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Reform Judaism: The Americanization of Reform Judaism

The introduction of Reform into American Judaism is usually associated with the arrival of intellectual German-speaking Jews fleeing Europe’s failed republican revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and with German-born rabbis such as David Einhorn of Baltimore and Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati. Yet the first stirrings of American Reform had native roots in Congregation K. K. Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina.

In December, 1824, forty-seven Charleston Jews, led by Isaac Harby, petitioned the leaders of Beth Elohim for major changes in the Shabbat service. At that time, Beth Elohim followed the Spanish and Portuguese minhag (customary ritual), which the leadership saw as the service used by observant Jews since the time of the Second Temple. The dissidents asked that each Hebrew prayer in the service be immediately followed by an English translation; that new prayers reflecting contemporary American life be added; that the rabbi offer a weekly sermon - in English - that would explain the Scriptures and apply them to everyday life; and that services be shortened.

Isaac Harby was an unlikely reform leader. He was descended from a Sephardic family which had fled Spain for Portugal then Morocco, London and Jamaica before moving to Charleston in 1782. Harby’s father Solomon married Rebecca Moses, the daughter of one of South Carolina's leading Jewish families. Isaac, born in 1788, became a noted teacher, playwright, literary critic, journalist and newspaper editor.

Isaac Harby demonstrated little interest in religion in his younger years, but in the early 1820's he became alarmed by organized Protestant efforts to convert American Jews, and the emergence of anti-Semitism in politics. Harby wanted his fellow Charleston Jews to be able to defend Judaism from its critics, and themselves from proselytizers, but worried that they knew too little about their religion, were ill-tutored in Hebrew or other languages, could not understand the traditional Spanish and Portuguese rituals at Beth Elohim, and were thus defenseless against the Protestant challenge.

To make Judaism more accessible, Harby and his fellow reformers thought that services at Beth Elohim had to become more "American" -- frankly, more like services those in surrounding Protestant churches -- while retaining orthodoxy’s core liturgy and teachings. They wished to worship no longer, as they put it, as "slaves of bigotry and priestcraft," but as part of the "enlightened world."

The leaders of Beth Elohim refused to consider their petition, citing the congregation's constitution which required that at least two-thirds of the membership join in any call to amend synagogue rituals or practices. In response, the reformers created an independent "Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit."

Meeting at a separate site, the Reformed Society of Israelites wrote its own prayer book, introduced music into the service and worshiped without head coverings. Harby became an active leader of the Society, serving as orator and, in 1827, as president. On the first anniversary of the reform petition, he delivered a lengthy and eloquent address explaining the Society's goals, which he circulated widely as a pamphlet. Though understandably the pamphlet received a mixed reception within the Jewish community, many non-Jewish readers praised it. Even octogenarian Thomas Jefferson wrote to say that he found the reforms proposed "entirely reasonable," though confessing that he was "little acquainted with the liturgy of the Jews or their mode of worship."

While the Reformed Society of Israelites flourished for a few years, the leaders and loyal members of Beth Elohim never ceased their relentless criticism and ostracism of the reformers, and many members became discouraged as their families split apart on religious grounds. Harby left Charleston for New York in 1827, profoundly affected by the premature death of his wife that year (Harby himself died suddenly in 1828), and other reform leaders either died or drifted away. Although the Society never officially disbanded, it ceased to exist sometime after the mid-1830's.

But the spirit of reform in Charleston did not die with Harby. When an accidental fire destroyed Beth Elohim in 1838, the congregation met to plan its rebuilding. The remaining reformers seized their opportunity, and thirty-eight members petitioned the trustees that "an organ be erected in the synagogue to assist in the vocal part of the service." The "Great Organ Controversy", as it came to be known, split the congregation as nothing previously. The synagogue leadership again turned down the request, because playing the organ during services would violate the injunction against labor on Shabbat. Following the congregation’s by-laws, the reformers convened a general meeting of the congregation. After much debate, a two-thirds majority reversed the decision.

Beth Elohim became the first synagogue in America to provide organ music at services. This break with the orthodox minhag opened the way for other changes in the ritual, many of which had been requested a decade earlier by the Reformed Society: confirmation classes for boys and girls, abandoning the second day of festival observances and, eventually, family seating rather than the separation of men and women.

The defeated traditionalists split away to form a new Orthodox congregation, which they called Shearith Israel, "the Remnant of Israel." Beth Elohim thereafter evolved at the forefront of reform Judaism in America. The influences on Charleston’s reformers were clearly native, not imported from Germany. They sincerely believed that Judaism in America could not survive if it could not modernize to combat assimilation. The traditionalists argued, in turn, that such a watered-down Judaism was itself assimilated bend recognition. The debate between American reformers and traditionalists begun in Charleston 250 years ago has yet to be resolved.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society