||MIKVEH ISRAEL and the First Call for a Union of Jewish Congregations in the United States
During the spring of 1841 the vestry room of Philadelphia's pioneer synagogue buzzed excitedly. The attention of the adjunta was gripped by the forthright appeal of Isaac Leeser as he outlined a program to organize American jewry on a national basis. Mikveh Israel had just emerged from its first test of strength. The frightful blood accusations in far-away Damascus had prompted the Philadelphians, under the guidance of the senior congregation, to organize a national protest.
However, the efforts of Mikveh Israel and of all of the American congregations that participated in arousing national interest and the raising of the first substantial funds for overseas Jewish relief, could not perform what the sinews of unity would have accomplished were they present. American jewry lacked the vitality and strength of organization.
The changed conditions in the life of American Jews, the absence of national leadership and the rise of religious dissent, demanded a program that could lead to unified action on agreed communal goals. Thus, as a result, the first formal attempt to organize American Jewry was made by the members of Mikveh Israel. Urged on by Leeser, leading laymen such as Lewis Allen, the parnass of the congregation; Judah Lazarus Hackenburg, an humble and devoted Jew; Abraham Hart, the youthful, energetic publisher of America's best selling books; Zadok Davis, the tireless president of the Hebrew Fuel Society; Hyman Gratz, whose name is linked with Jewish education and the spirited Louis Bomeisler joined with the scholarly Reverend Louis Salomon of the German Hebrew Congregation Rodeph Sholom. To achieve unified action on a local basis Beth Israel, which had recently seceded from the parent congregation, was invited to participate on an equal basis.
When the Circular was finally issued, it contained a plan for a national religious authority, proposals for a system of elementary and higher Jewish education (that embodied a plan for the all-day Jewish school) and a Union for American Jewish congregations. It was an ambitious, comprehensive program, the first of its kind of which there is a record. In it may he found the elements which influenced each successive attempt at American Jewish communal responsibility on a local and national scale.
It is interesting to note that the program met with little immediate success. The fear of a centralized Jewish authority crowded out the program for a religious Union; but the seeds which were then sown were yet to influence the structure of American Jewish life. From 1841 until the time of his death, in 1868, Leeser con- tinued to write and preach on the subject of Jewish Communal responsibility. His pioneering laid the groundwork for much that we see today in Jewish education and social service.
A new era was about to begin, the struggle to achieve unity in American Jewish life. In almost all endeavors at national communal organization, Mikveh Israel or members of its Congregation took an active part. In education, rabbinical associations or philanthropic activity, the role assumed by Mikveh Israel carried the banner of Isaac Leeser.
||Circular Call for Jewish Union