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The Elm Street Synagogue, New York.


Last month we gave insertion to a notice of one of the seceders from the Elm Street Synagogue, giving his and his friends’ reasons for establishing a new congregation in Franklin Street. Had we, however, been aware that it would have called forth a reply, we would, to a certainty, have refused to insert it, much as we respect its author. But this is one of the unpleasant occurrences in an editor’s vocation, against which the most untiring vigilance cannot guard. As we have, therefore, inserted the letter of “One of the Seceders,” we see no alternative but to give the subjoined in reply. We must, however, state candidly, that we deeply regret that publicity should have been given to the statement; not alone from our respect for our friend, the Rev. Mr. Isaacs, many of whose acts and exertions have, even according to the opinions of those of his congregation who have now turned against him, entitle him to the lasting esteem and gratitude of all Israelites; but also because we place so high an estimation upon the standing of the Jewish character, that we are extremely averse to announce any thing through our pages which might bring the least discredit on it. Hence our reluctance to speak, even of the sayings and doings of the reformers and apostates, easy as it might perhaps be to censure the first, and to refute the others. Now this was precisely the reason why we would say nothing hitherto concerning the troubles in the Elm Street Synagogue, although we were all along well informed of their progress, as far as this can be from conflicting rumours. We early foresaw, that a reunion of the contending parties would lead to no permanent peace; hence we were more rejoiced than sorry when we at length heard that an amicable separation had taken place; unwise though we deem it in the abstract, for congregations to divide and subdivide, whenever any difficulty occurs among them. Whatever may have been our unwillingness, however, to originate any thing from our pen, we see no way of avoiding giving publicity to a rejoinder, after admitting a statement through which some think themselves aggrieved. It cannot be expected from us, that we should volunteer our judgment which was not asked, and which is not now needed, for any practical purpose; things have been carried on in heat, which might have been easily satisfactorily settled by arbitration of Israelitish friends, had their judgment been appealed to, instead of commencing an expensive lawsuit, by which, after all, nothing has been settled. No doubt there was some wrong done in the first instance, by making the acquisition of the right of membership difficult of attainment to certain persons; because we hold, for our person, the most ultra-democratic principles in religious corporations, at least in so far, that the persons who serve the congregation should be elected by the largest possible concurrence of all parties interested, if even the other affairs of the Kahal are managed by a very small board; since so far as mere details of business are concerned, they can be safely managed by ever so few, provided these have the weight of public opinion, expressed by a popular choice, to sustain them. Hence we would throw the franchise open to all contributors, had we the management of a congregation, safely trusting for a correction of any evil which might occasionally occur, to the good sense of the majority of our people. But if the law of the state would have ultimately granted the rejected seat-holders the elective franchise, they might have, we think, carried their point without so much excitement as was witnessed last winter. Perhaps they will say that their opponents drove them to it: this was no doubt the case to some extent; but as all is now in a fair way of settling down quietly, we beg our friends to answer candidly and calmly, if a little more patience would not have done a great deal to obtain a peaceable settlement of the difficulty?

We understand nothing of the technicalities of the law, and cannot therefore determine how far the rights of the claimants might have been compromised, if they had left the refusing parties in quiet possession of the Synagogue. But we state without hesitation, that as far as Jewish law is concerned, they were not justified in effecting an entrance into the house of prayer on Sabbath afternoon, when they found it nailed up. This act of fastening up the Synagogue, was a great wrong on the part of those who did it, and they would much better have retired from the contest, when it had come to this, that such an act could alone sustain them in possession. In thus condemning the proceedings of both, we do it only because the parties have appealed to the Occident, and we felt them distinctly, that we cannot hold either justified in what has occurred.

As regards the acts of the Rev. Mr. Isaacs, his position was very unpleasant. Left to exercise the functions of temporal head of the Synagogue, he had a choice, it is true, to call to the honours any one whom he might designate as worthy; but he had to act according to the by-laws in existence at the time being, and if he interpreted them wrong, it was but an error of the judgment to which every one is liable. At the same time we say candidly, that had we been placed in the same position, we would not have assumed the rights of the temporal director, deeming as we do, that the minister cannot do so, without running the risk of making enemies, if his intentions be ever so pure. Perhaps he ought to have disregarded the non­payment of dues to either of the treasurers; but would this have satisfied all? we are sure of the contrary; hence less blame ought to be attached to him, by even those who have sent us the subjoined communication, than they actually do.

But we are going too far in the discussion, which, as we have said already, has not been referred to our decision, and for which we shall probably be somewhat condemned by both parties, as we cannot assent to the conduct of either. We will merely remark, that we will not close the Occident to a rejoinder; but we must insist on one thing, that all personalities must be strictly avoided, and that the writers confine themselves closely to a statement of facts. We will state in this connexion, that it is not the strength, but the justice of the language employed which carries conviction; and that our friends in New York, (and we number many friends both among the Franklin and Elm Street Synagogues,) will best subserve their purpose, should they desire to bring their cause before the Jewish public, by writing now, in the moment of excitement, as though they would soon be friends again. It is true they just have had an unpleasant contest; but we are very certain that there is space and material enough in New York, for both the congregations to flourish, and there exists not a single cause why they should not act in harmony, especially if both discover, after a little reflection, that they have all been a little to blame, in the judgment of disinterested and candid men. And we trust that the admission of articles on this subject, will more tend to promote peace, than if the matter were left to be discussed in private circles. The public press is a safety valve for bad passions; and if they have found vent in this manner, they are very apt to sink down to a harmless point. Glad indeed should we be were this speedily to be the case, and that we could announce that the Synagogues in Elm and Franklin Streets, are both flourishing, and acting together in love and harmony.—Ed. Oc.


New York, 3d Tamuz, 5605.

Rev. SIR,

In perusing the last number of the Occident, our attention was particularly directed to a communication subscribed by “One of the Seceders” of the Elm Street Synagogue. We had been inclined to suppose that after the so-called amicable arrangement, which has been made between the two contending parties, the matter would have been suffered to slumber in oblivion, and in the course of time to die a natural death. This, however, appears not to be the case; your correspondent seems anxious to rekindle the flames of discord by adding new fuel to the hardly extinguished embers. He also strives to cost an odium upon the whole congregation by his insinuating that he and his friends were obliged to leave the Synagogue in consequence of our using physical force in order to gain that which we could not acquire by law. Had his communication appeared in a local newspaper or periodical, no notice would have been taken of it; we would not have deigned to answer the misrepresentations with which it abounds; but considering the extensive circulation of the Occident abroad as well as in the United States, we feel ourselves obliged to vindicate the reputation of the worshippers of our congregation, and thereby remove that stigma which your correspondent is so desirous to attach to our name. We will, therefore, give you the history of our late troubles in as brief a space as possible.

In the month of August last the annual election for trustees took place, the result of which was contested by us on several grounds; but the principal one was that the party then in power rejected the votes of about thirty members, in accordance with a by-law of the congregation, and which by-law we considered, and do now consider, to be unconstitutional. A lawsuit was commenced in the Supreme Court. The present seceders using the money of the congregation to defray the law expenses; we furnishing the funds by private subscription amongst our own party. The case had been argued twice; but no decision was given by the court. How long this suspense might have continued is impossible to say; but it so happened that things were brought to an issue by different means. The self-constituted board of trustees who held the reins of government revived an obsolete resolution that no one should be entitled to any honours in the Synagogue—as for instance to be called to the law, or to say Kaddish,—who was over six months in arrears. This was done with a view of forcing us to pay our dues into the hands of the treasurer appointed by them. We as a matter of course, objected to such an accommodation, because we were not willing to pay our money into the hands of a board of trustees whose titles were problematical and in dispute; but we offered as a compromise to deposit the amounts of our dues into the hands of a third and disinterested party, and abide the decision of the court, which would determine who were the trustees and who were not. This offer on our part was rejected; and as the Rev. S. M. Isaacs was altogether guided by the assumed authority of the Seceders, and executed their wishes, many of our party were deprived of their rights and honours when there was occasion for them.

At last one of our most respectable electors had a son בר מצוה; the father made application for his son to read in the ספר the following Saturday; this was denied to him on account of his refusing to comply with the above mentioned resolution. There was no alternative then except to show some determination that the boy must and should read. This was accordingly done, not by any physical force, as your correspondent asserts, but by the authority of two trustees, acknowledged as such by both parties, who peremptorily directed Mr. Isaacs to call to the law whom they pleased. The internal management of the Synagogue devolved upon them by right, as there were no other trustees present. Things went on well enough in the morning. In the afternoon, however, when we were going to read מנחה we found to our amazement that the Synagogue was closed. By applying to the sexton, he said he was ordered not to open it, and he had sent the keys to Mr. ——. An entrance was then effected through a window in the ladies’ gallery, and then it was found that every window was nailed up, every door barricaded, and every piece of silver removed from the ark. We frankly admit that we have never heard of a similar outrage in Israel.

This had all been done on the holy Sabbath between מוסף and מנחה by the order of those who claimed to act as authorities, who blackballed several persons because they did not keep the Sabbath day holy. Two of the trustees who were present then sent word to Mr. Isaacs to come and read prayers; he refused to come. Another deputation was sent to him with the same result, saying as an excuse that he had strict orders not to come. Prayers were then read by another gentleman, and Mr. Isaacs was suspended by the congregation in pursuance of a public meeting called for that purpose the Monday following. It was after this occurrence that Messrs. M. and J. assumed the direction of the Synagogue; they were legal trustees and were admitted to be such by both parties. There was no physical force used we repeat again, but a show of determination which the opposite party never attempted to oppose, except by law, and that did not prove very effective nor profitable. When the present seceding party saw that the sceptre had departed from them, they sued for peace, that is to say, they offered as a compromise that the two parties should separate. This proposition was accepted by us; we paid accordingly to forty-seven seceding members (out of which number we defy them to name ten founders) the sum of five thousand five hundred dollars for the sole purpose of giving up their rights as electors. We are now left with about one hundred and twenty members, and have no doubt that, with a mild and equitable management, we shall soon be double the number.

After this exposé we wish to make a few observations in answer to your correspondent. He says the question was, “Whether we may make by-laws to keep our Synagogue respectable.” We wish he had given a definition of the word respectable. Does he mean honest? persons have been blackballed who will not suffer from a comparison with the best of his party. Does he mean religious? we can prove that persons were rejected as electors who have every claim to that title. Your correspondent continues, “ Or whether the laws of the state compel us to admit every one to the electoral right no matter who the applicant may be.” We say unquestionably they do, and with every show of reason. The state wills not that you should tax any one without granting to the tax-payer the right of suffrage. If you wished to make your place of worship exclusive for your own party, you had no right to rent out seats to strangers; besides, if a person is respect­able enough to enjoy all his religious rights in common with you he is surely respectable enough to enjoy his political rights whether he votes your ticket or not.

As regards the resignation of Mr. Isaacs, we have only to observe that his abdication was made by us the sine qua non of the settlement.

In conclusion, we are glad to see that the new Synagogue in Franklin Street will be conducted on pure orthodox principles (ours has never been otherwise). But we hope that in its effort to serve as “a model for all congregations to copy” it will strive to observe the most important of all commandments, “Love thy neighbour like thyself.”

We are Rev. Sir,
Yours very respectfully,
Several Members of the Elm Street Synagogue.