American Orthodoxy

Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s Finest Hour

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Zev Eleff

On August 16, 1885, a crowd of more than a thousand assembled in front of the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on New York’s Lower East Side. That Sunday afternoon marked a milestone for the “Russian Jews” of New York. They came to dedicate their new synagogue, a magnificent Gothic-style structure, celebrated for a “handsome appearance” that did not require “any recourse to excessive ornamentation.”

The project required funding, of course. In short order, the congregation had raised $45,000 (today, $1,200,000) to purchase the new synagogue on Norfolk Street, the same one that was consumed by a “suspicious” fire on May 14, 2017. Back in the 1880s, lay leaders also scraped together another $10,000 (today, $270,000) to refurbish the building, to ensure that its interior no longer resembled the Methodist church, the site’s religious identity in a previous incarnation.

In truth, however, the reason so many Jews lined Norfolk Street—from “curb to curb,” from Broome to Grand—had much to do with symbolism. The congregation positioned its synagogue to become Orthodox Judaism’s major hub in the United States. The new religious sanctuary could hold about 1,500 women and men, far more worshippers than it needed, based on its membership lists and seat-holders. The leaders of the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol were eager to boast the excess capacity, figuring that this new epoch in the congregation’s history would draw all sorts of Orthodox Jews.

The messaging for this mission was all-too-clear on that momentous weekend. The Beth Hamedrash Hagadol had arranged for a splendid consecration event. The first speaker delivered a sermon in German, contrasting the state of Jewish life in Russia and Poland with the charmed and “good fortune” of America’s Israelites. The next speaker was Rabbi Abram Isaacs. A scion of an elite British-American rabbinic family, that pedigree probably excused Isaacs’s uber-pluralistic paean to the brotherhood of all Jews, and Christians, for that matter. His was a rhetorical openness uncommon among Orthodox Jews by the late-nineteenth century. Then again, the sermon fit the spirit of the occasion. The newspapers made it a point to report on how well-received Isaacs’s remarks were on that summer afternoon.

The final speaker or two delivered formal Torah discourses, probably in Yiddish. The noted cantor, Simhe Samuelson, accompanied by a sixteen-member choir and an elegant procession, bracketed the dedication ceremony with traditional synagogue tunes. All in all, the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s program betokened a desire to unite America’s Orthodox Jews, at least those who subscribed to the Ashkenazic rite: German- and Yiddish-speakers, acculturated Americans and tradition-toting-synagogue-goers. The Norfolk dedication featured something for all of these types.

It hadn’t always been that way, particularly for the pioneering Russian congregation. Since its founding in the 1850s, the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol had been marred by internal strife and bad public relations. Rabbi Abraham Ash had been a polarizing figure in the congregation’s earliest years, spurring a split within the leadership ranks. Jews beyond Gotham learned about Ash and his rabbinical associates in December 1858. The Jewish press paid close attention to the scandal and arrests regarding some sort of “bogus lottery ticket” scam. Around the same time, members were unsure about the acceptability of purchasing a church building to recast as a synagogue, despite the longstanding practice among America’s Jews to do exactly that. Ash turned to Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger of Altona, and this premier scholar’s lenient ruling (see Binyan Zion no. 63) apparently quelled the resistance. The earliest years of the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, then, reflected a mood of discord and dissent.

In the late-1870s, the congregation underwent a cultural makeover. To do this, the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol launched a campaign to obtain a scholar who might serve as “Chief Rabbi and Beth Din for all the congregations in the United States.” The lay leaders had in mind Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim, the famed Polish scholar and biblical commentator. Apparently, there was considerable interest on both sides. However, Malbim died just before discussions could pick up in earnest.

The Beth Hamedrash Hagadol continued to assume the responsibility of searching for a chief rabbi and the ultimate unifier of American Orthodox Judaism. In the meantime, the congregation moved from Ludlow Street to the much more capacious facility on Norfolk Street. The new synagogue building and all its ceremonial trimmings reflected the continued spirit of Orthodox togetherness.

In July 1888, the Jewish press reported the news that Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Vilna had accepted the call to the so-called Chief Rabbinate of New York. Allied with many other Lower East Side congregations, the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol assigned this prestigious title to Joseph, but not everyone agreed to its premise. Far from it, there was much backlash to the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s plan, unleashing a pernicious politic that doomed the chief rabbi’s American career. It hardly helped Rabbi Joseph’s cause that he appeared too much like a greenhorn. His Yiddish run-on sermons dispirited those in the pews who had been encouraged by the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol’s earlier embraces of acculturation and modernism.

The congregation’s grand hopes for an American Orthodox fellowship never did materialize. In the twentieth century, the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol suffered from financial instability and low membership.

In the ensuing decades, the next generations of Orthodox Jews disbursed to other locales, leaving the Lower East Side far less culturally dynamic from an Orthodox point of view. Renew attempts to reawaken the synagogue faltered. In 2007, the synagogue was shut to worshipers and visitors. Its interior had deteriorated and the membership had dwindled to a mere handful.

Earlier this week, a fire snuffed out all that remained of the dilapidated, physical site of the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on Norfolk Street. Still, I like to believe that the scattered ashes of this synagogue might reignite a vision of unity. An elusive idea. An ennobling notion.