Jewish Life in America

Crash Course in Jewish History Part 58: Jewish Life in America  Jews gained untold riches in America, but lost their heritage and spirituality.

Part 58 - Jewish Life in America Jews gained untold riches in America, but lost much of their heritage and spirituality.

When we last left off the Jews of America—at the beginning of the 19th century—there were only about 6,000 of them. The idea that there was freedom in America as long as you were not “too Jewish,” kept most Jews away.

That changed in the 1820s when the Jews of Germany began to arrive.

The German Jews were not “too Jewish.” They were either Reform Jews who had dropped the basic tenets of traditional Judaism (see Part 54 for details), or they were “enlightened” secular Jews who had dropped Judaism altogether.

By 1850 there were about 17,000 Jews living in America. By 1880 there were about 270,000.

Most of these Jews moved to the New York area, which at this time had a Jewish population of 180,000. It would soon grow to 1.8 million.

In New York City, the Jewish area was the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The ones who made it quickly moved up to the Upper East Side. And these Jews did remarkably well in the New World. Some famous names of those who made it rich quick were:

  • Marcus Goldman, founder of Goldman, Sachs & Co
  • .
  • Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman, founders of Lehman Brothers
  • Abraham Kuhn and Solomon Loeb, founders of the banking firm Kuhn, Loeb and Co.
  • Jacob Schiff, Loeb’s son-in-law and a major American finacier
  • Joseph Seligman, who started our as a peddler and who became one of the most important bankers in America.

These are just a few famous names. There were many others.(1)


The German Jews of New York built the largest Reform synagogue in the world, Temple Emanuel on the Upper East Side, and many others. By 1880 there were about 200 synagogues in America, the majority (90%) of them Reform, because these were the Jews who were coming to America from Germany.

With this migration, the focus of the Reform Movement moved from Germany to the United States. In America, the Reform movement continued in the tradition of its German origins, spelling out its ideology in the famous “Pittsburgh Platform,” which was drawn up and adopted in 1885 at a Pittsburgh convention of its leadership:

  • “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adopted to the view and habits of modern civilization…
  • “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state…
  • “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state… (2)

This last statement—which detached the American Reform Movement from the 2,000-year-old Jewish longing to return to the Land of Israel (in imitation of the ideology espoused by the German Reform Movement)—is the reason why early American Reform Jews did not support the Zionist Movement, or the foundation of the State of Israel, as we shall see in future installments.


The founding father of the American Reform Movement was Isaac Meyer Wise (1819 to 1900). He was a German Jewish immigrant who was the founder and the first president of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, which opened in 1875. It was the first American rabbinical seminary, and it had unusually liberal standards. Writes Joseph Telushkin in Jewish Literacy (p. 393):

“One issue that sets the Reform rabbinate apart… is its refusal to impose any religious standards on its rabbis. In many ways, this is a continuation of Reform’s historical commitment to free inquiry. Today, quite literally, there is no religious action a Reform rabbi can take for which he or she would be thrown out of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body of Reform rabbis.”

When, in 1883, the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati was ready to receive its diplomas, the seminary threw a lavish banquet.

The more traditional attendees were horrified when course after course presented one traif [non-kosher] dish after another: clams, soft-shell crabs, shrimps, frogs’ legs, and a meat meal followed by ice cream.(3)

The so-called “traif banquet” compelled the more traditional Jews—who thought that the Reform had gone too far but who did not want to be Orthodox—to find another alternative, and it led to the founding of another movement within Judaism.


In 1886, more traditional Jews who were offended by the ideology of the Reform Movement founded an alternative to the Hebrew Union College. It was called the Jewish Theological Seminary, and it became the bastion of the new, purely-American, Conservative Movement.

The head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, a respected Jewish scholar from Cambridge, England, named Solomon Schechter (1850-1915) helped shape the ideology of the new movement. In his work, “The Catholic Israel,” Solomon Schechter spelled it out. (He chose a poor title for his work—by “catholic” he meant “universal.”)

“It is not the mere revealed Bible that is the first importance to the Jew but the Bible as it repeats itself in history. In other words, as it is interpreted by tradition. Another consequence of this conception of tradition is that neither scripture nor primitive Judaism but general custom which forms the real rule of practice. Liberty was always given to the great teachers of every generation to make modifications and innovations in harmony with the spirit of existing institutions. Hence a return to Mosaism [Orthodoxy] would be illegal, pernicious and indeed, impossible.” (4)

In other words, the ideology of the Conservative Movement would be to uphold the Torah as the revealed word of God, but that the interpretation of that word of God need not uphold the tradition as passed down from Moses.
This was a dramatic departure from the traditional attitude toward the interpretation and application of Jewish law. One of the pillars of traditional Jewish belief was (and is) that the Talmud is THE source for all Jewish law and that those rabbis who lived closer to the revelation at Mount Sinai had a clearer understanding of Jewish law and its application, and therefore their decisions could NOT be discarded. New rulings on modern issues must take into account established principles. (See Part 39.)

When the Conservative Movement discarded this pillar of traditional Judaism, it opened a door to countless problems. The end result was that, although the founders of the movement felt Reform had gone too far, the behavior of their followers proved virtually indistinguishable from those of Reform Jews. (We will discuss these repercussions further when we take up the subject of assimilation in a future installment.)


This then was the spiritual state of the majority of American Jewry—defined chiefly by the German Jews who migrated in the 1830s—when the great migrations from Eastern Europe began around the turn of the century.

How many Jews came to America in this time period?

As noted earlier (see Part 57) between 1881 and 1914, some 50,000 Jews left Eastern Europe every year to a total of 2.5 million Jews, most of whom came to America.

The vast majority of these Jews were poor and arrived in New York with little or nothing. They had little to lose in coming to America (except perhaps their Judaism).

And, alas, this is what happened. The great rabbis did not come among them, and lacking teachers and religious leaders to act against the pressures from the Americanized German Jews, these poor Eastern European Jews assimilated quickly. (We will examine the problem of assimilation in America in future installments.)

The pious, yeshiva-educated Jews did not come in the great migrations. For the most part, the rabbis—fearing that America was the Golden Land of Assimilation disguised as the Golden Land of Economic Opportunity—preached against immigration.

The greatest test for vast majority of these new arrivals was the issue of the Sabbath. America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries had a six day work week. Sunday was the only day of rest. Many of the new arrivals found work in the garment industry working in the sweat shops. It was miserable work, for minimal wages, and often under appalling conditions. The Philadelphia-born social worker, Charles Bernheimer, described the conditions in a Philadelphia sweatshop in 1905:

  Before you have reached the shop, you have probably climbed one, two or three flights of stairs, littered with debris…The room is likely to be ill-smelling and badly ventilated…Consequently, an abnormally bad air is breathed which is difficult for the ordinary person to stand long. Thus result tubercular and other diseases which the immigrants acquires in his endeavor to work out his economic existence…If we apply our ordinary standards of sanitation to these shops they certainly come below such standards…In [the] busy season the employees are required to work long hours, sometimes as high as fifteen, perhaps eighteen, a day.(5)

Under these conditions, taking Saturday off for Sabbath observance was simply not an option if you wanted to keep your job and if you lost your job finding new employment wasn’t so easy. Those who tried to keep Shabbat by not coming to work were immediately fired. The result was that the overwhelming majority stopped observing Shabbat. Once Sabbath observance was dropped the rest of Jewish observance usually followed. This same story repeated itself countless times until virtually all those who arrived in America as observant Jews dropped their religious observance soon after their arrival.

This is not to say that things were good in Eastern Europe—far from it. Two hundred years of Czarist Russian persecution and economic marginalization had taken a tremendous toll on the Jewish community. The anti-Semitism was constant, the hardships were many and the poverty was great. Spiritually and ideologically the Jewish community was also under tremendous attack and beginning to crumble from the onslaught. The lure of the secular enlightenment and other ideologies such as Marxism and socialism drew many Jews away from religious observance and even took some of the brightest out of the Yeshivot. Many of the maskilim (Jewish secular intellectuals,
see part 57) came from observant homes and even studied in the great Yeshivot of Eastern Europe.(6)

There can be little doubt that had the Nazis not snuffed out Jewish life in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, the community would have gradually disintegrated under the internal strain and external pressure. Still the rabbinic leadership of Eastern Europe felt that the spiritual abyss of America posed a far greater threat than life in Eastern Europe-especially because it lacked virtually any Orthodox infrastructure.

Writer Arthur Hertzberg in The Jews of America (p. 157):

“In 1893, the most distinguished moralist among the rabbis of Europe, Israel Meir Ha-Kohen [better known as the Chafetz Chaim]... went beyond exhortation; he ruled against mass migration to America. He knew that this emigration could no longer be stopped, but he pleaded with those who would heed the views of rabbis to prefer persecution in Russia to economic success in the United States…

  “These opinions became so fixed that they would remain firm among the major leaders of European Orthodoxy even in the inter-war period, as the situation of European Jewry was radically worsening for all Jews, for all socio-economic classes.”

Despite the decision by most of the rabbinic leadership to remain in Europe a number of important rabbis did arrive and began to lay the foundations for what would later become the thriving orthodox community of the United States. Some of the more notable personalities included:

  • Rabbi Yaacov Joseph from Vilna, who in 1887 became the first and only “Chief rabbi” of New York.
  • Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who arrived in 1936 to lead the Mesivta Tiferet Yerushalayim Yeshiva in New York. He went on to become the foremost halachik (legal) authority in the Jewish world.
  • Rabbi Eliezer Silver who became the leader of the Orthodox rabbinate in America-the Agudas HaRabonim
  • .
  • Rabbi Shragga Feivael Mendlowitz who founded the first Orthodox school system, Torah Umesorah, in 1944.
  • Rabbi Aharon Kotler who founded the Lakewood Yeshiva in 1943 and was the driving force behind the growth of Orthodox Judaism in America.
  • Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik and his son, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik who were the rabbinic leadership of Yeshiva University in New York


While the German Jews for the most part succeeded easily in America, life was much harder for the Eastern European Jews who came in the great migrations. We find, for example, at the beginning of the 1900s there were 64,000 families packed into 6,000 tenement houses of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

These poor, Yiddish-speaking, religious Jews reflected badly on the German Jews that came before them and who by this time had become quite Americanized. Therefore, the German Jews set out to get these Russian Jews to acculturate as quickly as possible and they invested heavily in this cause.

Their underlying fear was anti-Semitism. This fear was real, because despite the religious tolerance of America, anti-Semitism was alive and doing well in the New World. There were no pogroms, but there was social isolation and other types of discrimination.

For example, in 1843, a dozen young men applied for membership to the Old Fellows Lodge, but were refused membership because they were Jews. (They organized a club of their own—called the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith.)

Another example: in 1869, Joseph Seligman, the well-known banker, was refused hotel accommodations in Saratoga Springs, New York, the summer resort for the well-to-do of his day because he—no matter how rich and famous—was a Jew.

If those Jew who made it were not good enough to mingle with American non-Jews, one can just imagine how the unwashed immigrant masses were viewed.

In 1894, Henry Adams (a descendant of John Quincy Adams) organized the Immigration Restriction League to limit the admission to America of “unhealthy elements”—Jews being first among these.

In his famous book, The Education of Henry Adams, he wrote about those he was trying to keep out of America:

  “Not a Polish Jew fresh from Warsaw or Cracow - not a furtive Jacoob or Ysaac still reeking of the Ghetto, snarling a weird Yiddish to the officers of the customs…”

He found many supporters for his cause, but he did not win. Indeed, one might say he lost when in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a Jew—Oscar Straus—as the first Jew to serve in the U.S. cabinet, and as the secretary of commerce and labor (whose purview of responsibility was immigration).

However, the anti-Semites did not give up easily, as we will see next when we examine the factors which led to the baring of the evil face of anti-Semitism in the 20th century.

(1) For a fascinating look at Jewish life in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries see Stephen Birmingham’s books: “Our Crowd-The Great Jewish Families of New York” and “The Rest of Us-The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews.”
(2) Ronald H. Isaacs & Kerry M. Olitzky editors, Critical Documents of Jewish History. (Jason Aronson Inc., 1995). Pp.58-59.
(3) Ronald H. Isaacs & Kerry M. Olitzky editors, Critical Documents of Jewish History. (Jason Aronson Inc., 1995). Pp. 60-61.
(4) Paul Mendes-Flohr & Yehuda Reinharz ed., The Jew in the Modern World, (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 497-498.
(5) Paul Mendes-Flohr & Yehuda Reinharz ed., The Jew in the Modern World, (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp 481-82. Given these terrible conditions and the strong sense of social justice that has always been a part of the Jewish people, it is no wonder that Jews played such a crucial role in creating labor unions and fighting for worker’s rights and against child labor.
(6) One of the best examples was Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) who is considered the poet laureate of modern Hebrew and one on the leading Jewish intellectuals of his age. Born in southern Russia he attended the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, but broke with traditional Judaism at age 18.

#58 of 70 in the Jewish History Series
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by  Ken Spiro
Posted in: Jewish History