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Congregation Shearith Israel

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Basic Information

Location 40°46′29.5″N 73°58′38.3″W
Phone number 212 873 0300
Country United States
City New York City
Address 8 West 70th Street, New York, NY 10023

General Information

Open to visitors yes
Need appointment no
Handicap accessibility no
Website http://www.shearithisrael.org/
Geographical Coordinates 40.77484,-73.97716


Congregation Shearith Israel, often called The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, is the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. It was established in 1654. The Orthodox synagogue is located on Central Park West at 70th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The congregation's current Neoclassical building was occupied in 1897.

Foundations and synagogue buildings

The first group of Spanish and Portuguese Jews arrived in New York (New Amsterdam) in September 1654. After being initially rebuffed by anti-Semitic Governor Peter Stuyvesant, Jews were given official permission to settle in the colony in 1655. This marks the founding of the Congregation Shearith Israel. Despite their permission to stay in New Amsterdam they continued to face discrimination and were not given permission to worship in a public synagogue for some time (throughout the Dutch period and even into the British). The Congregation did, however, make arrangements for a cemetery beginning in 1656. It was not until 1730 that the Congregation was able to build a synagogue of its own which was built on Mill Street in lower Manhattan. Before 1730, as is evidenced from a map of New York from 1695, the congregation worshiped in rented quarters on Beaver Street and subsequently on Mill Street. Since 1730 the Congregation has worshiped in five synagogues: Mill Street, 1730 Mill Street re-built and expanded, 1818 Crosby Street, 1834 19th Street, 1860 West 70th Street, 1897 (present building.)

Birthing of major Jewish institutions

As the American Reform Judaism made headway and changes on the synagogue scene in the late 19th century, many rabbis critical of the Reform movement looked for ways to strengthen traditional synagogues. Shearith Israel, and its rabbi, Henry Pereira Mendes, was at the fore of these efforts. Rabbi Mendes cofounded the American Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in 1886, in order to train traditional rabbis. Shearith Israel was the first home to the school. In JTS's earliest days, it taught and researched rabbinics similarly to traditional yeshivas, in contrast to the Reform Hebrew Union College. It is not certain whether at the time JTS hewed very closely to existing yeshiva-style, but significant deviations would be out of character with Shearith Israel and Rabbi Mendes. Twelve years later, in 1896, Mendes was acting president of JTS, and promoted the formation of Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), a synagogue umbrella group that provided an alternative to the Reform movement's Union of Hebrew Congregations of America. As JTS grew, it needed a full-time head, and Mendes was replaced by Solomon Schechter. However, Schechter developed a somewhat less traditional ideology, which became the basis for Conservative Judaism (also known as Masorti). The split was not great initially, and there was a great deal of cooperation in the Orthodox and Conservative camps but, over time, the divide became clearer, and Schechter formed the United Synagogue of America (now the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, or USCJ) to promote synagogue affiliation with his conservative-but-unorthodox ideology. Shearith Israel stayed in the Orthodox camp, eventually repudiating its association with its offspring, JTS. In a sense, then, Shearith Israel was the birthplace of three of the largest and most significant Jewish religious organizations in America: JTS, the OU, and USCJ. Shearith Israel remains a member of one of the three: the Orthodox Union.

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