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Israel Jacobson

JACOBSON, ISRAEL (1768–1828), German financier and pioneer of Reform Judaism. Born in Halberstadt, Jacobson received an Orthodox education and was destined for the rabbinate. Influenced by *Mendelssohn's writings, he was early attracted to the *Haskalah movement. He did not, however, acquire a methodical secular education and thus lacked fluency in the German language. In 1786 he married Mink, the daughter of Hertz Samson, court-agent of the duchy of Brunswick. With the death of his father-in-law in 1795, he succeeded to the latter's position and titles as Kammeragent und Land-rabbiner des Weserdistrikts. Influenced by Moses *Mendelssohn and the enlightenment Jacobson saw the best prospects for attaining Jewish emancipation in emphasizing vocational training in the secular education of Jewish children. In 1801, at his own expense, he opened in the small town of Seesen an educational institution for the children of the poor, which became known as the Religions- und Industrieschule (today Jacobson-Gymnasium). By 1805 Christian citizens of Seesen were requesting that their children be admitted to the institution. In 1804 Jacobson was granted citizenship of Brunswick. Due to his influence, the degrading Leibzoll (the body tax imposed on Jews) was abolished in Brunswick (1803) and in Baden (1806). He was honored with the title Mecklenburg-Schweriner Geheimer Finanzrat in 1806. Hesse-Darmstadt and Baden also granted him titles, and in 1807 he was awarded a Ph.D., honoris causa, from the University of Helmstedt. Yet in Brunswick, where he lived, Jacobson still suffered from the intrigues of the officials. His son Meir was not accepted in Brunswick's merchants' guild and his school received little attention from the authorities.

Jacobson saw *Napoleon as the emancipator of the Jews. On the occasion of the *Assembly of Jewish Notables in Paris on May 30, 1806, he addressed an enthusiastic letter to Napoleon. During the same year he published a book entitled Les premiers pas de la nation juive vers le bonheur sous les auspices du grand monarque Napoléon, suggesting that the emperor should organize a supreme Jewish council, which would be headed by a patriarch and whose seat would be in Paris. It is possible that Napoleon's idea of the *Sanhedrin stemmed from Jacobson's suggestion. In August 1807 Brunswick became a part of the kingdom of Westphalia, which was ruled by Napoleon's brother, Jerome. After borrowing large sums from Jacobson, Jerome was obliged to sell him state property; he thereby acquired a number of estates. On Jan. 27, 1808, to honor the emancipation of the Jews of Westphalia, Jacobson ordered a commemorative medal from the Berlin artist Abramson. The reverse side of the medal featured two angels symbolizing Judaism and Christianity united in the kingdom of Westphalia. Jacobson was instrumental in convening, in Kassel on Feb. 8, 1808, a gathering of Jewish notables, similar to the one held in Paris, to introduce reform – religious, moral, and civic – among the Jews. The majority of Westphalia's Jews, who were Orthodox, regarded Jacobson's project with suspicion. On Dec. 19, 1808, the Koeniglich Westphaelisches Konsistorium der Israeliten held its first meeting under the leadership of Jacobson rather than that of a rabbi as was the case in France. The consistory discussed questions of religion, education, culture, and the personal status of Jews. Jacobson erected the first synagogues in which services were held according to this program of religious reform. The Consistorialschule was opened in Kassel in 1809 and included a synagogue where portions of prayers were sung in German, sermons were delivered in German, and confirmation ceremonies were performed. On July 17, 1810, the "Temple" in the school of Seesen was inaugurated with a ceremony which included the ringing of a bell and the singing of hymns in German with organ accompaniment. Jacobson conducted the festivities, dressed in the robes of a Protestant clergyman.

After the fall of Napoleon and the fragmentation of the kingdom of Westphalia, Jacobson moved to Berlin, where he continued to work for religious reform. On the occasion of his son's bar mitzvah, on Shavuot 1815, he opened a Reform synagogue in his house. For lack of space the synagogue was removed to the house of the banker Jacob Hertz Beer, where L. *Zunz and E. *Kley preached. After some eight months the government prohibited the holding of prayers in private houses. On Rosh Ha-Shanah 1817, prayers were again held in a Reform synagogue, but its existence was finally forbidden in 1823, through the influence of the leaders of the Orthodox community. During his last years, Jacobson was broken in health and spirit, and even though he continued his philanthropic activities, he ended his life an embittered and disappointed man. The majority of his ten children, the offspring of two marriages, were baptized.


S. Bernfeld, Toledot ha-Reformaẓyon ha-Datit be-Yisrael (19232), index; Lazarus, in: MGWJ, 58 (1914), 81–96; Marcus, in: CCARY, 38 (1928), 386–498, incl. bibl.; D. Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism (19672), index; G. Ruelf, Einiges aus der ersten Zeit und ueber den Stifter der Jacobson-Schule in Seesen (1890); C. Seligman, Geschichte der juedischen Reformbewegung (1922), 170ff.; Silberstein, in: JJGL (1927), 100–9; P. Zimmermann, in: Brunsvicensia Judaica, 35 (1966), 23–42; H. Schnee, Die Hoffinanz und der moderne Staat, 2 (1954), 109–54; 5 (1965), 210–18; M. Eliav, Ha-Ḥinnukh ha-Yehudi be-Germanyah… (1961), 96–100, 119–26; J.J. Petuchowski, Prayerbook Reform in Europe (1968). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: G. Ballin, "Ein Brief Benedict Schotts an Israel Jacobson," in: BLBI, 46–47 (1969), 205–11; J.R. Marcus, Israel Jacobsonthe Founder of the Reform Movement in Judaism (1972); Biographisches-Biliographisches Kirchenlexikon, 18 (2001), 711–17.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.