November 21, 1824, is widely seen as the day when American Reform Judaism was born. On that day, a group of members of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, in Charleston, South Carolina, met to draw up a list of the changes they wanted to see adopted in the synagogue’s religious service. When their requests were rejected by the board, they left the shul and established the first Reform community in the United States.
The earliest record of a Jew in South Carolina goes back to 1695, 25 years after the establishment of a British English colony there. The original Beth Elohim, whose members prayed according to the traditional Sephardic ritual, dates to 1749; its stately Greek Revival structure, built after a fire in 1838 and still in use by the synagogue today, was dedicated in 1841.
The 47 reformers who met on November 21, and reconvened on December 23 to formally sign their petition, were generally younger than their fellow congregants, most having born in America after the Revolution. The demands they addressed to the Adjunta, as the board of trustees was called, included switching the language of prayer to English, shortening the service (by removing everything “superfluous”), and introducing a weekly sermon. They also wanted to institute regular fees, rather than having fundraising appeals take place during prayer services.
When, on January 10, 1825, they learned that all of their requests had been denied – without any open discussion -- they resigned from Beth Elohim, and, led by Isaac Harby and Abraham Moise, they organized The Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit. The society did not purport to be a new synagogue, and its members convened only once a month for meetings.
In his book “American Judaism,” historian Jonathan Sarna pointed to the influence of Protestant churches of the time on the group, by noting that the reformers “argued for changes that would, simultaneously, improve the faith and restore it to what they understood to be its original pristine form, shorn of ‘foreign and unseemly ceremonies’ introduced by subsequent generations.”
By 1830, the society had assembled a Reform prayer book, the first in the U.S. By the end of that decade, however, the group had disbanded. Most of its members returned to their former congregational home, which they then proceeded to change from within.
In 1838, the building that housed K.K. Beth Elohim was destroyed by fire. As plans for a new structure were being drawn up, a group of 38 reformers called for a meeting to discuss “the propriety of erecting an organ in the synagogue to assist the vocal part of the service.” A majority of the congregation, as well as its new minister, Gustavus Poznanski, were in favor.
Now, it was the old-timers, who had lost the vote on the issue, 46-40, who withdrew from the synagogue. They set up a new shul, which they called Shearith Israel (“Remnant of Israel”).
Some traditionalists remained behind, however, making Beth Elohim a split congregation, with its president lined up with the reformers and its board of trustees dominated by traditionalists. Eventually, they brought their dispute over control of the community to court, and in a case that dragged on for three years, a state appeals court finally ruled that “questions of theological doctrine, depending on speculative faith or ecclesiastical rites,” were not the domain of the state. The court declared that only a majority of congregants could make such decisions, while noting that change and reform were inevitable in such communities. It was a ruling that had important implications for the development of religious life in the young country, reaffirming a separation of religion and state stipulated by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In 1866, the members of Shearith Israel rejoined Beth Elohim, which, in 1873, became a founding member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, today called the Union for Reform Judaism.
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