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September 3, 2015 / 19 Elul, 5775
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Reverend Henry Pereira Mendes: Orthodox Stalwart (Part I)

Reverend Henry Pereira Mendes

Reverend Henry Pereira Mendes

On October 15, 1890, Henry married Rosalie Rebecca Piza, daughter of Samuel and Rachel Piza of St. Thomas, Danish West Indies. Mrs. Pereira Mendes was known for her social grace and ceaseless spiritual striving.

“In the early days of their married life before her health became impaired, she was active in work for young Jewish working girls and in the Shearith Israel Sisterhood. She and Dr. Mendes traveled much, especially after his retirement. The highlight of their years abroad was their stay in the Holy Land. In her widowhood, the memory of this markedly strengthened her inward life and intellectual growth, even in old age. She became a stalwart defender of Zion, and until the end an avid reader of all that concerned Israel.”[i]

In his capacity as spiritual leader of Congregation Shearith Israel, Reverend Mendes conducted classes and gave lectures on a wide range of topics including Bible, Jewish history, Hebrew, Jewish literature, and other topics related to Judaism. This teaching, infused with inspiration and compassion, reflected his broad intellectual abilities.

“It is impossible to record the untiring affectionate personal service which Dr. Mendes at all times gave to the members of his congregation in joy and in sorrow. His tenderness of nature, vivid sympathy, deep spirituality and firm faith, made him an inspiration to the bride and bridegroom under the canopy, and a stay of strength to those stricken by bereavement. He was a spiritual father to two generations in his congregation. However occupied or weary he might be, no call ever found him other than ready to respond. In his life he exemplified the religious ideals which week by week he voiced from the pulpit. He never accepted for himself fees or emoluments for services which he rendered. At first he would return such gifts, but later he adopted the practice of accepting them for charitable distribution.

“As preacher, he maintained the highest standard, never stooping to sensationalism, nor lowering the loftiness of Jewish teaching in order to gain an easy popularity.

“Gifted with a clear and ringing voice of unusually sympathetic quality, a chaste precision of diction, and a rich and poetic vocabulary, his emotional and hortatory messages rose to the heights of true oratory. This, together with the transparent sincerity of the man behind the word, gave to his public speaking a moving power which has charged unnumbered lives with beauty, strength and idealism. The Bible which he loved so well was the constant source of his inspiration. It lived in his life, and he made it live in the life of his auditors. It touched him with the divine fire of the prophets. To him it spoke in the clear illuminating tones of ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ In its pages he found the message of the word of God. Its themes on which he loved to dwell were idealism, the three R’s of Reverence, Righteousness and Responsibility, peace, prayer, and, always, God.

“As teacher of homiletics in the Yeshiva Isaac Elchanan, from 1917 to 1920, he helped to set the stamp of this distinguished tradition on the orthodox Jewish pulpit in this country.”

Reverend Pereira Mendes’s activities were not confined to his role as chazzan and preacher at Shearith Israel. Next month’s column will deal with some of his myriad activities on behalf of the Jewish community in America.



[i] An Old Faith in the New World – Portrait of Shearith Israel, 1654-1954 by David and Tamar De Sola Pool, Columbia University Press, 1955.

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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