On August 8, 1871, the American courts struck a blow for respecting religious observance, ruling that a Jewish tailor whose labors were disturbing the Sunday services at a next-door church would have to cut it out.
Thus, Judge Edward J. Shandley of the New York Court of Special Sessions found himself presiding over the case of Robert Thomas, a member of the Alanson Methodist Episcopal Church on Norfolk Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Thomas sued to stop his Jewish neighbor — Nathan Koyofsky — from disturbing their Sunday church services with the noise of his sewing machine.
The Court of Special Sessions was considered an “inferior” criminal court, handling innumerable petty crime and nuisance cases, from drunken “roughs” breaking up a bar to parents and children suing each other over Granny’s necklace. This was also the era of New York’s rule by “Boss” William M. Tweed, a disastrous businessman who found his true calling in political corruption.
Back to Koyofsky, who lived in an apartment next door to the church. The church members, claimed Thomas, had asked him to stop sewing on their Sabbath, Sunday, and when he refused Thomas decided to sue.
The defense argued that the state didn’t have the right to dictate which days were reserved for work and which for worship, because that contravened American principles of freedom.
The court, however, found that the freedom to worship in peace without the annoyance of industry next door prevailed, on the grounds that it was against the law to “willfully disturb religious worship, of whatever nature it might be.”
Shandley troubled to point out that the Jews were afforded the same protection under law: If anyone disturbed them during their Shabbat observance, on Saturday, they had the right to recourse.
The judge showed leniency toward the errant tailor, giving Koyofsky a suspended sentence only while warning the defendant that if he repeated his offense he would be sent to prison.
It could be argued that the United States as we know it today was born of a fierce yearning to worship in peace. The United States started out as a Christian Protestant nation: the first pilgrims from Europe moved there mainly in flight from religious persecution in their home lands. Among them were the Puritans, who were reviled in their home land of England and moved to America precisely for the sake of freedom of liberty.
It is therefore ironic that the Puritans were profoundly intolerant of other forms of religion and worship, though their method of dealing with it tended towards expulsion rather than say execution, unless the alternative worshippers dared return, at which point capital punishment could apply.
By the Civil War era, religion in America had become deeply entwined with other burning issues of the day, including slavery and its abolition.
Protestants still dominated, but Catholics were gaining a foothold as well. Shandley himself was from the Irish-American community, which was largely Catholic.
The first Jews arrived in what was to become the United States of America in 1654. A group numbering 23 sailed to New Amsterdam, known now as New York. They were fleeing from persecution in Brazil, which at the time was controlled by Holland. Four years later, more Jews arrived in Rhode Island.
It is an ironic twist of fate that today, the site of the Alanson Methodist Episcopal Church on the Lower East Side houses a synagogue, Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagodol. The building was converted from Baptist church to shul in 1885, to house an Orthodox congregation of Russian Jews. It was one of the first synagogues to gain New York City Landmark status.