|photo by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
In the 1820s the Jewish population in New York City was still relatively small; yet it was substantial enough to have three separation congregations: Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest; Congregation B’nai Jeshurun; and Congregation Anshe Chesed. Composed of German, Polish and Dutch Jews, Anshe Chesed was the youngest group, established in 1828.
Congregation Anshe Chesed (People of Kindness) was made up mostly of immigrants with little money or status. They worshiped in rented rooms until 1842 when the old Quaker Meeting House at No. 38 Henry Street was purchased and converted to a synagogue. Within a decade the congregation grew to be the largest in America.
Anshe Chesed distinguished itself from other Manhattan congregations as well by embracing the Reform Movement. But this change would not become fully rooted until the group built a new, impressive synagogue on Norfolk Street in 1848. Here more reforms were put into place—the introduction of a choir of both sexes, a pipe organ, and the allowing of families to sit together during worship, for instance.
In 1872 the congregation laid plans for another move—this time surprisingly far uptown. Land was purchased on the corner of southeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street. The New York Times explained “The congregation formerly worshiped at the church in Norfolk-street, near Houston, but finding the building insufficient for the increasing strength of the membership, they decided to erect a new temple on the above-mentioned site.”
Prolific architects D. & J. Jardine received the commission. The brothers, David and James, would be active throughout the rest of the century, designing commercial structures, rowhouses and mansions.
The cornerstone was laid on July 3, 1872 with ceremonies that included “the singing of a chorale by a male and female choir, accompanied by a brass band.” In the box within the cornerstone were placed a history of the congregation, several newspapers, a list of officials of the Federal Government, State, County, and City, a list of the other Jewish congregations in New York City, and a number of ancient and modern coins, including a Danish token with Hebrew writing, among other items.
Consecrated on September 12, 1873, the $200,000 structure reflected the wealth and position of its congregation. A mixture of Romanesque and Victorian Gothic, it was 83 feet wide and stretched 120 feet along 63rd Street. Brick, stone and terra cotta joined forces to create a colorful, eclectic façade. A massive corner tower rose 135 feet above the sidewalk, vying for attention with the gigantic stained glass rose window. A Moorish-inspired portico, supported by two spindly stone columns greeted the congregation.
Capable of accommodating 1,400 worshipers, the interior was awe-inspiring. Brilliantly-colored stenciling, inlaid woodwork, brass lighting fixtures and ornate carving bordered on overwhelming.
|photo by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
The side door of the temple was opened at 3:00 for the consecration. The Times reported “The seats were soon completely filled from floor to gallery, many of the worshipers being in full evening dress, and all the males sitting with their hats on, as is the custom of the orthodox Hebrews.”
Two months later, during the week of December 21, 1873, meetings were held between Anshe Chesed and Temple Adath Jeshurun “for the purpose of effecting a union of these two congregations,” said The Times. The two congregations “declared themselves in harmony with every principle enunciated and proclaimed by reformed Judaism [and] prepared to adopt the most radical measures to bring their worship to accord with modern ideas.”
The merger resulted in the congregation Beth-El. On March 7, 1874 it rededicated the Lexington Avenue structure. The New York Times reported “The splendid synagogue, or, as the modern Jews call it, temple, at the corner of Sixty-third street and Lexington avenue, which had been erected by the Congregation Anshi Chesed, formerly worshiping in Norfolk street, and dedicated by them to the worship of the Almighty during the last Summer, has passed into the hands of a new congregation, Beth El.”
|Inlaid woodwork and brilliant stenciling added to the lavish interiors. photo by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
In his first sermon in this temple, Rabbi Dr. Einhorn—who insisted on conducting services in English or German rather than Hebrew—referred to the reform movement as one more step in the freeing of the Jews. He discussed “every allusion to the bondage of the Hebrews during the Middle Ages, as the reform Jew of America believes that he is now freer from every physical bond.”
It would not be long before a near-schism erupted between the two groups. Prior to 1840 Anshe Chesed purchased a plot 25 by 100 feet on Sixth Avenue between 45th and 46th Street which it used as a burying ground. When the City outlawed burials south of 83rd Street in 1851, the congregation established another graveyard on 89th Street near Madison Avenue. That, too, was closed by the City for the same reasons—health fears and property needs.
Having learned its lesson, the congregation purchased a tract of land at Union Fields, Long Island to be used as a cemetery. It was now being used by the newly-combined congregations.
When some members realized that the real estate of the old burial grounds in Manhattan was now worth between $70,000 and $80,000, they proposed to move the bodies to Long Island and sell the land. A permit for the removal of the bodies was obtained from the Board of Health and a notice went out to the congregants.
The reaction was swift and angry from some.
“The old members of the Anshi Chesed are bitterly opposed to this measure, on the ground that it is contrary to their faith to disturb the bones of the dead. They also claim that the deeds for the lots stand in their name, and that the congregation have no right to them.”
The proposal was “denounced in the most indignant terms” as “desecration of the graves of their relatives and friends,” said the newspaper. The irate members promised to “use every lawful means to prevent what they consider a wrong being done.”
Eventually the controversy was put to rest when the defiant congregants lost their battle and the coffins were moved.
On September 6, 1879 the temple welcomed its new rabbi, the Rev. Dr. K. Kohler. The Times reported “The Orientally-decorated interior of the Temple Beth-El, with its slender Moorish columns, and windows of crimson and purple and gold, has not held a larger congregation since it was dedicated, in 1873, than that which assembled to hear the inaugural sermon of the Rev. Dr. Kohler yesterday morning.”
Kohler made it perfectly clear that he intended to continue the reforms of his retiring predecessor, Dr. Einhorn. Saying that the 19th century marked “one of the turning-points in the material, moral and intellectual history of human kind,” he asked “ought Judaism alone remain passive, hidden, as it were, in its little snail-house?”
He said that “good, honest orthodoxy” had its face turned backward, and “has consequently been overtaken by the swelling tide of modern ideas, which have undermined not only the outer wall of the ghetto, but also the buttresses and the pillars of mediaeval Judaism.”
Kohler announced that services would be performed in English and German, on alternating weeks. The unrelenting opinions he espoused that day would set the tone for decades of sermons to come. And his demand for nearly autocratic authority would cause problems a few years later,
Two things occurred in 1886 that deeply offended the rabbi. The first was the Board of Trustees independently deciding to look for an assistant rabbi who spoke fluent English. Rabbi Kohler was incensed when he learned of their action without involving him.
The trustees wanted an English-speaking rabbi to perform services on Sundays, rather than the Sabbath, because many of the young members held jobs that required them to work Saturdays.
Then, as Kohler prepared for a convention of reform ministers in Cincinnati on June 16, the Trustees requested a report on what he intended to do there. Rabbi Kohler did not feel he was required to submit his plans nor to answer to the Board.
Around June 1 he sent a letter to the Board of Trustees “in which he announced his intention of resigning unless the Trustees accede to certain demands,” reported a newspaper.
Kohler expected his threat to be met with acquiescence. He was no doubt surprised when one of the leading members of the congregation, Gerson N. Herrman, issued an announcement that intimated the resignation might be accepted.
“Rabbi Kohler is an able minister and a very intelligent man, but as heretofore I am opposed to his doctrines because they are too radical and not positive enough, and I think he was too hasty in proclaiming his resignation…We most assuredly need another minister as an assistant, and I approve of having an English preacher. A special meeting of the Trustees was called, which will convene to-morrow. Should the Rabbi’s resignation be accepted, it will not take effect until next year.”
On June 6 the meeting was held, its members being unanimous about looking for an English-speaking assistant and in denouncing the rabbi’s rash reaction. Nevertheless, a committee of nine was appointed to meet with Kohler.
Rabbi Kohler emerged victorious from that meeting. The New York Times reported on June 10 “The differences existing between the Trustees of the Congregation Beth-El…and their rabbi, the Rev. K. Kohler, were yesterday amicably adjusted.”
Kohler announced “It is to be understood that the lectures at the temple will continue, as heretofore, under my supervision, and, in the event of any appointment of an assistant minister, such step will come under my jurisdiction. As to the Cincinnati convention, the Board of Trustees has decided not in any way to interfere with me.”
Kohler delivered a touching and ecumenical tribute from his pulpit following the death of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the renowned pastor of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church. On March 12, 1887 he declared “When Abraham died, the great men of the time, according to the Talmud, went about saying ‘The world has lost its leader, the ship its Captain.’ So in the death of Henry Ward Beecher the American Nation has lost one of its most gifted sons, one of its most determined and powerful champions for liberty and humanity.”
Kohler’s insistence on looking forward, rather than back, was evidenced in the titles of his sermons. The same year that he honored Henry Beecher, he preached on “Prejudice,” “Prohibition and Self Control,” “Evolution and Morality,” and “Jew and Gentile: What is Going On?” among similar issues.
When the Supreme Court of Wisconsin ruled in 1890 against the reading of the Bible in public schools, Rev. Dr. K. Kohler responded in his sermon. On March 23 he declared “It is both right and due of the Jewish citizen to protest against such an encroachment as is the opening of the school with either the Bible or the Lord’s Prayer, or of any of the public meetings or legislative sitting under the emblems and forms of Christians. That is sectarian practice. Any religious exercise which does not include all beliefs and convictions must be relegated to the Church, and has no connection with the functions of the State, which are purely secular.”
In 1891 congregation Beth-El moved again, selling its magnificent building to congregation Rodelph Sholom. That congregation had been founded on September 29, 1842 as an orthodox synagogue; but in 1874 had embraced the reform movement. A newspaper noted “it was decided to abolish some of the old-time, and now meaningless, ceremonies and to introduce organ music.”
Dedication ceremonies were held on the evening of September 4, 1891 after the temple had been “refitted and renovated,” according to The New York Times.
The following year the congregation celebrated its Golden Jubilee. On December 17, 1892 Rabbi Dr. Wise delivered his sermon in German, on “Retrospective Glances.” Tracing the congregation’s history back 1,000 years, he said “Like Jacob, the congregation had reason to thank God for the prosperity that had attended them. They saw their members on the judicial bench, at the bar, and among the great merchants. The children had all done well.”
The Congregation Rodeph Sholom involved itself in political and social issues, as well as religious matters. When the first meeting of the Israelite Alliance of America was held in the Lexington Avenue building on May 25, 1902, the problem of Russia’s discrimination against American Jews was addressed.
The Russian Government had an official policy of barring Jewish men and women from entering the country, despite proper paperwork. Joseph J. Corn, who presided at the meeting insisted “it was a humiliation to the whole Nation that American passports were dishonored on the borders of Russia because the bearers happened to be Jews.”
In honoring military dead, Americans at the time tended to overlook the contributions of Jewish soldiers and sailors. Partially in response, on May 17, 1908 the Hebrew Union Veteran Association and the Hebrew Veterans of the War with Spain held joint memorial services at Temple Rodeph Sholom. The Times noted “Spaces were reserved in the centre of the temple for the members of the two associations, and the rest of the auditorium was filled.”
The temple was equally filled on April 20, 1912, following the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Rev. Dr. Rudolph Grossman addressed those who asked why God allowed such a tragedy.
“Is God at fault that there were not sufficient lifeboats? It is human stupidity, sinfulness, and cupidity,” he said.
He spoke also of Isidore Straus, philanthropist, civic leader, and co-owner of Macy’s department store, and his wife, Ida. “While we mourn for the humblest, the stokers and the sailors who died like men in the performance of their duty, and for the humblest in the steerage, we also mourn for those great men in philanthropy and in other lines which this country could ill afford to lose.
“There is one which we as Jews especially mourn—Isidore Straus, a leader in every good and noble cause, whether patriotic, religious, or educational. We must call attention also to the wonderfully beautiful, almost sublime, deed of his noble wife, who refused to leave him.”
By 1926 the Lexington Avenue corner had greatly changed. Apartment buildings and retail stores had replaced the homes along the avenue. On January 31 that year The New York Times announced that the Temple Rodeph Sholom, “a landmark of the district,” had been purchased “as a site for an apartment hotel” for about $800,000.
The newspaper explained that the congregation, having become “beneficiaries” of the increased value of the real estate, had decided to move out “of a district which is being rapidly changed for structures for other uses.”
The congregation purchased land on 83rd Street, near Central Park West, and laid plans for a new $2 million temple there. The final service was held on Monday evening, October 4, 1926.
|photo from the collection of the Library of Congress|
In its place the monumental Barbizon Hotel for Women rose, completed in 1927. The masterful structure, designed by Palmer H. Ogden, survives today.