On July 9, 1875, a New York judge issued his decision in a case brought by a congregant against his synagogue, after the shul, to the member’s consternation, had introduced mixed seating in its sanctuary.
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In his suit against B’nai Jeshurun, Israel Salomon charged that the decision to allow “the promiscuous seating of sexes during divine worship” both illegally changed the character of the synagogue that he had only recently served as president, and deprived him personally of the seats for which he had paid.
In denying the plaintiff’s request for an injunction to cease implementation of “family seating,” as it was called, Judge Richard L. Larremore ruled that B’nai Jeshurun’s board had acted legally in the manner in which it revised its seating policy. The judge also recused the court from expressing an opinion on the religious principles involved in the change of practice.
In 1875, B’nai Jeshurun – today an independent liberal congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – was a traditional Orthodox synagogue. It had been founded 50 years earlier, when members of the Sephardi synagogue She’arith Israel, New York’s first Jewish congregation, broke off to create a community that would follow the “German and Polish minhag [rite].”
By a half century later, it had moved from its original location in Lower Manhattan to 34th Street, on the site where Macy’s now stands, and like many other American shuls, it was confronting on a regular basis the challenges posed by a desire to grow and adapt to the modern era.
In an essay on the history of “Mixed Seating in the American Synagogue,” Brandeis University historian Jonathan D. Sarna noted that 1868-69 alone, B’nai Jeshurun’s membership considered more than 60 different changes in both its ritual and its physical layout, issues such as introduction of a mixed choir or an organ, and doing away with the women’s gallery, but also changes in the prayer service, such as elimination of piyyutim (liturgical poems) or the Priestly Blessing.
Ironically, in 1844, when he was only 25, Israel Salomon had been among the reformers at B’nai Jeshurun, leading a campaign that led to the withdrawal from the synagogue of its then-current leadership, who went on to found a new breakaway congregation, Shaarey Tefila.
Three decades later, Salomon was disenchanted: At the trial, in which both sides marshaled witnesses to make the case that their position reflected the authentic Judaism, the defense presented members who testified that they had heard Salomon say that his real intention was to destroy the congregation.
Nonetheless, the case he presented was based on his claim that mixed seating violated German-Polish tradition, an argument he backed up with affidavits from a variety of rabbinical experts, and also that his personal rights, as a member who had purchased a pew at B’nai Jeshurun, had been infringed upon. For its part, the congregation also brought forward a host of sages, including Rabbis David Einhorn, Isaac Mayer Wise and Gustav Gottheil, the latter of whom swore that the “unified appearance of a household before God tends to enhance devotion.”
Judge Larremore, who later became chief justice of New York’s Common Pleas Court, chose not to rule on the halakhic questions raised by the introduction of mixed seating, saying the issue “properly belong[ed] to the judicature of the church,” but he did rule that Salomon’s purchase of a seat did not mean that he was not subject to changes in the synagogue’s rules and regulations, which had been adopted in a legal manner by its leadership.
In the denouement to the court decision, some 30 members left B’nai Jeshurun, but the synagogue continued in its path to moderate modernization. Although it briefly belonged to the (Reform) Union of American Hebrew Congregations, by 1886 it was involved in the founding of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinical school of what became the Conservative movement.