I recently acquired a pinkas, the register of the Ahavath Chesed Congregation in Manhattan, containing thousands of marriage and death records dating from 1849-1900.
The Ahavath Chesed congregation was founded in 1846 on the Lower East Side by immigrants from Bohemia. The German-speaking community flourished and expanded and later relocated to the center of Manhattan, where it inaugurated its new premises in 1872. In 1898, the community merged with Congregation Shaar HaShamayim.
The pinkas has two main items: marriages dating from 1849-1900 and a record of deaths from 1849-1896. It contains many interesting items including the tombstone of Hana Bloomingdale (matriarch of the family that founded the landmark family-named department store). The “Find a Grave” website records that she was “aged 62-63” when she passed away. Now we can conclusively say that she was 62 (and buried in a family plot in Linden Hill Cemetery).
The pinkas also includes information on infant and childhood deaths, which usually are lost to history. Even when tombstones for infants and children can be located, they sometimes lack even the deceased’s name.
Ahavath Chesed had a core of members from a particular region in the Old World. Almost all the entries for earlier decades include a city. These are exclusively European cities and towns, predominantly from Bavaria and Bohemia, but other Germanic areas appear as well (e.g., Copenhagen, Posen, Hesse-Darmstadt, etc.).
Settlement patterns of Central European Jewry were in great flux in the middle of the 19th century. As is known, those with some financial means generally left villages and small towns for larger towns and cities. It was predominantly the less financially able who set out to try their luck in far-off America. Thus, while one sees Prague and other large municipalities in the ledger, most members came from smaller locales.
Eventually one finds an entry for immigrants who didn’t stem from the European continent: Herman Isaacs and Esther Levy, both from London, who wed in 1863. In 1897, the language of the ledger switches from German to English, highlighting the cultural acculturation of the membership.
As Ahavath Chesed grew in membership and prominence, it also became more financially stable. In 1872, the congregation moved into a newly-constructed building which, at the time, was considered one of the most magnificent structures in the city. It has since been designated a national landmark and is today the oldest synagogue in New York City in continuous use.
American synagogues of this period generally did not employ rabbis to lead them. Indeed, few ordained rabbis had even come to America when Ahavath Chesed was founded. Instead, nascent congregations availed themselves of knowledgeable members and hired a general religious functionary who could lead services, perform shechitah and circumcisions and serve as a teacher.
The earliest figure in the pinkas to perform religious functions was Nathan Hassberg, in 1849. At the same time, one also finds marriages performed by Max Lilienthal, a prominent Reform rabbi who ministered to various German synagogues in the city and attempted to unite them and serve as their chief rabbi. Then followed:
1850: Mr. M. Scheider
1851: Mr. Nussbaum, Mr. A. Lilienberg, Mr. Ignatz Horowitz
1852: Mr. Morgenstern, Mr. Jacob [Falkman] Teberich
1853-1862: Rev. Mr. Jacob Teberich
1861: Rev. Mr. Isaac (just one entry)
1862-1864: Mr. Mayer Ba[?], Rev. Mr. Isaac (just one entry)
1864: Dr. Bondy (one more entry in in 1866)
1864-1865: Dr. (or D.) [Mayer?] Wolf
1865-1866: S. Welsch
By the end of the Civil War, Ahavath Chesed was ready to hire its first permanent rabbinic figure and, in 1866, Dr. Adloph Huebsch came from Hungary to assume the helm. Under his direction, the congregation moved to Reform. Following his death in 1885, Dr. Alexander Kohut, who was renowned for his scholarship, took over. When he died in 1894, Dr. David Davidson became the new rabbi.
Ahavath Chesed raised funds in part via religious functions. Most marriage entries are accompanied by a monetary amount. At first, it was usually 5-10 dollars, although sometimes it was as high as $30. A number of entries are marked “gratis”; some of these marriages were performed for free as a professional courtesy and involved clergy.
Even among the earliest dated entries one find names associated with German-Jewish families that later rose to prominence. The frequency of these names increases over the years as the synagogue grew and became more affluent. Among the recognizable names in the ledger are Blumenthal, Guggenheimer, Lauterbach, Loeb, Oppenherim(er), Schiff, Schwab, Weil, and Wertheimer.
(this article was written with the help of Ari Kinsberg)