A History of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, 1825-2005
B’nai Jeshurun’s 180-year history involves many chapters of searching for increasingly more meaningful ways to serve each other, the community, the world and God. Since its founding in 1825, the synagogue has been a leading force in New York Jewry, with a tradition of involvement in the larger community as well as within the congregation.
At the time that John Quincy Adams was president of the United States, a group of Ashkenazic members of Congregation Shearith Israel in Lower Manhattan—the only synagogue in New York City since 1654—broke off to establish Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. Among the reasons for the split was that the Ashkenazic members objected to the two shillings for charity that the congregation charged for anyone who wished to read from the Torah.
The new congregation – the ninth established in the U.S. — began holding its own services “according to German and Polish minhag”* in temporary facilities at 533 Pearl Street, before buying and remodeling its own building, for $8,300,at 119 Elm Street, near Canal Street, which had been the First Coloured Presbyterian Church.
In 1827, when the new synagogue was dedicated, more than 600 people crowded the building, including the leaders of Shearith Israel; the two congregations maintained friendly relations. Most of the 32 founders of B’nai Jeshurun were of English origins, and services were modeled after the Great Synagogue of London. They referred to the Chief Rabbi of England with questions, before hiring their first rabbi in 1839, Rabbi Samuel Isaacs, the first rabbi in New York to conduct services in English.
Rabbi Isaccs served the congregation from 1839-1844. Among his successors are Rabbi Morris J. Raphall, 1850-1868; Rabbi Henry Vidaver, 1867–1874; Rabbi Henry S. Jacobs, 1876-1893; Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, 1893-1900; Rabbi Joseph Mayor Asher, 1901–1907; Rabbi Benjamin Tintner, 1909 –1911; Rabbi Judah L. Magnes, 1911-1912; Rabbi Joel Blau, 1913–1917; Rabbi Israel Goldstein, 1918-1960; Rabbi David H. Panetz, Associate Rabbi, 1946-1951; Rabbi William Berkowitz, Associate Rabbi, 1951 – 1984; Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, 1985 – 1993; Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, 1986 to present; Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein, 1995 to present; and Rabbi Felicia Sol, 2001 to present.
The synagogue has also had an illustrious line of cantors. From 1914 to 1953, CantorJacob Schwartz served the congregation, and three generations of his family still worship at B’nai Jeshurun. Cantor Ari Priven has served since 1989.
Elm Street was the congregation’s home for 25 years, and B’nai Jeshurun members were active in founding the Hebrew Mutual Benefit Society, the Hebrew Benevolent Society and the Society for the Education of Orphan Children; a mikveh was built in 1833. In 1848, the B’nai Jeshurun Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society founded the Home for Aged and Infirm Hebrews, which later became the Jewish Home and Hospital.
By 1849, the congregation outgrew the 600 seats on Elm Street, and built a new synagogue on Greene Street, between Houston and Bleecker, and in 1852 established the B’nai Jeshurun Educational Institute, with 140 students attending the first year.
The early rabbis “called to the pulpit of BJ,” as was the parlance of the time, were known as accomplished orators. The Swedish born Rabbi Raphall was the first to deliver regular sermons, on Shabbat and the holidays, in English. In 1856, the congregation introduced an all-male choir into the service. With a movement toward greater decorum, the rabbi began wearing a gown. Rigid fines were established for talking during services. In 1860, Rabbi Raphall was invited to open the session of the U.S. House of Representatives with prayer; this was the first time a rabbi was given this honor.
Throughout its history, the congregation’s shifts in locations reflected the northward move of the city’s Jewish population. In 1865, as Jews were moving uptown, the congregation purchased land on 34th Street to build a new synagogue. Now, Macy’s stands on the site. During the Civil War, several sons of B’nai Jeshurun served in the Union Army, as they would in subsequent wars as well. When President Lincoln was killed, the synagogue was draped in mourning. At Lincoln’s funeral, the congregation’s first rabbi, Rabbi Isaacs — by then the founding rabbi of breakaway congregation Shaaray Tefila — was one of the rabbis who officiated.
The 1870s were a period of innovation and, also, objections. When separate seating was replaced with an arrangement in which families sat together, there was much initial opposition. Women were invited to join the choir for the first time, and an organ was introduced. The congregation had a brief affiliation with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform body, and ultimately severed the connection. The congregation considered itself Conservative, and members were instrumental in founding the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Again, in 1885, the congregation moved north, building a new synagogue on Madison Avenue, between 64th and 65th Streets. During the time that the new synagogue – modeled after Greene Street — was under construction, services were held at Lyric Hall near Times Square. While Rabbi Jacobs, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, was known for his pastoral talents and success with the religious school, his successor, Rabbi Wise, brought strong organizational skills toward the running of the synagogue, particularly in the areas of education and philanthropy. Rabbi Wise later founded the Free Synagogue.
The congregation published its own prayerbook in 1889. In the BJ archives are a photograph album and scrapbook documenting the sisterhood’s 1905 benefit performance of “The Belle of New York” in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria hotel.
Rabbi Tintner, who had a brief tenure, was the first American-born rabbi and the first graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary to serve the congregation. Rabbi Magnes, who followed him, had previously served as rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, where he tried unsuccessfully to bring in more tradition, pushing for a reformation of Reform Judaism. When he joined B’nai Jeshurun, the mixed choir and organ were given up, although they would later be reinstituted.
The congregation’s fifth location and its present home, 88th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue, was dedicated in 1918. Its Moorish Revival style, with elaborate, colorful mosaics and painting, was very much the vogue of synagogue architecture at the time – “a unit with not a harsh note in it.”* It was in 1918 that the congregation affiliated with the United Synagogue, the Conservative Judaism body, and in 1919, Rabbi Goldstein took up the pulpit and would serve longer than any of his predecessors.
The Centennial celebration in 1925 featured a year’s worth of events, culminating in a Centennial Jubilee Banquet and Dance at the Hotel Astor. Many members who were third and fourth generation descendents of the founders were present, along with leaders of other synagogues and also other religions, scholars and public officials; congratulatory cables were sent from all over the world. A Centennial Memorial Fund was established to promote Jewish education among the city’s poor.
In 1927, the cornerstone was laid for the B’nai Jeshurun Community Center, around the corner from the synagogue on 88th Street. Dedicated in 1928, the seven-story building included an auditorium, ballroom, chapel, classrooms, clubrooms, a women’s salon and library. At the dedication, Rabbi Goldstein said, “The very conception of the Synagogue has grown during this decade, from a delimited notion of the Synagogue as a weekend prayer hall, to the notion of the Synagogue as a weekend power house, radiating energy into life of the entire community – men, women and children.”*
During those years, the Sisterhood built and decorated a spectacular sukkah on the roof of the Community Center, complete with a grand chandelier, lush fruit trees and hanging fruit in abundance. People came from all over the city to see it.
The congregation flourished in its beautiful new space for more than 50 years. This was a period when the congregation continued its outreach to the less fortunate in the city and raised money for the Zionist cause; the synagogue was a spiritual and social center for congregants. Dr. Chaim Weizmann spoke at BJ, as did Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. Rabbi Panitz, who served as associate rabbi alongside Rabbi Goldstein, worked closely with the young people of the congregation, creating a “Confirmant’s League,” a post-confirmation leadership and study group that met in his home.
In the1970s B’nai Jeshurun found its membership dwelling, as did many synagogues in the area. At one point, when the building was in disrepair, the congregation met in a movie theater around the corner, where it had to finish by noon when the first showing began.
That decline was reversed with the arrival of Rabbi Marshall Meyer from Buenos Aires in 1985. Setting up his “office” with a card table, a pay phone and a roll of quarters in a synagogue alcove, he began attracting many people with his impassioned Judaism, blending social activism, music and compassion for all. At BJ, as it soon came to be called, everyone was welcome, and rabbis were called by their first names. Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, known as Roly, who had been Marshall’s student in Argentina, joined him in leading the congregation. Soon they were facing swelling crowds at Friday night services that were alive with meaningful prayer, joy and dancing. In 1989, their efforts were enhanced when Cantor Ari Priven, also a student of Marshall’s from Argentina, joined them.
In May 1991, sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning services, the roof of the building collapsed, bringing half a ton of plaster onto the bimah and surrounding area. The timing was fortunate, for no one was in the building, and what could have been a major disaster was avoided. The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, at the corner of 86th Street and West End Avenue, opened its doors to the BJ congregation and regular Shabbat and holiday services were held in a church. Together, congregants of the two institutions created a large banner, with the words of Psalm 133, “How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in harmony,” which now hangs at the front of the Church.
Tragedy struck BJ in December 1993, when the beloved Marshall Meyer died of cancer. The congregation continues to uphold his memory and his teachings, and his presence is still very much felt. In 1995, Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein, another of Marshall’s former students, joined Roly in leading the congregation.
In 1996, renovations and repairs to the BJ sanctuary on 88th Street were completed, and the synagogue was rededicated. Its new design maintains the feeling of the magnificent original while maximizing the flexibility of the space. But the congregation had grown larger than the number of seats on 88th Street. In 2001, Rabbi Felicia Sol, who served the congregation as a Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow, joined her teachers, Roly and Marcelo, in their rabbinic partnership, becoming the congregation’s first woman rabbi.
Now, services are held at both the Synagogue and the Church, which form a kind of “BJ campus.” The congregation’s ongoing vital history continues to be tied to its sacred space and, moreover, the visionary leadership of its rabbis, with many new chapters to be written.
from A Century of Judaism in New York: B’nai Jeshurun 1825 – 1925 by Rabbi Israel Goldstein (1930)