Election Day: Then and Now
By Sophie Kaufman
This Election Day, as we cast our vote, monitor the results through a myriad of media, and air our own thoughts on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, I like to think about what Election Day meant to the recent immigrants who prayed at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. For many it was their first time taking part in an electoral process. Artifacts in the Museum’s collection help tell this story.
Many of the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s members had come from places in Eastern Europe where their rights were constantly infringed upon. America was their first taste of freedom and they embraced the democratic system wholeheartedly. Century-old artifacts like the congregational Constitution, meticulous minute books and a gavel show how the synagogue’s leaders quickly embraced American values in the organization of the congregation. Banker Sender Jarmulowsky, noted for both his piety and business savvy, was the congregation’s first president.
The congregation’s early Constitution demonstrates the way in which they adopted an organized, democratic system. Decisions were made on the basis of majority consensus. Bylaws, articles and amendments, and even the name “Constitution,” points to the emphasis the leaders put on embracing the governing organization of a country that had granted them religious freedom. The Constitution provides guidelines for annual elections, rules of worship, study, communal service and synagogue leadership.
Weekly meetings were documented in the congregational minute book and ledgers, which span the period 1883 to 1955. The secretary recorded the day-to-day workings of the congregation. The minute books included everything from nominations for membership and elections to repairs to the synagogue building. It is clear from the meticulous records that the structure of these meetings sought to mirror the American values of informed debate and voluntary service. Interestingly, by 1905, English words were increasingly interspersed with Yiddish. This transition is a visible indication of assimilation by the congregants.
At meetings, the congregants used a gavel to maintain order. Members were fined 25 cents for a first infraction and 50 cents for the second; after the third, they were required to speak with the President.
How did the immigrant community of the Lower East Side celebrate election results? The Forward Building, built in 1912 just a few blocks away from the synagogue, used to project the results on the side of the building. Families would gather around to watch as the news came in. The Forward building was the tallest in the neighborhood, making it easy for people in the neighborhood view.
On Election Day, I always think about how much the right to vote meant to the men of this newly established Jewish American congregation.