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Reverend Henry Pereira Mendes: Orthodox Stalwart (Part I)

Reverend Henry Pereira Mendes

Reverend Henry Pereira Mendes

(Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from the article “Henry Pereira Mendes” by David De Sola Pool, American Jewish Year Book Vol. 40 [1938-1939], pages 41-60.)

Beginning around 1840 the Reform movement began asserting itself as a major force in American Judaism. Indeed, with the rising tide of Reform during the nineteenth century it looked as if Orthodox Judaism might disappear. Many synagogues that had been founded by observant Jews and had remained for years true to halacha found their memberships increasingly calling for the institution of reforms and the abandonment of commitment to authentic Judaism.

There were courageous Jewish spiritual leaders who did their utmost to resist these trends. Even though they were not ordained rabbis and were addressed with the title “Reverend,” they exerted strong Orthodox spiritual leadership. To name just a few, this list includes Isaac Leeser (The Jewish Press, June 22, 2007), Jacques Judah Lyons (The Jewish Press, September 3, 2010), Abraham de Sola (The Jewish Press, December 3, 2010), Arnold Fischel (The Jewish Press, February 3, 2012), Samuel Myer Isaacs (The Jewish Press, August 3, 2012 and September 7, 2012) and Sabato Morais (The Jewish Press, March 1, 2013 and April 5, 2013).

Another such individual is Henry (Chaim) Pereira Mendes (1852-1937).

Zechuth aboth, the ancestral merit which is the spiritual capital of the Jewish people, may be said to have predestined Henry Pereira Mendes to the rabbinate from his birth. Through both his father’s and his mother’s lines, the rabbinate was the outstanding characteristic of his family tradition. At the time that he was born, April 13th, 1852, in Birmingham, England, three members of his family were ministering in synagogues: his father, his grandfather and his uncle. His father, Abraham Pereira Mendes, was minister of the Jewish congregation in Birmingham. His grandfather, David Aaron de Sola, translator of the Sephardic and Ashkenazic prayer books, author of numerous learned works in English, Hebrew, German and Dutch, and the first preacher in English among the Sephardim of England, was the hazan and preacher of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London, while his uncle, Abraham de Sola, Professor of Hebrew and of Spanish literature at McGill University, was minister of the Sephardic community in Montreal. A little later another uncle, Samuel de Sola, became hazan of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London.

“Dr. Mendes’s mother, Eliza de Sola, was a woman of fine spirituality. Through her, the family goes back in a long and distinguished line of de Sola rabbis, scholars, physicians, statesmen and martyrs to the ninth century of the common era. His mother’s mother, Rica Meldola, was the daughter of Raphael Meldola, chief rabbi of the Sephardim in England. For thirteen unbroken generations, Meldolas were rabbis in Mantua, Florence, Pisa, Leghorn, Bayonne or Amsterdam.”

Beginning at age 12 Henry attended Northwick College in London, a school founded and directed by his father. On the night of his bar mitzvah he decided he wanted to spend his life serving Judaism in the capacity of a spiritual leader. He attended University College in London from 1870 to 1872 while at the same time continuing his religious studies with his father and the Reverend H. L. Harris.

From 1875 to 1877 Reverend Pereira Mendes served as the spiritual leader of the Sephardic Congregation in Manchester, England.

“On January 16, 1877, while he was still ministering in Manchester, the board of trustees of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York decided to invite him to visit New York in connection with the vacant position of preacher in their congregation. He accepted, and on May 30 of that year, when barely twenty-five years of age, he was elected interim preacher until the meeting of the electors of the congregation in the following autumn confirmed the appointment.

“The Rev. Jacques Judah Lyons, the venerable hazan of the congregation, was failing in health, and he passed away on August 13, when Dr. Mendes had been installed for only two and a half months. It was no easy task for the young preacher from abroad to fill the void created by the death of Mr. Lyons, who was bound to the congregation by almost forty years of the most intimate ties of family and service. But Dr. Mendes loyally continued the traditions of his predecessor, bearing the whole responsibility of the work as hazan and preacher for nearly a year, until an assistant hazan was appointed. Though the…the congregation was at the time [controlled] by a powerful group wishing to lead it on the path of Reform, Dr. Mendes steadfastly and unflinchingly held to the old paths of historic Jewish traditionalism.”

About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.


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