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Consecration of the New Synagogue Shaaray Tefilla, New York


In our last we briefly announced,  under the head of News Items, our intention of being present at the opening of the new house of prayer, just finished for the congregation under the pastoral charge of the Reverend Mr. Isaacs, a gentleman whose merits are too well known to our readers that we need not now speak in his praise. We accordingly journeyed to New York the day before the consecration was to take place, and it was not long after our arrival before we went to obtain a view of the Synagogue, which was at the time undergoing the finishing process, under the superintendence of several members of the congregation, preparatory to the initiatory ceremonies of the following day. We found the building almost fully responding to the description of the plan given at the time of laying the corner stone in our August number of last year (Vol. iv. No. 5, pp. 239, 240), to which we refer. The only departure therefrom which we could perceive was the absence of some of the architectural decorations, and the contemplated floor of Italian marble for the steps of the ark: instead of the latter, a neat carpet had been substituted, which, to our apprehension, answered just as well, and in truth we approve the change, for by avoiding the useless ornaments at first designed, the congregation were enabled to finish their building at about the original estimate of thirty thousand dollars, which otherwise would have been impracticable. As it is, we may safely say, that it is by far the finest Synagogue in America, though this does not say that that it is the best adapted for the purpose for which it is designed. We should judge that ordinarily it will require much exertion in the minister to be distinctly heard all over the building, owing to the great height in the centre, and the declivity of the galleries, together with the many angles in the ceiling. In fact, the style of building is so new to us, and so little idea had we of the interior arrangements, that we have not as yet been able to make up our mind, whether to approve it for a Synagogue or not. But there can be no question that it is a beautiful structure, and highly creditable to the architect who designed it, and equally so to the members of the congregation, who, though few in number, had a sufficient strong sense of what is due to the sanctity of religion to erect so expensive and well-appointed a house of prayer, as now greets the devout traveller in the far-famed commercial  metropolis of the western world. It proves that, however some may have quitted the communion of Israel, our march has been onward, and that there is ample hope that we shall continue to progress in this country, despite of the early struggles to which we are now subject.

It is now about twenty-three years ago, since first we arrived at the city where we now sojourn, called hither by an aged and honoured relation of our sainted mother. His residence was at Richmond in Virginia, where we remained under his roof more than five years. During the greater  part of this time there were but six organized congregations in the United States, one at New York, two in Philadelphia, one in Richmond, one at Charleston, and one at Savannah. There were at the same time but five officiating ministers duly elected, one at New York, two at Philadelphia, one at Richmond, and the last at Charleston, whilst at Savannah they had only occasional service by persons not elected officiating for them. It was about twenty years ago that the Elm Street congregation at New York separated from the Portuguese Kahal, then worshipping in Mill, but now in Crosby Street. It was at the time thought that the separation had better been avoided, as there was ample room in the old Synagogue for all the worshippers in the city. But mark the change of things; there are now ten Synagogues, having room for about four to five thousand worshippers, and we say nothing out of the range of probability in maintaining that in less than five years from this the space will be too limited, and more ample accommodation will have to be supplied. And even without any additional immigration from abroad, which, circumstanced as our brothers are in Europe, must become more and more necessary in the simple course of events, the natural increase of the Israelites already there, will require more places of worship; for as it is, should all now residing in New York belong to one or the other Synagogue, there would be too few seats, if the population is at all in the neighbourhood of twelve thousand, as is asserted by those who profess to know something of the statistics of the place. Of course we cannot speak on the subject with certainty, our visits to New York being too far apart, and of too short duration to enable us to form judgment; but still our impression is that the estimate is too high, if we may form any opinion from the numbers who attend public worship.

But we are leaving our subject; we were to speak of the consecration, and not of our prospects. So let us leave the building and its associate thoughts for a future time; perhaps an opportunity may be given us of recurring to it again; and let us transport our readers to the new house of prayer on the afternoon of the 11th of Tamuz, 5607. It was half-past two in the afternoon, and notwithstanding the heat of the summer solstice, we found many wending their way to the place where the ark for the law had been erected, and being conducted to the basement, which is to be used as a temporary Synagogue, and is immediately beneath the main one, we were greeted by the presence of the various gentlemen who were to take part in the ceremonies, consisting of the officers of the congregation and others, together with the following officiating ministers: the Rev. S. M. Isaacs, the Rev. J. J. Lyons, of the congregation  Shearith Israel, of New York, Rev. Ellis Lyons, of the congregation Beth Shalome, of Richmond, Virginia, the Rev. Messrs. Merzbach, Hecht, Heilner, and Danziger, of the respective congregations Emmanuel, Anshay Chased, Rodef Sholem and Shaar Hashamayim of New York, affording a pleasing contrast to the paucity of ministers not more than fifteen years ago; notwithstanding there were absent a great many others belonging to the various Kehilloth of New York, amongst whom we particularly regretted Rev. Dr. Lilienthal and the Rev. Mr. Leo. But as it was, it was a gratifying spectacle to see assembled so many who were selected to address the throne of grace in behalf of the sons of Israel, who came from various places to be present at the dedication of the new sanctuary, and no doubt this simple spectacle must not have been without its effect on many who had knowledge of past times, when they for a moment compared them with what happened that day under their own eyes. The afternoon service having been read, the law books were decorated with the various ornaments, some of them the presents of persons belonging to the Kahal, given to commemorate the joyful occasion, and handed to those who had been honoured with bearing them into the new dwelling prepared for them. Whilst these preparations were going forward, the symphony for the consecration, composed by Mr. E. Woolf, an Israelite (as is also one of the architects, Mr. Eidlitz,) was commenced, by a powerful and well-trained band, and when this and the opening chorus were finished, the bearers of the Sepharim having been gradually properly marshalled in the vestibule, the procession entered the Synagogue in the manner described by our correspondent in the subjoined article, whilst the choir and orchestra gave with excellent effect the אודך from the conclusion of Psalm 118. And then, when the eye ranged over the assembled multitude, consisting of Israelites of different congregations, together with many strangers who had joined them on the occasion, it was indeed a cause for thankfulness to all that “they had been spared alive, and permitted to enjoy that season” of sacred joy, in the accomplishment of a goodly work. The manner of conducting the remainder of the ceremony is correctly described by our correspondent, and differed little from that usually adopted on similar occasions, and all we need therefore add is, that all was done so as to give satisfaction, to the assembly, and to those who had so indefatigably laboured to bring the work to so happy a consummation. We have to regret that, having to take part in the ceremonies, and being, during the performance of the symphony, not in the main building, we were not in a favourable position to enjoy the psalmody and music as much as we could have desired, and therefore lost a great deal of the effect which otherwise they would halve produced on us. But all the spectators with whom we have conversed expressed themselves in the highest terms of approbation.

The number of tickets of admission was limited to the capacity of the building, and it would have been crowded in every part, had it not been that the President of the United States happened just to arrive at New York about the same time, which compelled many official persons to be absent on their attendance upon the chief magistrate of the republic. But the attendance was nevertheless very great, and many temporary seats were provided and occupied, over and above the usual ones.

After the seven circuits had been performed, the minister of the congregation delivered a stirring appeal to the audience, and expatiated on the uses of the Synagogue, that it was to raise the heart to heaven, and to promote peace and good-will among men, especially those who are followers of the same creed, and he quoted aptly the words from Isaiah 32:17, והיה מעשה הצדקה שלום “And the work of righteousness shall be peace,” which words are upon the corner stone, which has been presented to the congregation by Mr. Simon Content, an aged native of Holland, as we learn from one of our correspondents. We are sorry that our position did not permit us to follow the reverend orator in his speech, and that so much escaped us, as we could not take any notes. He concluded with a request that those present should endow liberally the treasury of the Synagogue, and it is truly gratifying that so much was collected towards defraying the expenses incurred. Although the result of the collection was so favourable, we could not help regretting that it was resorted to. At two previous consecrations which we attended, those at Savannah and Baltimore, it was not done at all, and at Philadelphia. persons inclined to give wrote the amount inclined on printed blanks, which were not opened till the service was over. In our apprehension, the time consumed in reading of a long list of offerings interrupts the service unpleasantly, and in the present instance we saw several, nay, many persons, quitting the Synagogue, although the service was by no means over. But we confess that this  is a mere matter of taste, and though we cannot approve, we cannot condemn others for differing from us.

The collections being over, various prayers and Psalms were recited, when the Sepharim, not yet deposited, were carried back to the ark, whilst the choir sung Psalm 29.; after which followed in good style and similarly given Psalm 150., finished by a beautiful Hallelujah. Then succeeded a poem, recited by Mr. Henry Morrison, a young lawyer, and the little we could hear distinctly in the position we stood, gave us quite a favourable opinion of its merits. Mr. Morrison is evidently not yet used to public speaking, and not fully appreciating the capacity of the building for sound, he spoke in too low a tone of voice to be heard at a distance, and we had no opportunity to read the piece after the consecration. The whole service was concluded at half­past six, by singing the beautiful hymn אדון עולם “Lord of the Universe,” which ended the labours of the choir and orchestra for the occasion, which will be long remembered by all present. The evening service was read after an intermission of half an hour, by the Rev. Mr. Hecht, of the Henry Street Synagogue. The following day, Sabbath morning, a large number, of course not so numerous as the preceding evening, attended, and we were gratified in observing that the Mitzvote were not sold, but were distributed by the Parnass of the congregation pretty much as practised by the Portuguese Jews. Having been honoured by the trustees with an invitation to address the congregation at the conclusion of the service, we complied with the request, and have to thank all for the kind manner with which we were listened to.

We have given thus a brief, and, we are conscious, an imperfect account of what we saw and heard; but our correspondent has supplied many things which we have omitted above. In conclusion, we have to express the hope that the work thus happily begun (for the completion of the Synagogue is but the commencement of the work of godliness) may lead to the best results, and that the law may thereby be widely diffused, and peace be promoted among Israel.