Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun Fire: Damaged Synagogue Is an Architectural Milestone Too

JBUZZ: ISRAEL/JEWISH CULTURAL BUZZ

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Source: DAVID W. DUNLAP, NYT,7-13-11
 
DESCRIPTIONDavid W. Dunlap/”From Abyssinian to Zion” (left), David W. Dunlap/The New York Times Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, 125 East 85th Street, as it appeared in 2002 (left) and on Tuesday.

The fire that roared through Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Monday night not only upended an important religious body but also badly damaged a milestone in the development of synagogue architecture. The restrained neo-Classical design speaks of a turning point in the early 1900s when Jews no longer felt bound to incorporate Moorish elements in their places of worship as a way of distinguishing them from Christian churches.

DESCRIPTIONPhotographs by David W. Dunlap/”From Abyssinian to Zion” Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in 1993.
DESCRIPTION Congregation Shaaray Tefila on the West Side, now a church, inspired the design of Kehilath Jeshurun.

As late as 1893, Arnold W. Brunner — probably the most influential synagogue architect of his time — was still sprinkling Moorish features like cusped arches through his design for Congregation Shaaray Tefila, also known as the West End Synagogue, at 160 West 82nd Street. Within three years, however, Brunner abandoned Eastern influences entirely in designing Congregation Shearith Israel at Central Park West and 70th Street. Given the discovery of Greco-Roman synagogue ruins in Galilee, Brunner argued that neo-Classical design conferred the “sanction of antiquity” on the modern synagogue.

George F. Pelham was the architect of Kehilath Jeshurun’s synagogue at 117 East 85th Street, which followed Shaaray Tefila by nine years and was clearly inspired by it. The two buildings are siblings, if not twins; with four monumental arched windows in their principal facades, framed by wide symmetrical towers. Pelham’s synagogue, however, has no Moorish ornament. If it weren’t for the name “Kehilath Jeshurun” inscribed in Hebrew letters over the door, together with the date of 5662, it would be difficult to identify this structure as a synagogue.

DESCRIPTION Kehilath Jeshurun’s earlier synagogue on East 82nd Street was torn down.

Kehilath Jeshurun was founded in 1872. Before moving to 85th Street, it had a small synagogue at 127 East 82nd Street, which was constructed in 1890. That building stood until a decade ago, when it was torn down and replaced by Congregation Or Zarua. In between the two Jewish congregations, the building had served as the First Waldensian Church. Such turnover is quite common among houses of worship in New York City. Brunner’s Shaaray Tefila synagogue today serves St. Volodymyr’s parish of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. And Temple Shaaray Tefila is a former Trans-Lux theater at 250 East 79th Street.

Joseph Michelson: July 4th, history and the Jews

Source: JWeekly, 6-29-10

July 4th is almost upon us. Israel is celebrating its 62nd year of existence.

All American Jews and Americans, should recognize this shining moment of historical success of our mutually beneficial survival. The world is convulsing with terrorist warfare, lives are shattered, blood and tears fill so many streets … and yet in the quiet corners of our minds, we should be so thankful that our brave fathers and mothers struggled to land on these blessed shores for as long as this nation has existed.

Jewish history and world history (our Western civilization) have enjoyed such an interesting dancing partnership together! There were times we refused to accept the dance with our partner, and there were more times when we were rejected for the dance. But this is the strange path of Jewish growing-up in the Western world.

When our culture was in its infancy – as ancient Israel – we had a profound identity crisis. We escaped Egypt and were given the overwhelming responsibility to accept the 10 commandments, protect them and give them to the world. Who were we then? An ethnic group who had lived separately in Egypt (Goshen), suddenly freed with such an immense responsibility thrust upon us? Were we just a bunch of tribes? Moses had to keep the “union” together. And accept the law for them, and lead them to the border of the land of milk and honey.

Just like Abraham Lincoln, who had to hold the Union together, and more than that, teach the warring Union to be peaceful again, understanding with each other, and moreover, to perceive the truth that all men should be seen with dignity and equality by each other, and that the blasphemous concept of slavery should be proclaimed unjust. Shades of Passover? Interestingly, Judah Benjamin, Secretary of State of the Confederacy, two years prior to Lincoln, tried to propose an Emancipation Proclamation for the South, in exchange for conscription of “freed” slaves into an overwhelmingly outnumbered army! Sadly, his Southern compatriots felt him foolish. Echoes of Passover ringing into the music of the dance?

Perhaps the pinnacle of combined Jewish and American cooperation comes with the “Manhattan Project,” when America gathered the most learned, wise collection of scientists into one congregation in New Mexico to develop the atomic bomb, ahead of the competing Germans. We collected this assembly of refugees – all escaping Hitler, from Germany, Hungary, Italy, Denmark, almost all Jewish – to establish the “de-facto” end to World War II. Many of these scientists – all famous – would have been annihilated by Hitler in concentration camps: Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, John Von Neumann, Enrico Fermi, etc. Many later won Nobel prizes.

They all found home in America.

Einstein’s theory of relativity, which led to the Manhattan project, was based upon Albert Abraham Michelson’s calculations of the speed of light (the first American to win a Nobel Prize, in physics, in 1907). Einstein was not allowed to participate in the Manhattan Project because J. Edgar Hoover did not trust him as a “Pacifist Jew.”

But his letter to the president, composed with Leo Szilard, who first envisioned a “chain reaction” trigger to such a bomb, with Eugene Wigner (both Jewish, émigré Hungarian physicists who worked in Los Alamos on the bomb) signaled Franklin Delano Roosevelt into action to establish this project.

Coincidentally, Roosevelt read their letter in the presence of his economic advisor, Alexander Sachs – who reminded FDR that this sounded like the offer Napoleon had by an American scientist to build sail-less steam boats, to cross the English channel and invade England! “Rubbish,” Napoleon had responded. Sachs emphasized the profound fear expressed by these scientists in their letter to him. If FDR didn’t listen to these scientists, he would be like Napoleon not listening to his advisors. FDR nodded and assented. The Manhattan Project was on its way. But J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American, was selected as the head scientist of this strange international but now American group of researchers.

In our history, we seem to have reached young adulthood, and we have matured with our marriage to America. Judaism’s adolescence may be seen in the Middle Ages – where viewed as “nerds,” the Jews were isolated, ignored, persecuted, but used where they could be of service to a largely illiterate, ignorant mass of people.

The education of the Jews could be used by the nobility to maintain their money, and, hence power, over the masses, and communicate between societies of different languages.

Today, we have emerged, perhaps into the young adulthood of Judaism, and married (to America), where as in most marriages, the spouses are more full and more powerful together, than each separately. America has been so kind to us, allowing us, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the achievement of our goals. And as George Washington wrote to the Touro Synagogue, our new nation would” give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” (letter to “The Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” 1790)

As stated, history dances in the circles of themes. As God promised Abraham, an elderly man, whose wife was ninety years old, and they both still fervently hoped for children… God blessed them with only one son: Isaac. But God ironically said to Abraham: “Your progeny shall number like the stars in the heavens (Genesis 22:17); and they shall be as a light among the nations…”(Isaiah 42:6).

We are living, as we have always, as a light among the nations. We gave society the 10 commandments and numerous artistic and scientific contributions.

So, what is so unusual about our sojourn with America? It is, in terms of historical significance, perhaps the most beneficent, generous, and happy marriage we, as a people, have ever had! How do we know? Look at what America says about us:

• John Adams, second president of the United States, in an 1808 letter criticizing the depiction of Jews by the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire: “How is it possible [that he] should represent the Hebrews in such a contemptible light? They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a Bauble in comparison of the Jews. They have given religion to three quarters of the Globe and have influenced the affairs of Mankind more, and more happily, than any other Nation, ancient or modern.”

• Better still … Mark Twain: “The Jews are peculiarly and conspicuously the world’s intellectual aristocracy.” (Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1879)

“If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.

“He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” (Mark Twain; “Concerning the Jews” Harper’s Magazine, March, 1898)

We must not take our “Light-hood” lightheartedly, but seriously. Why have we survived? What is the secret of our immortality …so far?

Jews have proven that we can withstand almost any amount of persecution. Throughout our history, Judaism has survived countless incidents of unspeakable prejudice and harassment.

Frederich Neitzche (not Jewish) said: “A human being can survive any how , as long as he has the proper why.”

A person can tolerate any circumstance life sends his way, if only he understands that there is some meaning to that experience. For the last 2,000 years the Jewish people have gone through enormous amounts of persecution, hatred – ultimately leading to genocide. And through it all most Jewish people remained steadfastly Jewish. And the reason must be that they understood that it was worth it. They understood the meaning of Jewish culture, and they were willing to pay the price. America has allowed its Jews to be openly Jewish and American.

American culture and Jewish culture share so many common threads…

The founding of “Hollywood,” replete with all of its Jewish founders, entrepreneurs, writers, directors, actors, producers, lyricists, etc. has allowed America to trumpet its successes to the world, And the rest of the world copies our Hollywood.

What of numerical examples? Nobel Prizes are awarded by the Nobel Foundation of Sweden to men and women who have rendered the greatest services to humankind. Between 1901 and 2005, more than 750 Nobel prizes were awarded. Of these, at least 158 are Jews (21 percent). Yet, we only account for just less than 3 percent of the U.S. population, and 0.5 percent of the world population.

Where did this amazing story of success and achievement begin?

For American Jews, with the first shipload of Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam, escaping the Spanish Inquisition, which swept up to us from Brazil to clean the carpet of heretics.

Where does our Jewish American history take us?

Hopefully it should give us encouragement to further our goals of improving our fragile world as both Americans and Jews, stimulated by the courage, compassion and intelligence of those who have come before us – who made our moment in time freer, healthier, happier and more fulfilled than we could have been otherwise. It is the obligation we must accept for our children, and for their children.

God to Abraham: your descendants will be a light unto the nations… (Isaiah 6)

Albert Abraham Michelson measured the speed of light (Nobel 1907)

Albert Einstein: “I always wanted to ride on a light beam…” (Nobel 1921)

Let’s all jump on an American light beam now and see where it takes us.

Studies Show Jews’ Genetic Similarity

Source: NYT, 6-9-10

Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East share many genes inherited from the ancestral Jewish population that lived in the Middle East some 3,000 years ago, even though each community also carries genes from other sources — usually the country in which it lives.

That is the conclusion of two new genetic surveys, the first to use genome-wide scanning devices to compare many Jewish communities around the world.

A major surprise from both surveys is the genetic closeness of the two Jewish communities of Europe, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim. The Ashkenazim thrived in Northern and Eastern Europe until their devastation by the Hitler regime, and now live mostly in the United States and Israel. The Sephardim were exiled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 and moved to the Ottoman Empire, North Africa and the Netherlands.

The two genome surveys extend earlier studies based just on the Y chromosome, the genetic element carried by all men. They refute the suggestion made last year by the historian Shlomo Sand in his book “The Invention of the Jewish People” that Jews have no common origin but are a miscellany of people in Europe and Central Asia who converted to Judaism at various times.

Jewish communities from Europe, the Middle East and the Caucasus all have substantial genetic ancestry that traces back to the Levant; Ethiopian Jews and two Judaic communities in India are genetically much closer to their host populations….READ MORE

Dr. Richard Hull publishes latest book on Jews in African history

Dr. Richard Hull Historian Publishes latest book on Jews in African history Jews and Judaism in African History

Source: Straus News, 5-22-09

Professor Richard W. Hull, Ph.D., recently authored his latest book, “Jews and Judaism in African History,” available in paperback and hardcover at Baby Grand Bookstore in downtown Warwick. Photo by Roger Gavan

Warwick resident Richard W. Hull, Ph.D., recently announced the publication of his latest book, “Jews and Judaism in African History.”

Many Warwick residents know Hull as the town’s official historian and author of several books on local history. However, for many years Hull has served as professor of African history at New York University where he received four awards for teaching excellence. He was also the recipient of the Orange County Revered Citizen Award, a United Nations Distinguished Citizen Award, and a Fulbright Fellowship.

In recent years Professor Hull has taught a graduate seminar at NYU on “Jews in Africa since Classical Antiquity.”

His latest book, “Jews and Judaism in African History,” is a concise yet comprehensive study of the contributions of Africans of Jewish ancestry to the development of the continent, from antiquity to the present.

Hull’s research project began some 15 years ago and took him to numerous libraries in England, Morocco, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

“I realized that although Jews were a minority, they played significant roles in African history hugely disproportionate to their numbers,” said Hull. “I decided to write this book because Jews have been largely left out of the major works in African history despite their significance.”

His narrative begins with the Israelites in ancient Egypt and North Africa and later explores the foundations of the Beth Israel communities of Ethiopia and the “lost tribe” of Lemba in southern Africa.

Hull also examines the role of Jews and conversos in the launching of the Atlantic slave trade along with the Jewish intelligentsia of early Morocco. Another chapter is devoted to Jews in South Africa and their participation in that county’s economic and cultural development.

“Jews and Judaism in African History,” is published by Markus Wiener Publishers of Princeton. It is available in paperback and hardcover at Baby Grand Bookstore in downtown Warwick.

Jeffrey Gurock: America’s Unorthodox Orthodox Jews

America’s Unorthodox Orthodox Jews: A Conversation With Professor Jeffrey Gurock

Source: The Jewish Press, 5-20-09

He put on tefillin every day. He was rarely absent from shul. He ate only Orthodox Jews in America by Jeffrey S. Gurock: Book Coverkosher. But during the busy season in the garment industry, this Bronx Jew who grew up in the first half of the 20th century worked on Shabbat. Can such a person be considered an Orthodox Jew? Today many Jews would answer “no.” However, this gentleman and many others like him appear in a new book, Orthodox Jews in America, which examines the many shades of American Orthodoxy over the past 350 years. The book’s author, Jeffrey Gurock, has written and edited 14 other works, is a former associate editor of American Jewish History, and currently is Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University. The Jewish Press recently interviewed him about his book.

The Jewish Press: Your book, devoted to American Jewish Orthodoxy, includes Jews who work on Shabbat. In what sense is someone who works on Shabbat Orthodox? Gurock: He’s Orthodox in the sense that he understands what the requirements of halacha are. This individual is very guilty about his inability to observe Shabbat, but there are certain basic economic exigencies that force him to work to support his family.

Some would argue that working on Shabbat makes a person, a priori, not Orthodox. Obviously people are entitled to their opinion, but no one observes all the mitzvot. What makes someone Orthodox is his understanding that one is required to observe the mitzvot. Someone could be a Reform Jew and observe many of the mitzvot, but he’s not Orthodox because this is a personal decision he makes not based upon a belief in a halachic tradition.

People growing up today don’t realize how prevalent this type of Orthodoxy was, especially pre-World War II and while the Blue Laws were still in effect. Fortunately today American Jews are more affluent and they’re in an America that’s far more accepting of them. When I teach undergraduates and talk about this phenomenon [of Orthodox Jews being less than fully observant] they look at me like this is a strange world. And then I say, “Go home and if you’re privileged to have grandparents who are living, ask them about this Orthodox life.” And they come back and [their grandparents] all have stories – either about themselves or about the person who sat next to them in shul who had this type of difficulty.

Can you talk about America’s first rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Rice? He comes from Bavaria in 1840, arrives in Baltimore, and discovers a community where many of the members are not particularly observant. It’s a very big problem for him. As a European rabbi, his first approach is to take a highly resistant, exclusionary approach toward his congregants. So he says he will not let anyone have an aliyah if he is mechalel Shabbos b’farhesya [publicly desecrating Shabbat]. But then he changes the rule and says you can get an aliyah, but the congregation shouldn’t say amen to the brachah. And eventually he just gives up. He ends up leaving the rabbinate because he’s just uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable with the state of religious observance in America. Yes, it’s a very different environment than Europe. But Europe is also changing. There’s a stereotype that all our ancestors in Eastern Europe were frum, and then they came to America and they threw it all overboard. My point is, number one, people don’t throw everything overboard; they maintain plenty. And two, Eastern Europe during that time period is far from 100 percent observant. You have radicals [who become ritually unobservant] and then you have [ordinary] people who are beginning to observe less than they did in the past.

You have some interesting information in the book about kosher and non-kosher methods of shaving. Can you share? There is a graphic in the book of an advertisement in 1932 for the first electric razor that reads, “A new invention to prevent a transgression.” So here’s an example of how the ability to be shomer mitzvot is enhanced by modern technology. My grandfather, who I’m named after, used a stinking depilatory. But when the electric razor comes along you can look like other Americans without either stinking up your apartment or violating the tradition. But just to show you the nuances involved, at the same time that [people are using depilatories and the new electric shaver], the Jewish Forum, an Orthodox newspaper closely connected to the OU, has ads for regular Schick razors. Now that doesn’t mean the OU endorsed it, but advertisers are obviously serving a constituency. If no one was buying those shavers, they wouldn’t be advertising.

What happens to American Orthodoxy after World War II? A decline numerically in the numbers of people who identify with Orthodoxy, but those who have remained become more observant than any prior generation before them. Also the influx into America of Jews who for a variety of reasons did not come here until after the Shoah adds a great deal of vitality and strictness to Orthodox behavior.

In one of your previous books, Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports, you examine this new, stricter American Orthodoxy through the controversy surrounding yeshivas – such as Torah Vodaath and Chaim Berlin – playing in Orthodox basketball leagues that allowed girls to attend games and sometimes featured cheerleading squads and post-game dances. Can you elaborate?

[These yeshivas were concerned with] elevating the athletes to a status in the yeshiva that they didn’t want. They wanted the star of the yeshiva to be the scholar or rebbe, not the coach or athlete. Another problem for the yeshivas was that the whole environment of sports was a very secular one. So Chaim Berlin had a team and it dropped out. Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem had a team and then it dropped out. Torah Vodaath had a surreptitious team and then [Rabbi Gedalia Schorr] squelched it. And yet in the early ’60s [these yeshivas formed] a league called the Mesifta High School Athletic Association. [The administrations of these yeshivas basically said] that you can have a league but you’re not going to have dances after the games and you’re not going to have girls at the games. In its own right, this was a degree of accommodation.

What happened to this league? In the mid ’60s it just died. There wasn’t a moment in time when someone said, “Don’t play.” It just drifted away.

Looking forward, what trends do you see taking place in the Orthodox community? I’m going to duck that question. I have enough trouble understanding the past. I don’t want to predict the future.