American Jews at the Turn of the Century

Modernization and immigration shape the community.

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The Rise of Denominations

By the turn of the century, the key emerging Jewish denominations had also established their own organizations and educational institutions as they vied for adherents. The professed goal of Isaac Mayer Wise, the architect of American Reform Judaism, was to reshape Judaism in a new American context. He played a pivotal role in the founding of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1873), Hebrew Union College (1875), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1899).

Conservative Judaism adopted a more traditional but modernized and inclusive approach, institutionalized in the creation of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City (1887) and the United Synagogue of America. As president of JTS, Solomon Schechter emphasized what he considered Judaism's dynamic potential for adaptation.

Confronted with the new challenges of a fluid American environment where religious observance appeared to be on the decline, Orthodox rabbis followed differing paths. While a number of Eastern European-trained rabbis insisted on a policy of resistance to modernization, some younger, Western-educated rabbis made what they considered necessary accommodations, including the introduction of sermons in English and greater decorum in the synagogue.

Orthodox Judaism also developed its own leadership structure in America, and in 1898 formed the Orthodox Jewish Congregational Union of America. In 1902, an even more traditionalist segment founded the Agudas ha-Rabbonim, or the United Orthodox Rabbis of America, which lent its support to New York City's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (1897), modeled on the traditional East European yeshiva.

Another important aspect of the Jewish "Renaissance" in America was the creation of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) in 1893, which marked a watershed moment for American women. The NCJW had parallels to similar women's clubs created by white middle class Protestants, but exhibited a distinctly Jewish dimension with local chapters throughout the country. They emphasized Jewish knowledge, philanthropy, and social welfare reform, and worked to help Americanize new Jewish immigrants.

Also in this time period, affluent, acculturated Jews of German descent-- Jacob Schiff, the famous New York City banker among them--helped organize and fund numerous philanthropic and educational programs aimed at poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Schiff, the unofficial leader of the American Jewish community at the time, was worried about the threat of rising anti-Semitism and general xenophobia in the United States.

Also concerned with maintaining the positive image of the Jewish community, Schiff sought to demonstrate that Jews took care of their own. Newcomers would become productive members of society, rather than burdens or criminals. As such, his undertakings often included instruction in English language and civics to help ease the transition of the newcomers into American life and turn them into self-sufficient "good citizens."

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Jeanne E Abrams

Jeanne E. Abrams is a professor at Penrose Library at the University of Denver and the longtime director of the Beck Archives and the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, part of the University of Denver's Center for Judaic Studies and Penrose Library.