Congregation Shearith Israel

Conversations with History and A Page From the Past:

The Congregation Shearith Israel

8 West 70th Street New York, NY 10023-4605 – (212) 873-0300

It has often been said that to invoke one’s ancestors is to ensure that they never have nor ever will leave this world.  For me, that connection with my American forefathers is more profound and remarkable than any other I have ever experienced.  Upon visiting Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish synagogue in America (founded in 1654, established a synagogue in 1655, current home erected in 1860) and its grandeur I discovered those binding ties, and began to appreciate the history of Jews and their contribution to a nation.  With my yarmulke firmly pinned to my head I entered the synagogue a proud Jew interested in learning about “my people.”  Two hours later, I left that building an enlightened patriot.  The marvelous encounter with an esteemed historian, a number of Jewish chants, and most of all, the site itself, altered my thinking and left me with a reverence for “we the people.”

Initially, when I set out on that cold Friday morning, I was expecting a visit that would shake my senses and stir up my firm Jewish values.  After all, I had planned to share that day with my uncle, a devout Lubavitch Jew, and one who has piled his bookshelves with theological works.  Surely, this would be a joint venture.  But suddenly, when my uncle was unable to attend, I was left with an entirely different task: enhance my knowledge of my country’s history.  In actuality, the majority of the time I spent with the cantor involved Jews and their ties to America, while only a few minutes were devoted to matters concerning religion.  Within a relatively short span of time it became increasingly clear to me that many of my views were dogmatic and shortsighted.  I had longed for a study into the nature of Jewry in America, but what I ended up with was the screenplay of an inherently American narrative.  The path I took led me in the direction of the Revolutionary War, not scripture.  Consequently, the education I received introduced me to a world of Sephardim and Ashkenazim origins, but one that was within an American framework.

Reflection has taught me that my loved ones bear a strong resemblance to those twenty-three Jews who escaped the Inquisition.  Certainly, they each may have come here for reasons that are dissimilar.  However, they are all bound together by their willingness to reside in America, a nation first and foremost, but an idea as well.  Whether or not that idea is tangible can be left to academic debate.  Nevertheless, it is this concept that, in the spirit of continuity, unites the present with the past, and allows for a truly special conversation between the two.  When I left the Congregation Shearith Israel on that morning in February I felt this deep connection and automatically knew that it would stay with me for the rest of my life.  If there was anything fundamental that I took away from my visit it was this: The pages will become torn as we continue to turn them, but we will always turn them collectively, as “we the people.”  It is this brotherhood that we must cherish, for ourselves and for posterity.

For information regarding the first Jewish congregation in the New World, visit

Insight into Our Colonial Past: Jewish Voices in the New World

The chants and prayers in this album (represented by the album cover below), particularly Barukh Habba, have had major significance in terms of defining Jewish culture and history in America. This piece is usually sung during ceremonial processions, such as weddings, and consecrations. The most notable consecration that featured this piece was completed on September 13,1782, the consecration date for Mikve Israel, a synagogue formed in Philadelphia during the latter stages of the Revolutionary War period. The melody here is commonly associated with Sephardic Moroccan traditions, and has become dominant in western cultures as well.
Listen to Barukh Habba – (Psalms 118:26-29)