Coming to America: Divides in the Jewish-American Community

This blog post was written by Museum intern Brendan Hyatt.

During the height of Eastern European Jewish immigration to the United States – the phenomenon which drove the establishment of the Eldridge Street Synagogue – opinions on how the newly massive Jewish population ought to behave and interact with American culture differed widely. “Native” New Yorkers, white residents who had longer-standing roots to the country and city, were vocal about how new arrivals to the country should adopt customs and assimilate (an issue that surrounds immigrants to America today). But even within immigrant communities, debates raged on how to behave in a new home. Notably at that time, the perceptions of the German-Jewish Reform establishment stood in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly Orthodox Eastern European immigrant population.

There are many narratives of Jewish-American history that depict brotherhood in the face of grave external threats – after all, the “othering” and persecution of the Jew in America (and elsewhere) seems all-too-constant. But xenophobia and conflict between two competing New York Jewish communities was common as well. Not only did Eastern European Jewish immigrants face an alien American culture, but they were frequently met with hostility, fear, and disdain from “Uptown” Jews. In this case, the label “uptown” refers not only to the likely neighborhood geography of many of these people but also their perceived sophistication and social status.

Market day in the Lower East Side, Jewish Quarter, NYC in 1912. Courtesy of NYPL Digital gallery.

When Eastern European immigrants began to flood into New York City – over 2.5 million would arrive the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century – German Jewish immigrants were just beginning to feel at home in their new country. These German Reform Jews had immigrated earlier in the century, had worked hard to integrate into society, and met the incoming Eastern European Jews with hostility. Many felt that these Eastern European Jews should abandon the ways of the old country. Others saw their relative poverty as a moral failing specific to that demographic. The Jewish Messenger, an Anglo-Jewish newspaper which represented upper-middle-class Reform German Jews, predicted that aid for the new immigrating population “would prove disastrous” and would “create an excessive burden on the American Jewish community”. In February 1881 the editor of the newspaper called for more stringent immigration laws due to the large number of “utterly helpless” immigrants settling in New York City. In 1884 The American Israelite (founded and edited by Isaac Mayer Wise, a founding figure of American Reform Judaism), urged the use of the recently passed New York State restrictive immigration laws to deny entry to about two hundred incoming Russian immigrants. Efforts such as these, of course, were to little avail, and immigrants continued to flow into the Lower East Side. But it is clear that even among other Jews, these new arrivals were not always accepted with open arms.

New Jewish immigrants studying in an Alliance school. Photo courtesy of Educational Alliance.

As the Eastern European population grew at an unprecedented rate, the Reform community took steps to, in their words, “Americanize” the growing community. Major Reform figures founded a series of civic and religious organizations (most notably, the American Jewish Committee) to “prevent infringement of the civil and religious rights of Jews, and to alleviate the consequences of persecution”. Although the stated goal is virtuous, these organizations were partially borne out of a perception of Eastern European Jews as destitute, uncivilized, and needing of civilizing by a benevolent German Reform population. The Educational Alliance, one of these organizations, provided programs “of an Americanizing, educational, social and humanizing character-for the moral and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the East Side”, a wording indicative of the attitudes of its leadership. This attitude evokes the writings of Isaac Meyer Wise, who advocated for a strategy of assimilation. He wrote that the modernization of synagogues, adopting English, and political participation would align the new immigrants to American society and potentially protect them against societal ills. “Americanize as fast and thorough as you can,” he wrote, “We apprehend the danger growing out of this state of exclusiveness.” This early tendency to Americanize out of necessity, common among the already-rooted German-Jewish communities in Cincinnati, New York City, and elsewhere, certainly furthered the melting-pot of Jewish-American culture in the country. These immigrant groups felt it was integral to new immigrants’ economic and social success to make efforts to blend into the culture of their new country. The New York City-based semi-monthly Jewish Messenger echoed this sentiment, writing that “The new immigrants must be Americanized in spite of themselves, in the mode prescribed by their friends and benefactors.”

Meanwhile, Eastern European Orthodox Jews were not naïve to the situation. They often viewed the German-Jewish establishment as snobbish, resenting the infantilizing German effort to “Americanize” them. Isaac Max Rubinow, a Polish Orthodox Jew who moved to New York in 1903, wrote for the Russian-Jewish Monthly Voskhod that many of the problems of the booming Jewish population were the fault of the German Reform establishment. He wrote that “The German Jew, the old timer, was ashamed of his Russian cousin, and this shame created an iron barrier between the two groups. This brought about a great deal of misunderstanding. The German Jew forgot that when he first appeared on American soil, the Portuguese Jew who preceded him, regarded him with contempt.” His writing represents the viewpoint of many Eastern European Jewish immigrants who chose to prioritize their time-honored traditions over assimilation or patriotism. This, of course, does not mean that they were immune to the pressures. The Eldridge Street Synagogue itself was modeled after several uptown synagogues, and the congregation adopted organizing practices that meant to convey an air of sophistication and civilization analogous with the more respected religious groups.

Isaac Max Rubinow, prominent intellectual among Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Courtesy of the Isaac M. Rubinow Papers, Kheel Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

In a country and city where Reform Synagogues dominated the city, the Eldridge Street Synagogue stood as a declaration of the social and cultural presence of a new and vibrant Jewish-American presence. The construction of a Grand Synagogue in the heart of the Lower East Side confirmed the lasting presence of the Orthodox community, to the joy of Orthodox figures and the discomfort of certain Reform voices. Opening day at the Eldridge Street Synagogue illustrated the dissonance between uptown Jews and their Lower East Side counterparts; As Annie Polland writes in her book Landmark of the Spirit, two prominent Uptown rabbis delivered commemorative speeches declaring that the Synagogue’s congregants ought to instruct their children ‘in the teachings of religion’ and make them ‘familiar with Jewish history’ lest they, in growing up, ‘leave the synagogue and join the temples uptown.”  Mi Yodea, a reporter from the prominent Reform newspaper  American Israelite, wrote disparagingly about the opening ceremonies. He wrote that the new Synagogue’s congregants lacked in decorum due to their tendency to chat and move throughout the synagogue during the service. He went on to declare more generally that Orthodox Judaism would not survive its new, American environment. Though the congregation had succeeded at finally building a space of their own in their new home, they weren’t free from the judgments of their fellow Americans.


The Orthodox practice of Eldridge Street, of course, would go on to defy the fears of the Uptown Reformers while maintaining many traditions from life on the shtetl. For example, men and women were separated for most of the Congregation’s history in adherence to Orthodox law, and one of Eldridge Street’s requirements for membership was “that persons known to publicly violate the Sabbath, can not be admitted to membership”. Both these rules demonstrated the congregation’s dedication to uphold tradition over progressive ideals or the economic complexity of a Christian-majority economy, which did not consistently provide the Sabbath as a day of rest. In essence, the synagogue exemplified a budding Jewish-American identity, fusing Eastern European Orthodox identity with American ideals. Symbols of America are everywhere within the Synagogue, whether in records of the congregation’s adoption of a constitutional, democratic system, their 1889 redecorations in honor of the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration, or in the American, five-pointed stars painted across its walls. Eldridge’s congregation stood as part of a rising Orthodox culture which synthesized traditional Jewish and patriotic ideas into a hybrid which would appeal to American-born Jews and prosper in the country.

Brendan Hyatt is a Museum at Eldridge Street summer intern. He is currently studying Political Science at Grinnell College. 

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