This Day in Jewish History |

1915: Conservative Movement Pioneer Solomon Schechter Dies

On this day in 1915, rabbi, scholar and educator Solomon Schechter, who helped the Conservative movement in America take major steps forward in the beginning of the 20th century, died.

David Green
David B. Green
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Solomon Schechter examining manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah.
Solomon Schechter examining manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah.Credit: Copyright University of Cambridge. Courtesy of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library
David Green
David B. Green

On November 19, 1915, rabbi, scholar and educator Solomon Schechter died at the age of 67, in New York City. Schechter, born in the Romanian town of Focsani in 1847, is remembered for landmark contributions in two principal fields. As one of the first to recognize the historical importance of the documents found in the Cairo Genizah, he arranged for a vast cache of them to be brought to Cambridge University for preservation and study. As the second president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1902, he took on a central role in the formation and development of the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school. He also founded the United Synagogue of America (later, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), the movement’s umbrella organization.

Schechter was born into a Chabad Hasidic family, the son of a ritual slaughterer (a shohet, from which the family name derived), and had a traditional Jewish education, revealing his prodigious learning skills from a very early age. By the time he was in his 20s, he was studying at modern, “scientific” Jewish institutions in Vienna and then Berlin. In 1890, he was appointed lecturer in Talmud and rabbinics at Cambridge, and it was there, in May 1896, that Schechter was asked by English twin sisters, who had recently returned from a visit to Cairo, to examine some pages of Hebrew writing they had picked up while there. The documents, it turned out, came from the genizah –a storeroom for preserving used Hebrew texts that hold holy language and thus cannot be destroyed – at the Ibn Ezra synagogue in Fustat, Old Cairo, which had been in use since the late ninth century C.E.

Schechter, who had been aware of the existence of the genizah if not of the extent of its treasures, immediately recognized the pages as an 11th or 12th- century Hebrew copy of the 2nd century B.C.E. Book of Ben Sira, an apocryphal work that had previously been known only in its Greek translation, but which Schechter had been convinced was composed in Hebrew. (Years later, much older, but largely identical, copies of parts of the same text were found in excavations at the Dead Sea and Masada.)

By December 1896, Schechter had organized an expedition to Cairo, from which he returned with some 193,000 of the 210,000 fragments that had been found in the storeroom; they became the basis of the Taylor-Schechter Collection at Cambridge. The contents of the Cairo Genizah continue to serve as a rich source of primary information about Jewish life in the Mediterranean region over nearly a millennium.

After a brief period at University College London, Schechter came to New York in 1902 to take over the Jewish Theological Seminary, serving as its president until his death. He played a vital role not only in establishing the institution organizationally and financially, but also in envisioning a path for Conservative Judaism. Although committed to the binding nature of Jewish law, Schechter proposed a middle way that allowed for adapting halakhah to the needs of the people.

On the practical level, he oversaw the creation of the United Synagogue of America. Some of the scholars who joined the JTS faculty during his tenure included Louis Ginzberg, Mordechai Kaplan and Israel Friedlaender. Additionally, Schechter was involved in the establishment of the Jewish Publication Society, and chaired the committee that oversaw the 1917 JPS translation of the Hebrew Bible into English.

Schechter’s widow, Mathilde Roth Schechter (1857-1924), continued playing an important role in Jewish affairs after his death. She was a translator and scholar who co-wrote a Jewish hymnal, a prodigious fundraiser for JTS, and played key roles in the founding of Hadassah and of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.

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