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Geography of Religious Life

The story of American Jewish religious life in the mid-nineteenth century is one of encounter, adaptation, and occasional resistance. By mid-century, the heretofore largely Orthodox national scene was dominated by a number of European-born, German-speaking rabbis who brought with them many of the ideas of the Reform movement then taking root in Germany. The arrival of these competing interpretations of the new ideas and notions of how best to modernize their faith for a new time and place was a defining moment that has shaped the development of American Judaism since those fateful years.

With the help of a map produced in 1873 by the General Land Office in Washington (and printed in New York by Julius Bien, a Jewish lithographer) [ catalog record ] , this page hopes to show an approximate geographical distribution of the Jewish population across the United States and use items from AAS’ Judaica collection to draw a rough sketch of the institutions that dominated Jewish social and religious life from 1841 to 1876.


As American Jews began to exhibit more cohesion and form a national community, similar social and political awakenings were occurring simultaneously across the Atlantic. Spurred by a sense of shared outrage at anti-Semitic events such as the Damascus Affair in the 1840s and the Mortara case in 1850s Italy, the Alliance Israélite Universelle was founded in Paris in 1860 in an attempt to organize and be able to help Jews around the world in similar straits, as well as provide education to needy Jews, especially those in eastern Europe. AAS has a copy of the alliance’s constitution, printed in New York in both English and German in 1864. [ catalog record ]



AAS’s holdings from the Boston area include the constitution of Congregation Ohabei Shalom, the oldest Jewish community in the city [ catalog record ] ; an 1848 book of Talmudic Maxims compiled by L. S. D’Israel [catalog record] ; and a Hebrew calendar from 1863, printed “for the use of Ineffable Freemasons” in recognition of the fact that the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry uses the Jewish calendar in its dating system. [ catalog record ]

To the right: A page from the Calendar for the Hebrew Years 5622-5660 showing how the months of the Jewish calendar years 5630 and 5631 match up with corresponding days in the Gregorian calendar.


Jewish communities existed in smaller cities and towns as well as major urban centers during the period of 1841 to 1876. The Jewish population in Albany began worshipping in the 1830s, and in 1846 the city’s Congregation Beth El became the site of Reform leader Isaac Mayer Wise’s first leadership position in the United States. The Orthodox Congregation Beth Jacob—which still exists today as Beth Abraham-Jacob—was formed in 1848; AAS has a copy of the dedication service for the first iteration of its synagogue on April 28 of that year. [ catalog record ]


New York

The largest city in the country and a center of Jewish population and activity since the 1650s, New York was home to a staggering number of Jewish religious, social, and charitable organizations. Among its most prominent synagogues were Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, where Swedish-born rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall delivered his discourse titled Bible View of Slavery [ catalog record ], as well as Congregation Shearith Israel and Congregation Shaaray Tefila, all of which were active in the entire thirty-five years from 1841 to 1876. Dozens of organizations, prominent among them the Hebrew Benevolent Society, which inspired the creation of similarly named groups in cities across the country, sought to bring well-off Jews together in order to give aid to their struggling coreligionists.

The American Antiquarian Society’s Judaica holdings from New York include a series of financial reports from the directors of Jewish Hospital—today Mount Sinai Hospital—as well as an 1853 invitation to a dinner and ball celebrating the laying of the corner stone for the hospital building [ catalog record ]. New York was also a center of publishing and literary activity: AAS has in its collection an American Hebrew and English Almanac for the Year 5610 [ catalog record ] printed in New York, as well as an address given in 1852 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise—then living and working in Albany—to the Hebrew Young Men’s Literary Association, titled “The End of Popes, Nobles, and Kings, or the Progress of Civilization." [ catalog record ]



One of the largest cities in the country in the period of 1841 to 1876, Philadelphia was also a major hub of American Judaism, with a number of active congregations as well as numerous social and charitable organizations. Especially in the 1850s and 1860s as western states were becoming the stronghold of Reform Judaism, Philadelphia remained a center of Orthodoxy, due mostly to the prolific career of Isaac Leeser, a highly influential writer and thinker who led Congregation Mikveh Israel in the city for two decades. The Reform movement did have a presence in Philadelphia, though: radical reformer David Einhorn led Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in the 1860s, while Marcus Jastrow simultaneously served as rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom (though, especially due to his later work, Jastrow is generally regarded as a forerunner of Conservative Judaism). AAS’s holdings from Philadelphia include:

-The constitution and by-laws of the first iteration of the American Jewish Publication Society. Founded by Leeser in 1845, the society was discontinued after a fire destroyed much of its stock in 1851 and not re-founded until the 1870s, this time in New York. [ catalog record ]

-An address, attributed to Leeser, delivered at the funeral of a Mr. John Moss, titled “Life and Eternity." [ catalog record ] Other works by Leeser in AAS’s collection are his Book of Daily Prayers for Every Day of the Year. According to the Custom of the German and Polish Jews [catalog record] and a series of Discourses on the Jewish Religion given at Mikveh Israel near the end of his life. [ catalog record ]

-A sermon delivered on Pentecost, in 1869 by Sabato Morais, who succeeded Leeser as leader of Mikveh Israel. [ catalog record ]

-A series of documents from Jewish charitable organizations in the city: the 1853 Report of the First Annual Dinner in Aid of the Hebrew Charitable Fund [ catalog record ], the 1869 constitution of the Society of United Hebrew Charities [ catalog record ], and a reprinted copy of the charter of the Hebrew Education Society [ catalog record ]. The latter group was founded by Rebecca Gratz, a philanthropist and close friend of Leeser, and included with its charter are the Rules and Regulations for the Government of Maimonides College, the first American rabbinical school, also founded by Leeser.


Baltimore illustrates perhaps better than any other city the theological growing pains that American Judaism experienced in the thirty-five years before 1876. In the 1850s and 1860s, the city was home to two prominent rabbis with highly contrasting visions for their faith. One, the Hungarian-born Benjamin Szold, was a moderate who lived his whole life in America in Baltimore, as rabbi and later rabbi emeritus of Congregation Oheb Shalom. His major contribution to American Judaica was the Avodat Yisrael, a prayer book created in 1863 and revised in 1871 with Henry Hochheimer and Philadelphia rabbi Marcus Jastrow, which offered an alternative to more dramatic Reform works such as Wise’s Minhag America and laid the foundation for the Conservative movement. AAS has in its collection a copy of a sermon Szold delivered in German at Oheb Shalom on June 1, 1865, mourning the death of Abraham Lincoln, called “Vaterland und freiheit,” or “Fatherland and Freedom.” [ catalog record ] The second prominent rabbi, German-born David Einhorn, the leader of Baltimore’s Congregation Har Sinai, was a zealous proponent of Reform who authored his own prayer book, the Olat Tamid, and alienated even Wise with his uncompromising theological stances. Einhorn’s principles got him in trouble outside the Jewish community as well: in 1861, a pro-slavery mob outraged by his abolitionist sermons threatened to tar and feather him, forcing the rabbi to flee north. He spent the rest of his career at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Philadelphia and then Congregation Adath Israel in New York.


The Jewish community in Richmond was one of the oldest and most consistently active in the country in the mid-nineteenth century. The city’s oldest synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalome, had been established in 1789, and was at its founding the sixth-oldest and westernmost synagogue in the United States. In AAS’s holdings is a 1951 book containing a facsimile of an order of service that took place in Beth Shalome in 1861, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared June 18 to be a “Day of Humiliation and Prayer.” There were about half a dozen such days declared during the first year of the Civil War, by both Davis and his presidential counterpart Abraham Lincoln. [ catalog record ]



Charleston was one of the most important sites in early American Jewish history, being generally acknowledged today as the first foothold of the Reform movement in the United States. The Reformed Society of Israelites, founded in 1824 and led by Isaac Harby and Abraham Moise, had a lasting influence on other Jewish communities around the country, and Congregation Beth Elohim in the city later became a leading Reform community. Charleston was no longer the hub of new ideas in the period of 1841 to 1876, but remained the home of a thriving Jewish community. AAS’s Judaica collection includes a sermon delivered by New York rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall at Charleston’s Congregation Shearit Israel in 1850, called “The Constancy of Israel.” [ catalog record ]


The growing cities of the West were often hotbeds of Reform thought in the mid-nineteenth century. Bernhard Felsenthal led a number of Reform congregations in Chicago starting in the 1850s, and Cincinnati became the byword for American Reform Judaism thanks to the leadership of Bohemian-born rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. Arguably the most influential American Jewish figure of the nineteenth century, Wise led Cincinnati’s Congregation Bene Jeshurun from 1854 until his death, preaching a more modern and accessible form of Judaism from that pulpit across the country. Important elements of Reform included shorter services conducted in English (or German, the vernacular of many new immigrants) as opposed to Hebrew, choral singing during services, and women seated with men in pews. Wise attempted throughout his life to establish national Jewish organizations that would bring together various communities under the Reform banner, and several of them—the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (today the Union for Reform Judaism), the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR)—still exist today, a testament to his life’s work. Throughout his career, Wise also made use of the press of his brother-in-law Edward Bloch to print many works that then circulated throughout the country, including Wise’s magnum opus, the prayer book Minhag America. Wise formulated the first version of the Minhag in 1857 in an attempt to standardize Reform liturgy: though the CCAR replaced it with the Union Prayer Book in 1894, Wise’s goal for a more cohesive and consistent Reform service proved lasting. AAS holds one part of the Minhag America—The Divine Service of American Israelites for the New Year—that was published in 1866. [ catalog record ]


Paducah, Kentucky
Immigrants to rural or midwestern areas were more likely to hold onto their roots, publishing a great deal of material in German even decades after the first German immigrants began arriving. This 1870 document is the constitution of a Jewish women’s organization from Paducah, Kentucky, called the “Israelitischen Frauen Unterstützungsgesellschaft.” [ catalog record ]

Portland, Oregon
Judaism first took hold on the West Coast in the 1850s with the establishment of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Communities in Sacramento and Los Angeles were not far behind in founding their own synagogues and organizations, with Solomon Nunes Carvalho recalling the help he gave to the fledgling Jewish community of Los Angeles in his memoir Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West. [ catalog record ] A 1976 work in AAS’s collection records a broadside invitation to the dedication of a Portland, Oregon, synagogue being consecrated for Congregation Ahavai Sholom in 1869. [ catalog record ]


“David Einhorn.” Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Einhorn.html.

Dwyer-Ryan, Meaghan, Susan L. Porter, Susan L.and Lisa Fagin; Davis, Lisa Fagin. Becoming American Jews: Temple Israel of Boston. Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2009. [catalog record]

“Early History.” Bloch Publishing. http://www.blochpub.com/early_history.

“Encyclopedia Judaica: Albany, New York.” Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0001_0_006....

“Felsenthal, Bernhard.” Jewish Encyclopedia. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6073-felsenthal-bernhard.

“History.” Congregation Beth Ahabah. https://bethahabah.org/heritage/history/#.

“History.” Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. http://www.kkbe.org/index.php?page=history.

“Isaac Mayer Wise.” Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/IWise.html.

“Isaac Mayer Wise. American Rabbi.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Isaac-Mayer-Wise#ref209028.

“Jewish/Israel Organizations: Alliance Israelite Universelle.” Jewish Virtual Library.

“Our History.” Congregation Rodeph Shalom. https://rodephshalom.org/about/our-history.

“Szold, Benjamin.” Jewish Encyclopedia. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14180-szold-benjamin.

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