Judaism has a long, complicated, fascinating history, and no chapter offers developments more unique than those written in the 350 years since the Jews first arrived in America. There are a number of reasons for this, though the most illuminating is perhaps that offered by the late Marshall Sklare, who noted that the United States was created as a fully modern nation with no medieval past. For Jews, this lack of a medieval past — with its institutional patterns and its established customs — meant that there were no set communal structures in this country that would guide the directions Judaism would take. America was a relatively blank slate, upon which American Jews were free to draw new outlines of our own religion. And in many ways, generation upon generation of Jewish immigrants did just that — each wave adding another layer to what today has become one of the most pluralistic and creative Jewish communities in the world.
The story began in colonial times, when the first waves of Jews came here. While admittedly the population of the colonial Jewish community was small, the Jews of that period established patterns of Jewish life and relation that have proved surprisingly enduring and relevant for a comprehension of Judaism in America.
During colonial times, the Jewish community numbered no more than about 3,000 souls in port cities that dotted the Atlantic seaboard from Newport in the North to Savannah in the South. Sephardic Jews were dominant during this period, and Sephardic patterns of worship and practice set the tone for the synagogue and other public institutions of Jewish religious life. Letters and other records indicate that the Sephardic Jews who dominated colonial American Jewish life had what can be characterized charitably as ambivalent feelings about their Ashkenazic co-religionists, thereby reflecting a model of intra-religious/ethnic relations fraught with tensions as well as care.
All this was to change in the 19th century. Between 1815 and 1881, roughly 225,000 German-speaking Jews came to the United States from Central Europe. These culturally homogeneous Jews were eager to reap the benefits that American freedom could bestow upon them. They settled along the East Coast, but also fanned out throughout the Midwest and the South.
At this time, no national Jewish organizations existed on American soil, and men such as the traditionalist Isaac Leeser and the more liberal Isaac Mayer Wise — later known as the father of Reform Judaism in America — were convinced that the potential strength of American Judaism could emerge only if a union were established that could unite all American Jews. Under the leadership of Rabbi Wise, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations was created in 1873. Two years later he established Hebrew Union College. Neither of these institutions bore the name “Reform” because initially Wise did not believe he was creating a denominationally distinct movement. Instead, he carved out a moderate Reform movement that he felt would — and that eventually did — appeal to the overwhelming majority of these newly arrived German-speaking immigrants. He also boasted that his seminary would produce rabbis who would serve all sectors of the Jewish community.
This second prediction never materialized. Wise’s dream of a united American Jewish religious community perished in the 1880s with the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews to these shores. The cultural and religious cleavages between the Eastern European immigrants and their earlier-arriving German co-religionists were quite pronounced, and it soon became apparent that a union between these disparate groups was impossible. Just as the colonial Sephardim viewed the Ashkenazic German immigrants that followed them as “déclassé,” so then did those same Ashkenazic Germans look down on their Eastern European cousins.
One infamous story points out how the fissures caused by ethnic and religious observance began to widen at this time. In 1883, HUC ordained its first class of rabbis, and Jewish leaders throughout the United States were invited to the graduation ceremony. At a banquet held to celebrate the ordained, traditional Jewish dietary restrictions forbidding the mixing of milk and meat at the same meal were flouted, and all types of forbidden seafood were served. While most historians assert that what has come to be labeled as the infamous “Trefa Banquet” was the result of a caterer’s error, there is no doubt that this banquet delivered a powerful message to Eastern European immigrants and other Jewish religious traditionalists. Judaism — at least as the Reform movement envisioned it — no longer was wedded to traditional Jewish law and practice. At this moment, American Jewish religious denominationalism was born.
Reform Judaism gave explicit expression to this denominational stance in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. Authored by Kaufmann Kohler, this platform asserted that Judaism was a universal faith ever striving to be in accord with postulates of reason. Kohler looked askance upon Jewish ritual behaviors and was a fierce opponent of Jewish nationalism. The posture that Kohler and the Reform movement championed found practical liturgical expression within the walls of Reform temples. The removal of head coverings for men during worship now came to be a near-universal Reform custom, and in 1895, the Union Prayerbook — composed almost entirely in English and highly universalistic in its orientation — was adopted as the official liturgy of the Reform movement.
Eastern European Jews as well as other Jewish religious traditionalists looked askance upon all these attitudes and developments, and these divisions among American Jews found institutional expression in the birth of Conservative Judaism. In 1886, Sabato Morais of Philadelphia established the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York as, in his words, “an opposition seminary” to HUC, in an effort to champion an “enlightened traditionalism” on these shores. With the arrival of the Cambridge University-based Romanian-born scholar Solomon Schechter in 1902, the seminary grew in academic stature and the Conservative movement, under his leadership, thrived. In 1913, the United Synagogue (later known as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), the congregational body of the Conservative movement, was formed.
Conservative Judaism considered itself bound by Talmudic law, but believed that law had evolved in our time and continued to evolve. This philosophy of historical evolution gave rise to a more conservative wing, Orthodoxy, which coalesced with the founding of the Orthodox Union in 1900.
Eastern European Jews were informed by a quest for upward social and cultural mobility. They were neither particularly learned in classical Jewish texts nor stringent in their observance of Jewish law. At the same time, they were favorably disposed toward the nascent Zionist movement, and they affirmed traditional Jewish liturgical and dietary religious practices — particularly in the public realm. As they and their children successfully assimilated into America, the particular blend of tradition and modernity that marked the Conservative movement possessed great appeal to these Eastern European immigrants and their children.
As Jews of Eastern European background assimilated, the distance that separated them culturally from their German Jewish co-religionists began to diminish. Traditional attitudes toward religious ritual and Zionism began to make inroads in Reform Judaism through the leadership of figures such as Rabbis Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver, as well as through the influx of large numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe into Reform temples. The 1934 publication of “Judaism as a Civilization” by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and the ideal of Jewish peoplehood that stood at the center of his Reconstructionist philosophy, also had a profound influence upon many in the Reform movement, and his role in the transformations that began to mark Reform Judaism should not be underestimated. At the same time, the influence and numbers of Conservative Judaism remained strong, and Conservative Judaism became the dominant movement within American Judaism — a position that the movement would maintain for most of the 20th century.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Orthodox Judaism began to establish itself more securely. The Orthodox during this period represented the least successfully acclimatized elements among the Jewish immigrant populations that came to these shores. However, under the leadership of Rabbi Bernard Revel a nascent, modern American Orthodoxy began to establish real roots. In 1915, Revel merged the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary with Yeshiva Eitz Chaim. With the establishment of Yeshiva College in 1928 and the incorporation of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary into Yeshiva University, an institutional framework was provided that later would prove to be critical for the growth of Orthodox Judaism in the United States.
The birth of Yeshiva University was complemented by the arrival of elite Orthodox scholars such as Rabbis Moses Soloveitchik and his son, Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, to these shores in the 1920s and 1930s. Such men were able to spread the influence of Orthodox Judaism among rabbis and laypersons alike.
One of these Orthodox immigrant leaders, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, established a traditional Orthodox yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., in 1941 and laid the groundwork for a cultural resurgence of traditionalist, or “black hat,” Orthodoxy. The appearance of large numbers of Orthodox Hungarian Jews who entered America after World War II also played a crucial role in rounding out the factors that would contribute to the resurgence of Orthodox Judaism in this country during later decades by bringing in a large Hasidic community.
By the 1960s and 1970s, many of the sociological factors that became seminal in shaping the contours of American Judaism as we know it today had started to emerge. The American Jewish community was no longer an immigrant community seeking to adjust to the United States. Old ethnic patterns that formerly preserved and divided the Jewish religious community no longer were present and the rivalry that had existed between American Jews of German and Eastern European descent was no more than a historical memory — if that — for most American Jews.
Jews were now fully accepted into American life, and Jews of all stripes and ethnic backgrounds were now full participants in the cultural and economic spheres of the United States. As a result, the attitudes and beliefs that had so sharply divided Reform from Conservative Jews in the first half of the 20th century were now blurred for many. A permeability was emerging, one that would allow for crossover between the disparate movements.
Larger societal developments going on in the larger American culture also promoted this crossover. With the rise in the 1960s of what came to be known as “the new ethnicity” in the larger culture, an expression of ethnic allegiances unprecedented in this nation’s history appeared, and a religious revival and a renewed search for religious and spiritual meaning accompanied this expression. These forces had a decisive impact in promoting a renewed interest in Judaism among many, as did the exhilarating 1967 Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. These dynamics propelled many Jews to seek out the Jewish community and religion