Shearith Israel is the oldest Jewish congregation in America, founded in 1654. It was there that I first encountered and then became inspired by and engrossed in the history and traditions of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews (The Western Sephardim). In 2009 Shearith Israel hired me to be their Educational Director. Following my first Shabbat, the head of the ritual committee welcomed me to ‘the switch hitter club,’ a reference to baseball and to the many Jews of non-S&P background that have chosen to embrace it.
The community dates itself to 1654 when 23 Jewish refugees of Portuguese extraction arrived in what was then New Amsterdam. They were coming form the former Dutch colony of Recife, Brazil. The community grew under British rule in the early eighteenth century. It was then in 1730 that they finally had enough community members and resources to warrant the construction of their first synagogue. Since then Shearith Israel has moved ‘uptown’ several times, arriving in 1897 at 70th St. and Central Park West.
The current synagogue is an impressive structure, blending western motifs with the S&P synagogue style of center facing seats, no curtain upon the Ark (hekhal), the reader’s desk set towards the back, and a second floor women’s gallery. While very clearly an S&P synagogue, it is also quintessentially nineteenth century New York with its faux marble pillars, red carpeting, and brilliant Tiffany windows. Shearith Israel is a prime example of how S&P Jews always worked to integrate their unique traditions with surrounding mores, a manifestation of their worldview of living as Jews but as part of a wider society.
The synagogue also contains a ‘small synagogue’ constructed out of items from the congregation’s first synagogue building on Mill St. It contains historic brass candles, a readers desk, Ten Commandments plaques and Torah scrolls. To pray at Shearith Israel is to feel oneself transported back in time, with its authentic representation of the S&P traditions as they have coalesced over the centuries. While other S&P synagogues continue to function on both sides of the Atlantic, Shearith Israel is arguably the most vibrantly S&P congregation today (with London in strong contention). It maintains a strict adherence to tradition and the congregation’s numerous members are generally well versed in it. Shearith Israel also retains an exquisite collection of historic Judaica that they continue to use on special occasions.
I’m grateful to everyone at Shearith Israel who over the years took the time to welcome me, teach me, and make me feel at home. I was touched to be honored with a special tribute at their October 2015 Gala. I loved working with the families, children and newcomers of Shearith Israel, as we all learned together about the heritage of the Jewish people and how it continues to inspire our lives. As I embark on a new chapter in my life, now with the London branch of the S&P, I hold dear my years at Shearith Israel. I hope to always maintain that feeling of extended family with the membership of Shearith Israel. I sincerely look forward to welcoming them to Bevis Marks Synagogue on their next visit to London.
A wonderful article and photos! Thank you. I am honored to have read an excerpt from my award-winning novel historical fiction novel, THE BLIND EYE–A Sephardic Journey at Shearith Israel with Sarah Aroeste performing some of her soulful Ladino songs. It is a very special place.
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