Editor’s Note: The following article is based on “Israel B. Kursheedt” by Dr. M. J. Raphall, The Asmonean, May 7, 1852; “Mr. Israel Bear Kursheedt” by Isaac Leeser, The Occident and the Jewish Advocate, 1852 (10); and “The Seixas-Kursheedts and the Rise of Early American Jewry” by Kenneth Libo and Abigail Kursheedt Hoffman, Bloch Publishing Company, 2001).
One of the factors that hindered the proper early development of Judaism in America was a lack of qualified religious functionaries. From 1654 until the middle of the 19th century the religious needs of the few small Jewish communities in North America were served by a variety of layman, “reverends” and cantors, few with anything more than a basic yeshiva education.
Indeed, the first ordained Orthodox rabbi did not arrive in the United States until 1840. Rav Avraham Rice found religious chaos in the Jewish community of Baltimore where he served.
One man who came to America just before the turn of the 18th century did possess an excellent yeshiva education. Israel Baer Kursheedt (known to many as IBK) was the first Ashkenazic talmid chacham to make his way to these shores. His knowledge, leadership, and sage counsel were of inestimable value to the Jewish communities in which he resided.
Little is known of Kursheedt’s early life. He was born in Singhofen, Germany, near the Rhine on the 4th day of Pesach in 5526 (April 6, 1766). His father passed away when he was young, and his mother relocated to the village of Kursheidt, near Konigswinter, where he spent his childhood. At the time many German Jews did not have family names, so Israel Baer took as his surname the name of this village.
His exceptional intellectual abilities induced friends of his family to send him to the yeshiva of Rabbi Nosson Adler in Frankfurt am Main. Rav Adler, a celebrated Talmudist and kabbalist, attracted a number of excellent students who later became well-known rabbonim, the most famous being the Chasam Sofer.
Among Kursheedt’s fellow students were two who particularly distinguished themselves and attained considerable eminence: Rav Avraham Bing and Rav Wolf Heidenheim. Rav Bing became chief rabbi of Wurzburg; his students included Rav Jacob Ettlinger, Rav Nathan Marcus Adler, Chacham Isaac Bernays and Rav Seligman Baer Bamberger. Rav Heidenheim is known for his many literary publications, including a Hebrew commentary on and a German translation of the machzor.
Rav Adler held these three students – Bing, Heidenheim and Kursheedt – in equal esteem. Rav Adler liked to say that Reb Avraham was a charif (acute logician), Reb Wolf a medakdek (grammarian and philologist), and Reb Yisroel a chacham, a wise man accomplished in Torah learning.
Kursheedt’s studies in Rav Adler’s yeshiva were interrupted by the outbreak of the French Revolution and General Adam Custine’s invasion of Frankfurt in 1792. He was forced to find some means of earning a livelihood and in some way or another was able to obtain a contract to supply the Prussian army with provisions. It’s quite amazing that this young man, whose life had been spent in a cloistered yeshiva environment, was able to navigate the inherent dangers of doing business during wartime and deal with gentile military officials.
Coming to America
In 1795, as a result of the peace of Basil, the Prussian army on the Rhine was disbanded and IBK’s military-related business endeavors came to a close. He decided he would leave Germany, a country where Jews were treated as less than second-class citizens, and immigrate to England where he would try his luck in business.
In 1796 he traveled to Hamburg with the intention of going on to England. While in Hamburg, however, he heard of an American sloop, the Simonhoff, which was preparing to sail to Boston. A friend had told him that Boston had a burgeoning Jewish community, so he changed his plans and booked passage on the ship.
Kursheedt may not have realized the difficulty of crossing the Atlantic in this relatively small (70- to 80-ton) one-mast ship. The trip took 70 days and Kursheedt, who spoke virtually no English at the time, was probably the lone Jew making the voyage. He was fortunate that the captain of the ship became kindly disposed to him and did his best to make his time on board as comfortable as possible.
Kursheedt was at sea during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He often related how on erev Yom Kippur he managed to communicate to the captain the nature of his observance of this holy day. He had the captain get an English Bible, and, using the Arabic numbering of the chapters and verses to find those dealing with Yom Kippur, he pointed them out. In this way the captain came to understand what he was doing. Kursheedt also used this device to get the captain to understand and assist him with some of his other religious needs.
When Kursheedt arrived in Boston sometime toward the end of 1796, he discovered that there was no synagogue. Indeed, the entire Jewish community consisted of one family. Disappointed, he stayed only a short time in Boston before deciding to give New York a try:
Israel Baer’s first impressions of Jewish life in New York must have left him crestfallen. In material terms, the Jewish community consisted of a synagogue building on Mill Street dating back to 1730, an adjoining hebra [meeting place and schoolhouse], the minister’s house, and a cemetery on Chatham Square. Its upkeep was the cause of frequent outbreaks [disagreements] among the trustees of Shearith Israel; until 1825, it would be the only Jewish cemetery in New York City. They [the Jews of New York] knew little of Jewish traditions. Neglect, apathy, and petty bickering were pervasive. (The Seixas-Kursheedts)
It did not take Kursheedt long to make the acquaintance of Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas, who served as the chazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel for almost fifty years.
At that time, and for many years afterward, Kursheedt was the only real rabbinical scholar to be found anywhere in North America. On January 18, 1804, he married Sarah Abigail (Sally) Seixas, the eldest daughter of Chazzan Seixas. Sarah was Seixas’s favorite child and Kursheedt became his favorite son-in-law.
In New York, Kursheedt went into business:
He had his share both of prosperity and of adversity, like all other men. But the one never rendered him arrogant, the other could not cast him down. There were in his character two remarkable traits that still kept him upright and enabled him to preserve the serenity of his mind: trust in God and good opinion of men. He was incapable of believing in the bad intentions of others. And though he, more than once or twice, suffered severely from his confidence being abused, he could not be persuaded that the cause was other than imprudence or folly on the part of those through whom he suffered. His trust in God was firm and not to be shaken, as it sprung from his profound conviction of the truth of his religion and consequently in the wisdom and goodness of Providence. (The Asmonean)
As a man with a growing family, it was natural for IBK to become involved in the Jewish education offered by Yeshibat Minhat Arab, which Shearith Israel had established in 1731. He believed strongly that Jewish education was “the first thing that ought to be pursued in life.” With this goal he worked diligently to expand the curriculum of this yeshiva.
In 1810, in recognition of his service to the Jewish community, IBK was elected parnas (president) of Shearith Israel and served for one term.
Israel Baer fought many battles at Shearith Israel; not all were victorious, especially in matters involving ingrained customs. In 1809 he and other forward-minded congregants attempted to restrict Mishe-Berakh prayers, made on behalf of individuals called to the Torah (for which it was customary to make a donation to the synagogue) to three per person. The plan was not adopted. (The Seixas-Kursheedts)
In 1824 the Kursheedts, now a family of 11, returned to New York where Israel Baer resided until his passing in 1852. New York’s Jewish community had changed a great deal during the 12 years the Kursheedts lived in Richmond. The majority of the Jewish community was now of Ashkenazic background, and they were unhappy with the Spanish-Portuguese (Sephardic) ritual of Shearith Israel, the only synagogue in the city.
Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. His monthly Jewish Press feature “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.