Congregation Shearith Israel
The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue
Central Park West at 70th Street
New York City
"The first Jewish congregation to be established in North America"
Congregation Shearith Israel, The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in the City of New York, was founded in 1654 CE, the first Jewish congregation to be established in North America. Its founders were twenty-three Jews, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin, who had been living in Recife, Brazil. When the Portuguese defeated the Dutch for control of Recife, and brought with them the Inquisition, the Jews of that area left. Some returned to Amsterdam, where they had originated. Others went to places in the Caribbean such as St. Thomas, Jamaica, Surinam and Curacao, where they founded sister Sephardic congregations. One group of twenty-three Jews, after a series of unexpected events, landed in New Amsterdam. They were not welcomed by Governor Peter Stuyvesant, who did not wish to permit the Jews to settle here. However, these pioneers fought for their rights and won permission to remain. During colonial days, the Jewish community was relatively small.
Until they year 1730, the Congregation met in rented quarters. In 1730, Shearith Israel consecrated its first synagogue building on Mill Street, now known as South William Street. Many of the furnishings of that building are preserved in The Little Synagogue.
Shearith Israel was the only Jewish Congregation in New York City from 1654 until 1825. During that entire span of history, all of the Jews of New York belonged to this Congregation, which provided for all the needs of the Jewish community, from birth to death. It offered education in both religious and general subjects, provided kosher meat and Passover provisions, and performed a wide variety of charitable and other functions for the Jewish people.
Many of the congregates served the cause of the American Revolution, and each year a special Memorial Day service is held at The historic Chatham Square cemetery, in which we pay tribute to those who served in the Revolutionary Army. Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas, who was the religious leader of Shearith Israel for a period spanning fifty years (including the Revolutionary War Period), was a great patriot. He was involved in many communal activities and was among the founders of Columbia University, then Kings College. Members of Shearith Israel played an important role in civic life from the earliest times. Three of The members, Benjamin Mendes Seixas, Ephraim Hart and Alexander Zuntz, were among the founders of the New York Stock Exchange.
Shearith Israel, or members of the Congregation, have been involved in founding many institutions in New York City, such as Mt. Sinai Hospital, Montefiore Hospital, the Lexington School for the Deaf, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Sephardic Studies Program of Yeshiva University, the Union of Sephardic Congregations and so many more. Among The members have been Emma Lazarus, the famous poet; Judge Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, United States Supreme Court Justice; Professor Cecil Roth, eminent Jewish historian and Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, first Jewish flag officer in the United States Navy. Many of the congregates have distinguished themselves in all areas of civic and communal life.
Even from its earliest days, Shearith Israel had Sephardic and Ashkenazic members. Although the synagogue service follows the custom of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, the membership is diverse, and at present is composed of Sephardim and Ashkenazim who work together in harmony for the well-being of the Congregation and community.
The present synagogue building, on 70th Street and Central Park West, is the fifth which The Congregation has occupied. The first synagogue on Mill Street, built in 1730, was replaced by a larger structure on the same site in 1818. In 1834, the Congregation moved to a new building on Crosby Street, and in 1860, Shearith Israel built its fTheth home, on West 19th Street, near Fifth Avenue. As New York City continued to grow and the population moved northward, Shearith Israel built this building on 70th Street and Central Park West, designed by the noted architect, Arnold Brunner.
The present synagogue is constructed in the style of Spanish and Portuguese congregations. The readers desk is towards the rear-center of the room. According to tradition, the floor boards of the readers desk date back to the readers desk in The Mill Street synagogue of 1730, highlighting the continuity of the generations in Shearith Israel. The clergy of the Congregation sit on the semi-circular bench behind the readers desk. The President and Vice-president sit on the benches against the east wall. Sermons are delivered from the pulpit. There is a choir loft above the Ark and a professional all-male choir participates in Sabbath and holiday services.
The steps leading to the Ark are of Numidian marble. The wall surrounding the Ark is made of Sienna marble. The Louis Tiffany studios crafted the stained glass windows. Four lamps on the eastern walls were dedicated to the memory of men who died during the First World War. At the entrance to the synagogue, there are two millstones that were from Mill Street, the location of the town miller during the early colonial period. They were taken from the site of The first Mill Street synagogue as a reminder of The historic roots in the city.
The religious services are conducted according to the Spanish and Portuguese minhag (custom). Much of the service is read aloud and sung by the congregation together with the Hazzan.
Each holiday has its own unique melody associated with it and there are also visual reminders for different occasions. For example, on a regular Sabbath, the Torah scrolls are covered with a red brocade material. On festival days and special Shabbatot, the cloaks are of different colors. On the High Holy Days, these cloaks, as well as the lining of the Ark and the covering of the readers desk and pulpit, are all white. The Ark contains the Torah scrolls, each decorated by a set of bells. One set was presented to the Congregation on the occasion of the dedication of the Mill Street synagogue of 1730, and is used each year on the anniversary of that consecration. There are two pairs of bells which were crafted by the noted silversmith of the Revolutionary period, Myer Myers, who also served as President of the Congregation.
In the present building, is a replica of The Mill Street synagoguethe Little Synagogue. It is used daily for morning and evening services, small weddings, baby namings and Berith Milahs. Items from the Mill Street synagogue include the readers desk in the center of the room, the railing and the four candlesticks surrounding it, the Ner Tamid (the perpetual light), the Ten Commandments tablet over the Ark, the benches along the south wall, and the Sabbath lamp hanging in front of the west window. The benches along the western and northern walls as well as the two benches on either side of the Ark are from the Crosby Street synagogue of 1834. One of the memorial lamps hanging on the northern wall served as the Ner Tamid in the 19th Street synagogue.
The congregation today is quite active with many Congregational Societies, including the Sisterhood, Mens Club, League and the Youth Service Council. In addition there is the Hebra Hased Va-Amet, founded in 1802, and the Hebrew Relief Society, founded in 1828; the oldest burial and charitable societies in the United States. Shearith Israel sponsors adult education classes, public programs, and has continued to serve the spiritual, intellectual and communal needs of The community. The history of well over three centuries provides stability, strength, and confidence.
Louis N. Levy, Founder of the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture was the co-founder of Sephardic House at Congregation Shearith Israel.