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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