“Isaacs finally in 1864 gained support to establish the all-day Hebrew Free School No. 1, which was soon followed by three evening schools that taught only Hebrew. Isaacs’s fellow Hollanders, Hazan M. R. de Leeuw and associates of the Dutch congregation Bnai Israel, spearheaded the effort. The schools enrolled five hundred students by 1869 and provided a ‘sound religious education’ for many decades. Nevertheless, Isaacs described the battle for religious education as ‘uphill work’; advocates faced a constant battle against the ‘hostility and indifference of the community.’
“The Dutch rabbi particularly decried the lack of Hebrew seminaries and colleges to provide educated leaders. ‘Synagogues are crying aloud for ministers,’ he said, ‘and there are none to respond to the call. Jewish children are hungering for religious food…and there is none to supply the desideratum; and this in free and happy America! Where are our collegiate establishments? Where our theologian institutes?’ In 1867 Isaacs achieved his goal by helping establish Maimonides College of Philadelphia, the first theological seminary for Jews in the United States. Unfortunately, the college failed after a few years through no fault of lsaacs. In 1872 the Jewish Messenger sadly lamented the fact that ‘there is not a single Jewish pulpit in America occupied by a minister instructed on our soil.’ ”
Reverend Isaacs was in the forefront of many charitable activities.
“[Sabato] Morais[i] aptly characterized him as a ‘humble Jew to whom the needy turned with confiding looks; with affection.’ Isaacs worked assiduously to combine all Jewish charities in the city by organizing the United Hebrew Charities in 1873. He also helped establish Mount Sinai Hospital (1852) and served as its first vice president.”
Isaacs also worked to ameliorate the hardships faced by Jews living in Palestine “and as early as 1849 began long term fund-raising efforts. In 1853 he became treasurer of the North American Relief Society for Indigent Jews in Palestine, a position he held for many years. When news came of a massive famine in Palestine in 1853-1854, Isaacs was the ‘first to take action; the other ministers followed his lead.’ He mounted the first national campaign in the United States for the relief of Jews overseas. Reverend Isaacs’s exceptional efforts earned him the accolade ‘champion of charitable institutions.’ ”
“Although never formally ordained, Isaacs was one of the leading Jewish ministers in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. One of his colleagues called him the ‘father of the American Jewish clergy.’ His funeral service at Temple Shaaray Tefila in 1878 was the largest Jewish funeral of the century. Every synagogue and Jewish organization in the country sent representatives. Isaacs was a religious leader of major influence, a renowned journalist, and a mover and shaker in Jewish affairs.”
[i] Sabato Morais (April 13, 1823 – November 11, 1897) was an Italian-American rabbi, leader of Mikveh Israel Synagogue, pioneer of Italian Jewish Studies in America, and founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.