‘Jews Had Their Own Bill of Rights’


It was a situation that practically begged for some good old-fashioned humor. After all, filling nearly every seat in the auditorium of the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City for the 25th annual Jewish Law Day earlier this month were attorneys, male and female, young and old, as far as the eye could see.

They had gathered for social, professional and collegial reasons, as well as to recognize the work of two men in particular. The Honorable James J. Fitzgerald III of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and the Honorable Robert C. Daniels of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania were lauded this year for their longtime dedication to the profession.

The 250 or so people present — some standing along the sides of the room — were also there for Minchah, and to recite Kaddish and recall the names of colleagues who had passed away within the year. The event, which was sponsored by the Jewish Law Day Committee of Judges and Lawyers, the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and the Louis D. Brandeis Law Society, also included prayers for the well-being of the United States and Israel.

But this year, the crowd had also come for a brief history lesson, and they got a good one.

Jonathan Sarna — a prolific professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and the director of its Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program — spared no time in getting to the heart of a provocative subject: Following the American Revolution, he asked aloud, how did Judaism begin to grapple with new values of liberty, justice and freedom for all?

The first thing undertaken by synagogues, said this native-born son, was done in the name of democracy. They all started rewriting their constitutions (using the services of lawyers, of course), with the goal of providing more independence for congregants. In fact, the oldest synagogue in America — Shearith Israel: The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue on New York's Upper West Side — was also the first to have an official Bill of Rights for its members.

'America's Great Documents'

Sarna went on to illustrate an example of the new sign of the times.

He documented the case of Beth Shalom in Richmond, Va., and its Constitution of 1789, which begins with: "We, the subscribers of the Israelite religion resident in this place, desirous of promoting the divine worship which, by the blessing of God, has been transmitted by our ancestors, have this day agreed to form into a society for the better effecting the said laudable purpose, to be known and distinguished in Israel by the name of B'eth Shalom, beth shalom.

"It is necessary that in all societies that certain rules and regulations be made for the government for the same as tend well to the proper decorum in a place dedicated to the worship of the Almighty God, peace and friendship among the same. We do, therefore, agree that the following rules be adopted and be continued in force until a majority of the congregation propose to alter or amend the same."

This language, explained Sarna, was enormously revealing, as "it showed the influence of America's great documents, even on these Jews in Richmond."

The first item in the Constitution, he continued, proclaimed that every free man in the city "shall be a yachid, a 'member' of the kehillah ['congregation'] and entitled to every right." Prior to this, synagogues actually differentiated between full-fledged members and seat-holders; now, all became equal in status.

"They were so democratic in their idea," said the professor, that "should any member object to a particular rule or regulation, it was necessary to call a meeting of members in totem to discuss the issue."

This may have sounded liberating, remarked Sarna dryly, but think about the ramifications: Imagine attempting such a feat with a modern-day congregation. In fact, he stressed that he would hardly advise inviting the opinions of an all-encompassing gathering — a comment that drew a few chuckles from the audience.

That policy, he added, was later repealed.

Sarna then discussed specific examples of early intermarriage, the status of Jews born out of wedlock, the separation of church and state, and fluctuations in Jewish business practices — all of which used American post-revolutionary ideals to battle seemingly antiquated traditions. His anecdotes illustrated the progressive relinquishment of power by synagogues to regulate Jewish life — and the growing freedom of individuals to seek new paths.

"Suddenly, Jews were making their own laws on how to live Jewishly," he stated. "They were challenging their religious superiors, and even God's law. They were discovering how different America was than the land that they'd known. By 1926, the world of American Judaism was in the midst of defining change; the right of dissatisfied members to succeed had been established."

And if that didn't work, other choices existed: You could join a different congregation, noted the speaker. No longer were urban centers one-shul entities.

Some would say these were the underpinnings of cafeteria-style religion, where adherents could choose what seemed comfortable, though still follow Jewish customs.

"Judaism had become accommodating to American values," said Sarna. "Dissenting views in what Judaism required could not be ignored."

It's an idea, he added, "that's particularly relevant on Law Day — how life can be accommodating."

The roomful of lawyers duly accommodated Sarna with resounding applause.


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