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Ordained rabbis were rare in America before the mid-19th century

Ordained rabbis were rare before mid-century. The first arrived in Baltimore, in 1840, and even after they began to come over from Europe, congregations frequently used laymen or minimally trained leaders for the basic ritual services, such as reading the liturgy, providing music for worship, and chanting the Scriptures, as well as for running the synagogue or supervising the dietary regulations (especially for meat). When rabbis (or, as they were sometimes called, especially when they were not ordained, ministers or reverends) cantors (hazzanim), whether trained or not, were hired by these reforming congregations, they were usually given, in writing, the synagogue’s expectations about how they would lead (reading or singing or both) the liturgy, how frequently they would deliver sermons, in which language they would deliver them, their obligations with respect to life-cycle events such as confirmation ceremonies, weddings, and funerals (including compensation), their responsibilities with the choir, which ages they would teach, and even the precise order of the liturgy. At Rodeph Shalom, for example, the Ritual Committee instructed the service leader to begin the Friday-evening service with L’chu n’ran’na (Come let us sing) and then gave sentence-by-sentence orders. Shaarai Shomayim, a small synagogue in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (with an 1855 German constitution), hired its first ordained rabbi, Morris Ungerleider, in 1884 as “Chasan, Minister, Teacher, and Schochet.” Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, in 1857, hired the Reverend S. Berman as “chasan, Shochet, and Shammes,” and twelve years later it sought someone who “can perform the duties of Chasan, teacher, and Shochet,” is “capable of teaching in the Hebrew, German, and English languages,” and could deliver sermons. The larger the congregation, that is, the greater the budget, the more likely these roles would be divided up among a rabbi, a cantor, a ritual slaughterer, a teacher, and a sexton.

In Atlanta, Abraham Jaffa, shochet, mohel, and hazan – slaughtered chickens in the rear of his home. Washington Hebrew Congregation, in the district of Columbia, hired two salaried officials in 1867, one to serve as lecturer and the other to serve as hazan or reader and teacher. In 1871, the congregation replaced the two two with one man, Michael Goldberg, “reader and teacher,” and explained to him that it no longer wanted sermons. He was to “read” the service, “keep” the religious school (twice during the week and on Sunday), and “educate” a choir, but he was not to preach during the Sabbath worship service. At the same time as the congregation was steadily introducing reforms, it returned to a centuries-old European tradition of eschewing weekly sermons and, instead, hiring someone to preach on occasional festivals and holy days.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 35-36.

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“Even in ancient times, allies of Jewish polities exerted cultural influence among Jews, and often enough, too, many Jews lived in the lands of allied countries…”

Even in ancient times, allies of Jewish polities exerted cultural influence among Jews, and often enough, too, many Jews lived in the lands of allied countries, including Egypt, Babylonia and Persia. These cultural/communal relationships had broad geopolitical significance over time, just as one would expect, since geostrategic decisions are never completely divorced from politics at large. So it matters that internal divisions within Israel today abrade against the sensibilities of some Americans and American Jews in particular. American Jews are becoming progressively more disenchanted with Israeli domestic religious policies that increasingly favor an ultra-Orthodox community whose mores are alien to them. Ever more American Jews are also unhappy with Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, even if the vast majority is not in principle hostile to Israel itself. Finally, as more and more American Jews drop their synagogue and communal affiliations, put forth little to no effort to learn about their own culture and history, and think of themselves as “just Jewish” (and then, often enough, only if someone asks them), their emotional stake in Israel wanes accordingly.

Dov S. Zakheim, “The Geopolitics of Scripture,” The American Interest (July/August 2012), 16.

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“Some Jewish clergy…have…become the bearers of an insidious message—that…religious stuff is really not terribly important…”

Rather than defending Judaism’s distinctive system, some Jewish clergy and synagogues have allowed themselves to act as if some of their families are fully Jewish even if one spouse is not Jewish by any criterion. They have thereby also become the bearers of an insidious message—that all this religious stuff is really not terribly important and shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the really important thing, which is for everyone to play nice and get along.

Jack Wertheimer, “Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?Mosaic (September 2013).

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“…a more assertive approach to intermarriage can be augmented through the creative thinking of Jewish leaders committed to making their own journey from timidity to self-assurance”

…a more assertive approach to intermarriage can be augmented through the creative thinking of Jewish leaders committed to making their own journey from timidity to self-assurance. As with so many battles, the first casualty in contending with intermarriage has been the truth. It is past time not only to rebut the falsehoods and expose the failed promises but to proclaim that, for the sake of the American Jewish future, it matters greatly who stands under the marriage canopy. The blurring of religious boundaries in order to achieve peace in the home may lower tensions in the short term, but demonstrably sows confusion in children and huge losses of adherents in the longer term. The Jewish community and its leaders are not the cause of the disaffection of the intermarried; but neither need they handcuff themselves in order to placate activists who use the power of the purse to intimidate, or defeatists who counsel capitulation.

Jack Wertheimer, “Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?Mosaic (September 2013).

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“Can Jewish leaders work together with this silent majority to overthrow the regnant approaches to intermarriage?”

Can Jewish leaders work together with this silent majority to overthrow the regnant approaches to intermarriage? And if so, how?

First and foremost, a more assertive approach to intermarriage would require the dignified acknowledgement by Jewish institutions that endogamous families are the Jewish ideal—the best hope for transmitting a strong identity to the next generation. Once this crucial premise is openly espoused, the next logical step is to invest heavily in intensive forms of Jewish education through the college years and in helping Jewish singles, including the “alumni” of this education, to meet each other. Our advanced technologies and the ease of contemporary travel offer unprecedented opportunities to bring American Jews together with their peers and to nurture stronger connections with the Jewish people globally.

Practically speaking, it makes sense, as the previous paragraph suggests, to focus less energy on courting already intermarried families—once an intermarriage has occurred, it is far more difficult for communal institutions to intervene—than on encouraging as many single Jews as possible to marry within the community. Birthright Israel serves as one model for such programs; many more initiatives like it are needed in the United States. Their message should be transparent: instead of being infantilized with assurances that no strings will ever be attached, younger Jews need to hear without equivocation why it is important to build Jewish families. And they must be told the truth: the American Jewish community is in a fight for its life, and the younger generation is expected to shoulder its share of responsibility.

Jack Wertheimer, “Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?Mosaic (September 2013).

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“Promptly following the first arrival of Jews in colonial America, the synagogue became the most significant institution of Jewish life”

Promptly following the first arrival of Jews in colonial America, the synagogue became the most significant institution of Jewish life. Unlike in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, when other institutions, such as Jewish community centers and Jewish philanthropic organizations, often claimed to be the “central address” of the Jewish community, no other organization challenged the dominance of the early synagogues. In part, this was the case for two reasons: because, well into the nineteenth century, synagogues incorporated activities that later, as the Jewish population grew, could not all be contained within the synagogue or whose leaders did not want them to be part of the synagogue, and also because the Jewish community was so small…. The synagogue…was the Jewish community in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries . As American Jews slowly created philanthropic organizations, the synagogue enveloped them.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 2.