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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘KKBE’

The Case Of The Charleston Synagogue Organ

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

 

Note: All quotes are from The Charleston Organ Case by Allan Tarshish, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 54, 1965 (http://www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm).

 

In 1749 the Jews of Charleston, South Carolina established their first synagogue, Kahal Kodesh Beis Elokim (KKBE). Last month we examined the events that led some members of KKBE to establish The Reformed Society of Israelites.

 

   The society was launched in 1825 but disbanded in 1833 due to lack of support. However, in 1840 it again became active and on July 14 of that year presented a petition to the Board of Trustees of KKBE, signed by thirty-eight members, that called for, among other things, a discussion of “the propriety of erecting an organ in the synagogue to assist the vocal part of the service.”

 

The reformers had found an ally in Gustavus Poznanski, chazzan of the congregation who had been hired in 1837. Given the efforts of the Reform Society in 1825 to institute changes in synagogue ritual, those in control of KKBE had interviewed Poznanski before offering him the position of chazzan to ascertain if his views were in accordance with Orthodox Judaism. They had been completely satisfied regarding his commitment to traditional Judaism and even gave him a lifetime contract within a year of his arrival in Charleston.

 

However, by 1840 the chazzan’s views had drastically changed, and, when the KKBE synagogue was rebuilt in 1840 after a disastrous fire in 1838, he made it known he was in favor of the use of an organ in the new synagogue.

 

The issue of introducing organ music into Sabbath and festival services was discussed at a general meeting of the congregation held on July 26 and attended by ninety members. In the course of the heated discussion on this issue, a resolution was introduced and passed inviting Poznanski to come to the meeting and give his opinion on this matter.

 

He accepted the invitation and confirmed his view that an organ would be beneficial, quoting from some authorities in an attempt to bolster the idea that such an addition would not be contrary to Jewish law. Despite the attempts of the chair, Nathan Hart, to declare the resolution calling for the introduction of an organ out of order, it was passed by a vote of 46 to 40.

 

   The traditional members of KKBE were stunned by the outcome. They maintained that a vote of 46 to 40 did not fulfill the synagogue’s constitutional requirement that any ritual alteration required a three-fourths majority of members present at a meeting. None of this helped, and beginning in 1841 an organ was used during Sabbath and festival services.

 

It is known that Isaac Leeser [prominent Philadelphia chazzan] advised Nathan Hart, the President, to take out an injunction against the majority, but he did not do so. Also, although the minority had threatened that they would take the matter to court, it happened that two of their leaders, Nathan Hart and H. M. Hertz, died shortly after the organ meeting and, feeling that an appeal to the law would have been repugnant to them, they decided instead to “retire” from Beth Elokim. They organized another congregation called Shearith Israel (using the same name as the Sephardic congregation in New York City) and erected a building on Wentworth Street, near Anson, a few blocks away from Beth Elokim.

 

The reformers were now in control of KKBE, and it was not long before other changes were introduced.

 

Emboldened by their control of the congregation and Board, the Reform group began to make and suggest a number of other changes such as the modification of the Maimonidean creed and various traditional prayers and hymns, to the extent that the more moderate Reformers within Beth Elokim, although satisfied with the organ, became alarmed that things might go too far.

 

Peacemakers managed to work out an uneasy compromise, but much more was still to come.

 

     On the first day of Passover, 1843, the Reverend Poznanski delivered a sermon advocating the discontinuance of the second day of the Holy Days, which aroused further strong opposition. A special meeting of the Board of Trustees was held on April 19, 1843, which wrote the hazzan asking him to inform it if in the future he would continue to advocate “innovations of the established forms of service as observed by us and all the congregations of Jews throughout the world.” The Board contended that his suggestion was “a violation of the Constitution and calculated to create discord and anarchy.”

 

     Poznanski replied that he had been authorized by a former Board of Trustees “to make such remarks and observations as I deem proper” and that the majority of those who now disapproved of his sermon had previously well known his opinions on the subject in question. He concluded that since lecturing was not a part of his original duty anyway, he would discontinue all lectures and would also discontinue reading prayers in English, and confine himself to Hebrew, “the performance of which only devolves on me as your hazzan.”

 

The synagogue membership now split into two groups – those who supported Poznanski and his reforms and those against them. Those opposed proposed a resolution that would require synagogue services to follow all Mosaic and rabbinic Laws. It failed by a close vote of 27 to 24.

 

The traditionalist group proceeded to invite the former members of KKBE who had formed Congregation Shearith Israel at the time of the introduction of the organ to rejoin KKBE. (They would later claim these individuals had temporarily withdrawn but never actually resigned their membership.) In this way they would end up with a majority of members who favored traditional religious services.

 

Thirty-four former members agreed to rejoin provided certain religious conditions were met. One was that religious services be conducted as they had been before the introduction of the organ. A second was that KKBE build a mikveh. The third was that no chazzan be elected or allowed to officiate who expressed or advocated reform doctrines.

 

   This led to a good deal of wrangling, with the reform group attempting to keep those who wanted to rejoin from becoming members and the traditionalists agitating for their admission as members in good standing. At a meeting in May 1843 the traditionalists granted membership rights to thirty-two members of Shearith Israel. The reformers, of course, claimed the vote was invalid.

 

The issue was brought to the Charleston Court of Common Pleas by the reform group. This court, as well as a court of appeals to which the case was later brought, decided in favor of the reform group, ruling invalid the membership of those from Shearith Israel.

 

And so ended the legal aspects of the court ease, with the parties involved still in direct opposition about the basic philosophy and pattern of Judaism in regard to change and reform. Nor did the contestants accept the suggestion of Judge Butler [who wrote the majority appeals court decision] to concede somewhat to each other. The Shearith Israel members remained with Shearith Israel, joined now by some of the Traditionalists of Beth Elokim. The Reform group of Beth Elokim, having won the court case, retained control of the Hasell Street Synagogue and its ritual, but continued to have internal difficulties, because the congregation remained divided on matters of liturgy and Reform.

 

 

 

   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.

The Reform Movement Comes To Charleston

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Note: All quotes are from “The Charleston Organ Case” by Allan Tarshish, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 54, 1965 (http://www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm).

 

Last month we traced the establishment and development of the Jewish Community in Charleston, South Carolina, and its first synagogue, Kahal Kodesh (Holy Congregation) Beth Elokim (KKBE). From its inception in 1749 the synagogue was Orthodox and followed the Sephardic ritual. (This was the case with all of the synagogues founded during colonial times.)

 

The Jews of Charleston fared well, and by 1820 the Jewish population was the largest in America. But something happened in 1824 that would split the Jewish community and eventually have far reaching repercussions for Judaism throughout America: Several members of KKBE presented a petition calling for a number of changes in synagogue ritual.

 

The changes requested were that the Hebrew prayers be translated into English, a shortening of services by the omission of some of the prayers, the abolishment of monetary pledges during services, and an English sermon based on the portion of the week.

 

     When their petition was rejected and they realized they could not command the necessary two-thirds vote of the congregation for the changes they sought, they took further steps. It was actually not until January 16, 1825, that they formally organized “The Reformed Society of Israelites” and prepared its constitution, which was unanimously adopted on February 15, 1825 by forty-four people present.

 

     In brief, they wrote a new and abbreviated ritual service with some original prayers: original prayers and services for circumcision, naming a daughter, confirmation and the marriage ceremony; used instrumental music, worshipped without hats and revised the Maimonidean creed. They planned to educate some youth to serve as their spiritual leader.

 

   Three of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith were eliminated in their document – the Divine Revelation of the Scriptures; the expectation of the coming Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead.

 

   Those who opposed these reformers characterized their efforts as follows:

 

     They published a document, in which was avowed their determination to discard what they termed “the idle comments of the Rabbins”; to abolish the offerings which they termed “profane,” and the Spanish and Portuguese Rites of the Church [this term used by the Traditionalists, not the Reformers], which they called an “insult”; and to bring all Religious Faith to the test of human philosophy, declaring such Faith to be only “the result of rational demonstration.” They commenced their scheme of this Religion of Reason by denouncing and abandoning many of the usages which had prevailed among the Jews, since the days of the great Synagogue. Proceeding step by step, they actually changed the creeds of the Jewish people, and in a Ritual published by their authority in 1825, set forth another form of Creed, in which they left out three of the fundamental Articles of Faith.

 

The Society enjoyed some success, and within a year it had increased its membership to about 50. KKBE retained approximately 70 members. Within a few years, however, Society membership began to decrease and in 1833 the Society disbanded. A number of the defunct Society’s members again began to daven in KKBE. Things now looked good for the proponents of Orthodoxy in Charleston, but there was more trouble down the road.

 

Reform Rises Again

 

   In 1824 there were about 3,000 Jews living in America. By 1840 this number increased to 15,000. Substantial numbers of German Jews began immigrating to America in the middle 1830s. Many of these new German immigrants had either been affiliated with or influenced by the Reform movement in Germany. Some of them settled in Charleston and would play important roles in the future of Reform there. The key player in the reestablishment of Reform in Charleston was the “Reverend” Gustavus Poznanski.

 

   In 1836 a vacancy in the position of chazzan (minister) at KKBE occurred. The synagogue was firmly controlled at this time by those who supported Orthodoxy. Wary of any possible inroads by reformers, they “set themselves to the task of finding a Minister, who would faithfully execute his duties, according to those Rabbinical and Mosaical laws, which were deemed vital to the existence of the Congregation, and who would also oppose innovation and change .”

 

Gustavus Poznanski, who at the time was associated with Congregation Shearith Israel of New York, was highly recommended by Isaac Lesser (considered by many to be the leader of American Orthodoxy at the time) as being a staunch supporter of traditional Judaism. But this was not enough for the leaders of the congregation, who sent a committee to interview him. These men were completely satisfied with Poznanski’s traditional views on all counts, and he was elected to the position. He assumed his duties at the beginning of 1837. The leaders of KKBE were so pleased with him that in 1838 they offered him a lifetime contract, even before the conclusion of his probationary term.

 

     Then, another episode had its effect. In April, 1838, the synagogue of Beth Elokim, together with a number of surrounding buildings, was destroyed by a disastrous fire and a new one was erected, which was finished in April, 1840. In these few years, a change evidently developed in the thinking of the Reverend Poznanski, for rumors began to spread that he was in favor of instrumental music in the new synagogue. It was also noted that some members of the old Reformed Society of Israelites, who had not hitherto re-associated themselves with Beth Elokim, now began to return.

 

     So it was that, on July 14, 1840, a special meeting of the Board of Trustees received a petition from thirty-eight members, requesting that the Board call a general meeting of the congregation to consider the propriety of erecting an organ in the synagogue.

 

In their petition they wrote:

 

     We, the undersigned members of the congregation of K.K. Beth Elokim, feeling a deep interest in our religion, and anxious to embrace every laudable and sacred mode by which the rising generation may be made to conform to and attend our holy worship, Respectfully petition Your body, to call a General meeting of the congregation at the earliest and most convenient period you may deem proper … to discuss the propriety of erecting an organ in the synagogue to assist the vocal part of the service.

 

     Your petitioners would be among the last to ask for innovation in any respect in relation to the usages and formula of the Service. But your body is aware, that in this petition, there is nothing incompatible with the practice of our brethren where they continue strict conformists. It is a matter of notoriety that farther than a century back, an organ was made part of the service in the city of Prague, the capital of Bohemia, and at a later period, organs have been introduced in other parts of Germany and in the South of France.

 

The stage was now set for a struggle between the reformers and those committed to tradition. It would lead to what became known as the Charleston Organ Case.

 

More next month.

 

 

   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.

The Early Jewish Community Of Charleston

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Note: Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from “The Jews of Charleston, A History of an American Jewish Community” by Charles Reznikoff in collaboration with Uriah Z. Engelman, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1950.

 

The English first settled at Albemarle Point in what is now South Carolina in 1670. In 1680 this settlement was moved to a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, and became Charles Town (named in honor King Charles II). The new location was more healthful than the original settlement, and, since it was behind the islands of a land-locked harbor, provided safety from attack. The name was changed to Charleston at the end of the War of Independence.

 

“By the late 1680s, the colony was beginning to enjoy prosperity, especially in the coastal areas. Its economic base depended initially on the fur trade, which fostered generally good relations between the Carolinian settlers and the local Indian tribes.”1

 

In 1695, four Indians from Florida (then Spanish territory), who had been captured by the Yamasee Indians, were brought to town: the captives “could speak Spanish,” wrote the governor of the colony afterwards, “and I had a Jew for an interpreter, so upon examination I found they profess’d the Christian Religion as the Papists do; and the governor, accordingly, sent the captives back to St. Augustine.” [Page 4]

 

This is the first mention we have of a Jew in the Carolinas. Given that he knew Spanish, he may very well have been a Marrano.

 

The constitution of the colony was heavily influenced by the political philosopher John Locke, resulting in a veritable Magna Charta of liberty and tolerance.

 

In 1697, the colonial Assembly declared that religious persecution had forced aliens to settle in South Carolina and acknowledged that these had proved themselves law-abiding and industrious; accordingly, the Assembly enacted that “all aliens … of what nation soever, which now are inhabitants of South Carolina” should have all the rights of any person born of English parents. Full freedom of worship was granted, however, only to Christians – “Papists excepted”; but all other rights were granted every alien who applied by petition if such alien would swear allegiance to the king. [Page 4]

 

It is little wonder, then, that Jews as well as other persecuted minorities such as Huguenots and German Palatines found South Carolina a save haven and settled there in increasing numbers.

 

The Jews who first went to Charles Town came, almost all of them, from England and English possessions in the western hemisphere: from New York to the north, from Georgia to the south, and, like the English from Barbados, from the British West Indies. For the most part they came to the growing port as merchants; but like other merchants in Charles Town some hoped, no doubt, to buy land and become planters. If a few were men of consequence with transactions involving large sums, others, as stated above, were no more than petty tradesmen, ready to sell a loaf of bread or of sugar, a ribbon for a lady or a cut of rough cloth for a slave.

About 1741, Jews, as well as many Christians, who had been among the earliest settlers in Georgia, left Savannah because the trustees of the colony would not let them have the use of Negro slaves. (Many returned to Georgia when slavery was permitted in 1749.) [Pages 11-12]

 

Synagogue and Social Life

 

After the arrival of the Jews from Georgia, there certainly were enough Jews to sustain a regular minyan. However, it was not until 1749 that a congregation, which they called Beth Elokim Unveh Shalom, was formed. The synagogue soon became known as Kahal Kodesh (Holy Congregation) Beth Elokim (KKBE).

 

From 1750 to 1757, Kahal Kodesh met for worship in a small wooden house – that had been most likely used for a dwelling – on Union Street (now State Street and so since the days of the Secession). From 1757 to 1764, the Charles Town congregation met in a house “back in the yard,” afterwards 318 King Street, near Hasell Street; and, from 1764 until 1780, on Beresford Street near King Street. [Pages 17-18]

 

The synagogue was Orthodox and followed the Sephardic ritual (as was the case with all synagogues founded in the American colonies). Moses Cohen served as the first chazzan and reader and Joseph Tobias was the first parnas (president).

 

In 1820, the estimated Jewish population of Charleston was 700 as compared to 550 in New York City, 450 in Philadelphia, 200 in Richmond, 150 in Baltimore, 100 in Savannah and 500 to 600 others scattered in the balance of the United States.

The religious, cultural and economic climate of Charleston was favorable to Jews and Jews were accepted easily in community life. Jews voted in an election in 1703, probably the first time in the Western world, and participated actively in almost every area of life. Many of them had fought in the Revolution. Leading Jews of Charleston brought steam navigation to the Savannah River, established a line of steamships between Charleston and Havana, reestablished the Chamber of Commerce, introduced illuminating gas to the city and pioneered in other industrial enterprises. The community abounded with well-known Jewish writers, painters, teachers, lawyers and physicians. At one time, during this period, of the four newspapers in Charleston, two were edited by Jews. Of the nine people who founded the Supreme Council of Scottish Rite Masonry in Charleston in 1801, “Mother Council of the World,” four were Jews. And Jews were also prominent in the social and charitable life of the region.2

 

Not all was well, however. Many of the Jews of Charleston were influenced by its long tradition of liberalism and pluralism as well as the new waves of thought that were affecting various segments of Protestant America at this time. They were certainly aware of the beginnings of the Reform movement in Germany. In addition, some of Charleston’s Jews undoubtedly were affected by the development of the Unitarian Church in Charleston under the leadership of Samuel Gilman.

 

Some of the Jews compared the Orthodox services conducted at KKBE with those of their fellow Christians and found them lacking in decorum and dignity. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in 1824 forty-seven members of the KKBE presented a petition to the congregation which in part said that while they believed the “present system of worship” had “certain defects,” they sought “no other end than the future welfare and respectability of the [Jews] . We wish not to overthrow, but to rebuild; we wish not to destroy, but to reform and revise the evils complained of; we wish not to abandon the institutions of Moses, but to understand and observe them 3

 

Their initial request for change was modest – they wanted the Hebrew prayers translated into English, a shortening of services by the omission of some of the prayers, the abolishment of monetary pledges during services, and an English sermon based on the portion of the week.

 

This petition was rejected by the officers of KKBE on the grounds that it violated the Constitution of the synagogue. However, this was by no means the end of the matter. Indeed, it eventually led to the establishment of the first Reform temple in America.

 

Part II will appear in next month’s Glimpses column.

 

http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h637.html

2 “The Charleston Organ Case” by Allan Tarshish, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 54, 1965. This article is available at no cost at http://www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm

3 Ibid.

 

 

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.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/the-early-jewish-community-of-charleston/2010/05/05/

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