewish education: the increasing importance of secular education; difficulties finding learned, suitable teachers; and the abandonment of Jewish schools.
In the colonial period, religious and secular education was the responsibility of the Church, and Jews provided their own as a community. The earliest reference to a Ribbi (teacher) is Benjamin Elias, who is mentioned in the synagogue minutes in 1728. A school building was erected in 1731 in the Mill Street Synagogue, and the earliest school was called Yeshibat Minhat Areb. Later it simply became known as the Hebra, for the name of the building it occupied.
Hebrew was taught to children until 1755, when the school became parochial, teaching Hebrew, Spanish, English, writing, and arithmetic. In 1801, Myer Polonies left a generous sum for the creation of a school, and Polonies Talmud Torah opened on May 2, 1802. As Jacob Hartstein writes, "the founding of this school in 1802 did not mark the beginning of a permanent institution." The community faced a constant struggle to maintain teachers and students; at times, the lack of adequate teachers' salaries led to the school's closing.
When the Free School Society was formed in 1805, introducing the theory of public education, it led to the passing of a State Act on March 12, 1813 establishing common schools. Polonies Talmud Torah reorganized into a common school in 1812, increasing its quota of free students, made possible by a grant. Working from a precedent set in 1801 from an Act passed by New York Legislature, Shearith Israel was able to obtain funds from the State as a religious charity school.
The size of the school, however, remained small. Staffing remained a challenge, and residents were moving north, away from the synagogue. Further, wealthy congregation members also tended to provide their children with private tutors, or place them in Jewish boarding schools.
After public schools were placed under the auspices of the New York City Board of Education at its formation in 1842, religious material slowly wound its way out of the schoolroom. In 1851, an Act by the State Legislature banned sectarian schoolbooks in public schools; in 1855, the reading passages from the Bible was left to the discretion of the local Ward Boards. More and more parents took advantage of the free education, creating a crisis for all-day Jewish schools.
This led to the emergence of a supplementary Hebrew schools. Polonies Talmud Torah had begun in 1823, teaching only Hebrew subjects three times a week in the afternoons. When Judah Touro died in 1854, leaving a generous sum to Polonies Talmud Torah, the school tried again to operate a full-time parochial school. Low student attendance stifled the attempt after a year, and the school reverted to a free Hebrew school for congregation members, providing classes twice a week. Today, Shearith Israel continues to operate a Hebrew school on a part time basis for children and teens.
Second Mill Street Synagogue
The increase of Jewish immigration to the United States in the early 1800s necessitated a larger synagogue. As the city grew, congregation members followed the northward movement of the residential population. Shearith Israel was caught between having to move uptown, or rebuilding on the existing lot. Sentiment won over demographics, and a second Mill Street Synagogue was constructed in the same location. Dedicated on April 17-18, 1818, the synagogue was soon surrounded by stores. In 1833, the trustees sold the building, and the congregation met in a room of the New York Dispensary for one year until the Crosby Street Synagogue was completed. Using the first Mill Street Synagogue's cornerstone in the Crosby Street's Synagogue foundation helped preserve historical sentiment.
Crosby Street Synagogue-Present
Crosby Street Synagogue was dedicated on June 12, 1834 and served the congregation for twenty-five years. By 1850, the neighborhood had deteriorated, and residents were once again moving away. The congregation sold the Crosby Street Synagogue in 1859, and services were held temporarily at 894 Broadway until a new building on Nineteenth Street was erected. Hazzan Jacques Judah Lyons consecrated the Nineteenth Synagogue on September 12, 1860. Residential movement uptown, coupled with problems in the design and structure of the building, led trustees to resolve to sell the building in 1864. It was not until 1895 that new lots on Central Park West and 70th Street were located. The Nineteenth Street Synagogue was ceremoniously closed, and the present site was consecrated on May 19, 1897.
The present synagogue on Central Park West and 70th Street includes a "little synagogue" that serves as a historic area where religious and ceremonial objects used in prior synagogue buildings, dating as far back as 1730, are on display. To commemorate the 300th anniversary of both the Congregation and Settlement of Jews in America, in 1954, the congregation built a Community House and a school. After its departure from the Mill Street location, the congregation stopped constructing mikvehs (ritual baths); women who obeyed Family Purity laws used Congregation Bnai Jeshurun's mikvah, built in 1833.
Shearith Israel had an insufficient number of prayer books for its congregants, as they shipped their Hebrew prayer books from Amsterdam. The first Jewish prayer book in North America was published in 1761, an English translation by an unknown author, designed to assist those who did not understand Hebrew. Later, the congregation used Sephardi prayer books prepared by various authors in London, and a series created in 1838 by Rabbi Isaac Leeser of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. In 1929, Rev. Dr. David de Sola Pool organized the Union of Sephardic Congregations for the "promotion of the religious interests of Sephardic Jews." Among his projects was creating modern translations of prayer books for the many American Sephardi synagogues that then existed due to increased Sephardi immigration from Turkey, Greece, and Syria.
Jews and non-Jews mixed easily in the New World. Jews in North America were generally tradesmen and workers, and Shearith Israel had no ordained Rabbi as a leader until the twentieth century. Before that time, they relied on Hazzanim to service and minister the congregation.
The duties of the Hazzan included delivering sermons, leading prayer services, teaching children, performing circumcisions, answering simple questions pertaining to Jewish Law, assisting with kashrut issues, and representing the Jewish community in civic affairs. Major questions concerning Jewish law were kept for either visiting Rabbis, or were mailed to a Rabbi in Amsterdam or London. At times, finding a Hazzan to lead the congregation was a challenge, and those hired often remained in their post until their death. The majority of the congregation's leaders were born in such Sephardic communities as Curaçao, Holland, and London. Gershom Mendes Seixas, who began his position in 1768, was the congregation's earliest North America-born Hazzan. Since no rabbinic seminary existed in the United States during his time, Hazzan Joseph Jessurun Pinto served as his primary educator.
The Hazzan used the title "Reverend," and was referred to as a Minister in order to fit the terms used in State law and interfaith civic affairs; the term "minister" may have derived from an 1684 New York law requiring that a minister of religion or a justice of peace was required to perform marriages. A State law enacted in 1784 permitted any religious society to incorporate; Congregation Shearith Israel immediately took the opportunity. As part of this law, a minister was needed to perform certain trustee duties. New York State changed its marriage law in 1830, expanding the wording to include Jewish customs; however, the term "minister" remained as a traditional title for Hazzanim in Shearith Israel.
Involvement in New York Jewish Institutions
Through the activities of its ministers and leading members, Shearith Israel has been involved with establishing many of the first Jewish communal institutions in New York City. Among the more significant institutions members have initiated are: the Jews' Hospital in New York (1852), the Hebrew Sheltering and Guardian Society of New York (1879), the New York Board of Jewish Ministers (1881), the Mt. Sinai Training School for Nurses (1882), the Montefiore Hospital (1884), the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (1886), the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (1898), and the YWHA (1903).
Women's Work, Pre-Sisterhood
The first organized social work conducted by the women of Shearith Israel was the formation of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1820. The Society cared for poor female Jews, and raised funds through synagogue offerings, dinners, and balls. In order to prtect the women's modesty, male members of the congregation organized the events and delivered speeches. In May 1870, the Society consolidated with its male counterpart, the Hebrew Relief Society.
In 1838, female congregants were inspired to create an association similar to Rebecca Gratz' Hebrew Sunday School Society. The Association for the Moral and Religious Instruction of Children of the Jewish Faith was opened as a Sunday School for poor children, separate from the Polonies Talmud Torah School. Twenty young women volunteered to act as teachers for poor children, and a sewing committee formed to provide the children with clothes, a library was soon created, and funds were provided through subscriptions. Unfortunately, two years later a smallpox epidemic led to a month of school closings, and the initial eagerness of the young ladies waned as school attendance dropped. Efforts to revive the Society were made in 1845, but attendance remained low and the Association closed soon after.
Women were also involved in the New York Hebrew Assistance Society, a Shearith Israel charitable organization that was in operation from 1839 until an unknown date. A ladies' committee was in charge of interviewing applicants.
The following year, women formed a Ladies Hebra to assist the Hebra Hased Va-Amet with ministering to sick and dying women. They also sewed burial shrouds for both men and women. The Ladies Hebra was absorbed into Hebra Hased Va-Amet in 1871.
Several sewing societies were founded to sew clothes for the poor. A Ladies Sewing Association (1847-?) distributed 907 pieces of clothing in 1851. During the Civil War, a Ladies Army Relief organization sewed clothing, linen, and bandages.
A Ladies Aid Society (1878- ) combined sewing and relief, and provided help for clients preselected by the United Hebrew Charities. In 1891, this Society began a Kindergarten Society, opening a nursery-kindergarten on the Lower East Side. These two societies were later merged into the Sisterhood.
Rev. Dr. H. Pereira Mendes initiated an Envelope Society in 1889 to support Jewish religious schools on the Lower East Side. These schools, including the Downtown Mission School and Tremont School, helped counteract the Christian proselytizing schools which focused on poor immigrant Jewish children. Appeals were sent before Passover, Succos, and Shavous in the form of a card and return envelope. Run by women, the Envelope Society merged into the Sisterhood.
Shearith Israel Sisterhood
The first Sisterhood of Personal Service in New York City developed as a result of a sermon delivered by Dr. Gustav Gottheil in 1887 at the Reform Temple Emanu-El. In 1896, Rev. Dr. H. Pereira Mendes encouraged the formation of a sisterhood at Shearith Israel. A Federation of Sisterhoods had recently formed to coordinate sisterhood work with United Hebrew Charities, and it is likely that the Sisterhood was organized for this purpose.
The Shearith Israel Sisterhood was the result of a merger of five existing organizations: The Ladies Aid Society, the Kindergarten Society, the Envelope Society, the Downtown Mission School, and the Tremont Sunday School. In 1897, the Sisterhood began coordinating relief work with the United Hebrew Charities and was assigned a relief district. Relief given to applicants consisted of money, clothing, coal, medical care, and summer outings for mothers and their children.
The Sisterhood expanded upon its predecessor's relief efforts by opening a settlement house, and engaging in probation work. Under the strong leadership of President Alice Davis Menken, a settlement house was established at 58 St. Marks Place; the settlement house moved to several locations in lower Manhattan as space demands increased. Its final location was at 133 Eldridge Street. It closed in 1928. Through 1928 and into the 1940s, the Sisterhood operated a Talmud Torah (religious school) at the East Side Jewish Center at 128 Stanton Street.
Alice Davis Menken also initiated probation work, and in 1908, Sisterhood members began taking responsibility for girls put on probation at the Night Court for Women. David de Sola Pool writes, "Its befriending and seeking the rehabilitation of these girls was social pioneering, the fruits of which can be seen in aspects of modern remedial court work..." Work in this area ended when the Night Court for Women dissolved in 1919.
The 1908 Revolt of the Young Turks was followed by the Balkan War, 1912-1913; of this, Marc Angel writes, "...the allies imposed economic measures which proved injurious to the Jews...It was estimated that 200,000 Jews in European Turkey were poverty-stricken." Challenged by the influx of poor and unskilled Sephardim, Shearith Israel insisted that these new immigrants be called "Oriental" Jews to distinguish them from the old Sephardic American Jews, who, in actuality, were now primarily of mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardic lineage.
Despite these diplomatic setbacks, the relationship between the old and new groups of Sephardim was generally positive, and the Congregation provided their new brethren with extensive assistance. The Sisterhood formed an Oriental Employment Bureau, and its Neighborhood House in the Lower East Side became a Sephardic community center. In 1914, the Neighborhood House built two unique religious facilities for settlement houses: a Talmud Torah (religious school), and a synagogue. The synagogue, called Berith Shalom, offered low membership dues, which included the use of Cypress Hills cemetery. In the 1920s, the economic situation of the newer Sephardic population improved, allowing them to move out of the Lower East Side. In 1924, Coolidge's Immigration Law decreased immigration, slowly setting the stage for the closing of the Neighborhood House in 1928.
Difficulties in fundraising led the Sisterhood to apply and be admitted in the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies in 1917. When the Federation was forced to cut the Sisterhood's budget in 1932, the Sisterhood withdrew and began to reestablish its own financial footing. Despite the economic challenges, the Sisterhood has been able to continue its general activities. These include sponsoring lectures and social events, working with Hebra Hased Va-Amet through a last rites committee, decorating the sukkah, and sewing holy vestments for religious ceremonial purposes. During and after World War II, the Sisterhood raised funds, sewed clothing packages, and provided assistance to refugees overseas, and to new arrivals in the United States and Israel. The Sisterhood is a member of various women's organizations, among which are the Woman's Branch of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, and the successor to the Federation of Sisterhoods: Federation of Jewish Women's Organizations.
Shearith Israel League
In 1897, a Junior League formed under the Sisterhood as a social and leadership training group for girls. The League helped raise considerable funds for the Sisterhood, offering theater parties and balls. The League was also involved in conducting children's clubs and classes at the Neighborhood House, and visiting local hospitals.
On November 30, 1919, the Junior League reorganized as an independent society called the Shearith Israel League. The League issued a bulletin between 1922 and 1941, when the congregation took over its publication. Retaining its earlier missions to conduct social activities, offer literary and religious lectures and classes, and provide fundraising events for the synagogue, the Shearith Israel League cohesively provides an important community forum for the congregation.
Various clubs have sporadically emerged for periods in the congregation's recent history, each designed specifically for different age groups or needs. A Men's Club began in 1935; among its activities, it has offered social events and lectures, and has sponsored Memorial Day exercises at Chatham Square cemetery. A Young Peoples Group for members between the ages of twenty and thirty met from 1940 to 1952, publishing a cookbook, and holding social and educational meetings. A Young Marrieds Club met at various members' homes between 1951 and 1957. A Collegiate Group offered a lecture series from 1969-1971. During the 1980s and early 1990s, a Social Action Committee operated a homeless shelter during the winter months. Throughout the ongoing tide of social clubs, Shearith Israel League, the Sisterhood, and the Men's Club continue to be vibrant societies within the community.
Prior to 1840, adult education was provided informally by learned men in the community, or visiting Rabbis. In the late 1800s, when more Ashkenazi Jews began streaming into New York, there was an influx of individuals who had higher Jewish learning. In 1840, the newly established Hebrew Literary and Religious Library Association used Crosby Street Synagogue's schoolroom to provide lectures and classes for adults. Although proposals were made, adult education did not become a permanent fixture in Shearith Israel until Henry Pereira Mendes became the congregation's minister in 1877. In 1919, the newly formed Shearith Israel League included within its social activities "literary and religious lectures and classes." David de Sola Pool began weekly Sabbath Talmud class called Maimonides Talmud Circle in 1933, and a biweekly Collegiate Talmud Class met for a short time in 1971. The Men's Club, founded in 1935, began a lectures series, as did a Collegiate group that met from 1969 to 1971. In 1973, Shearith Israel established an official Adult Jewish Studies progrsm. The program began offering university level courses under a four-year curriculum, and was placed under the auspices of the newly founded Sephardic House from 1978 through 1992, when the Sephardic House became a separate entity.
The first cemetery used for Jewish burial in New York was the aforementioned "little hook of land" granted by the Dutch to the Jewish refugees in 1656. The Congregation then acquired the Chatham Square Cemetery, which was in use between 1682 and 1831.
The population increase, coupled with epidemics, led the congregation to buy land on the north side of Thirteenth Street for use as a cemetery. Used only from 1802-1803, this cemetery hosted only one burial before the city's development encroached upon its space.
The next lots of land bought for burial porposes was in 1804 at Eleventh Street. The Congregation dedicated this area as Beth Haim Shenee (The Second Cemetery), and transferred into it the one grave from Thirteenth Street. This cemetery supplemented the one at Chatham Square. It was first used solely for those who died from infectious diseases, and was later opened to the poor and strangers. A severe yellow fever epidemic in 1822 led city officials to prohibit any further burials within certain areas of the city, closing off the Chatham Square cemetery. From 1823 through 1830, when further city development reconstructed Eleventh Street, the Second Cemetery was the only Jewish burial ground used; a small triangle of land still remains of this graveyard, and the graves that were disturbed by the city's construction were moved into this area.
In 1828, the congregation purchased plots of land farther afield from what was then the center of town, on Seventy-First Street. The expense and inconvenience of visiting the cemetery prohibited its use. The congregation finally sold the land in 1864. Another area on Twenty-First Street was acquired in 1829. Dedicated as Beth Hayim Shelishi (The Third Cemetery), the congregation enlarged the cemetery in 1831, and again in 1844. Mordechai M. Noah was one of the last interred here, having passed away in March 1851: three months before a City Ordinance prohibited further burials south of Eighty-Sixth Street.
Since this time, the congregation has used land at Cypress Hills Cemetery on Long Island. Out of the six cemeteries actually used by the Congregation, the following four can still be visited: Chatham Square, Eleventh Street (the Second Cemetery), Twenty-first Street (the Third Cemetery), and Cypress Hills.
List of Ministers
Saul Pardo, 1655-1682
Abraham Haim de Lucena, 1682-1720
Benjamin Wolf, 1720-1726
Moses Lopez de Fonseca, 1726-1736
David Mendes Machado, 1736-1747
Benjamin Pereira Mendes, 1748-1757
Isaac Cohen Da Silva, 1757-1759, 1766-1768
Joseph Jessurun Pinto, 1759-1766
Gershom Mendes Seixas, 1768-1776, 1785-1816
Jacob Raphael Cohen, 1783-1784
Emanuel Nunez Carvalho, 1784
Moses Levi Maduro Peixotto, 1816-1828
Isaac Benjamin Seixas, 1828-1839
Jacques Judah Lyons, 1839-1877
Henry Pereira Mendes, 1877-1920
David De Sola Pool, 1907-1919, 1922-1970
Louis C. Gerstein, 1942-1996
Marc D. Angel, 1969-
Hayym Angel, 1997-
- Wiernik, Peter. History of the Jews in America. Third Edition. New York: Hermon Press, 1972, pgs. 13-14.
- De Sola Pool, David. An Old Faith in the New World; Portrait of Shearith Israel 1654-1954. New York; Columbia University Press, 1955, pgs. 4-8, 9-11, 13-18, 26-32, 35, 39-45, 46, 48-53, 55-57, 60-69, 78-80, 83-86, 130-137, 159-202, 212, 218-223, 239, 241-246, 253-254, 229-231, 255-257, 303, 322-324, 342-377, 384-387, 390-392, 499-502.
- Angel, Marc D. "Sephardim in the United States," American Jewish Year Book, 1973, pgs. 81-83, 86-87, 101-102, 104-105, 107.
- Grinstein, Hyman B. The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York: 1654-1860. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1947, pg. 81-86, 133-136, 149, 206, 225-230, 235, 313-314, 336, 338.
- Angel, Marc D. Remnant of Israel. New York: Riverside Book Company, 2004, pg. 38, 46-50, 142-143, 297.
- Oppenheim, Samuel. "The Question of the Kosher Meat Supply in New York in 1813: With a Sketch of Earlier Conditions," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 25, 1917, pgs. 33-37, 42-44.
- Dushkin, Alexander M., Jewish Education in New York City. New York: Bureau of Jewish Education, 1918, pg. 40, 44-45, 52.
- Grinstein, Hyman. "Studies in the History of Jewish Education in New York City (1728-1860)." The Jewish Review, Vol. II, No. 1, April 1944, pgs. 41-42, 189-190.
- Hartstein, Jacob I., "The Polonies Talmud Torah of New York," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 34, 1937, pgs. 123-129, 133-134.
- De Sola Pool, David. The Seventieth Street Synagogue of the Congregation Shearith Israel. New York, 1947, pgs. 14-15.
- De Sola Pool, David. Portraits Etched in Stone. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952, pgs. 122-141, 348.
- "Sisterhoods of Personal Service," The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. XI. New York and London: Funk and Wagnall Co., 1905, pg. 398.
5 Linear Feet (10 manuscript boxes)
Contains published and manuscript material relating to the activities and administration of the congregation and its subsidiary organizations, including: reports and weekly bulletins; early financial records and lists of those honored at religious services; and copies of resolutions and forms of service and prayers for various occasions in manuscript form. Contains also material relating to the cemetery photographs, the Hebra Hased Va-Amet (the congregational burial society) and to later clergy in the congregation: Henry Pereira Mendes, David de Sola Pool, and Louis Coleman Gerstein--including published copies of their sermons.
The collection has been arranged into ten series and oversized separate material listing as follows:
- Series I: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Material
- Subseries A: Administration
- Subseries B: Services and Celebrations
- Subseries C: Education
- Subseries D: Societies
- Subseries E: Chatham Square Cemetery
- Series II: Histories
- Series III: Administration
- Series IV: Clergy
- Series V: Services and Celebrations
- Subseries A: Religious Services, Jewish and Secular
- Subseries B: Anniversary Services and Celebrations
- Subseries C: Religious Celebrations
- Series VI: Education
- Series VII: Societies
- Subseries A: Shearith Israel Sisterhood
- Subseries B: Shearith Israel League
- Subseries C: Men's Club
- Subseries D: Sephardic House
- Series VIII: Chatham Square Cemetery
- Series IX: War Activities
- Series X: Synagogue Publications
- Subseries A: Discontinued Publications
- Subseries B: Calendars
- Subseries C: Bulletin
Located in AJHS New York, NY
- Guide to the Records of the Congregation Shearith Israel, undated, 1755-1996 I-4
- Processed by Adina Anflick
- © 2006
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Description is in English.
- Conservation and Microfilming for this collection has been made possible through a generous grant from the New York State Library, Division of Library Development.
- April, December 2020: EHyman: post-ASpace migration cleanup.
Part of the American Jewish Historical Society Repository
15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States