Temple Emanuel: Looking Toward Our Next 150 Years
If you wonder why I have not posted on this blog in some time, the answer is simple: High Holy Days preparation. Writing sermons and tending to countless other details prior to the advent of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur occupy nearly the totality of every congregational rabbi’s time. So in my next few posts, I will be sharing with you the texts of the sermons that I presented to my congregation during the Holy Days. Below is the text of my Rosh Hashanah Eve sermon.
There are New Years and then there are New Years, and this is certainly a New Year for us here at Temple Emanuel. For us, this Rosh Hashanah not only marks the beginning of the Jewish year of 5771, but it also marks the beginning of the celebration of our 150th anniversary as a congregation.
150 years! That is no small accomplishment. While ours was not the first synagogue established in the state of Iowa – for there were synagogues which preceded ours in both Dubuque and Keokuk – ours is the oldest Jewish congregation in continual existence in the state. Of that we can most justifiably be proud.
We sit here this evening in this fine 57 year old building, which, by the way, was the first house of worship in the Quad Cities which was constructed utilizing the designs of modern architecture. We sit here, not only as a viable but also as a vibrant congregation. There is so much about Temple Emanuel life which we take for granted, as if it was always so. But it was not. What we benefit from and enjoy today was handed down to us as the result of the dedication and labor of so many others who came before us; who strove to make Temple Emanuel possible, nevertheless vital and vibrant. Over the next 13 months, we will be celebrating their gifts to us, as we begin to learn more about our past and rededicate ourselves to the future of the congregation which they bequeathed to us.
Sitting here this evening, considering the life of Temple Emanuel today, let us try to imagine what Jewish life in this community was like for our founders back in 1861. In those days, the total population of Davenport was a meager 500. Of those 500, there were a scant one dozen Jewish families. Most, if not all of them were German Jews who had arrived in this community during the preceding ten years. They came to America, seeking freedom and democracy. They were part of a greater wave of German Jewish immigration that came to our shores fleeing Germany and Austria after the failures of the liberal revolutions of 1848. Yes, even then, Jews were social liberals. In fact, in our congregation today, we have direct descendants of one such famous socially liberal Jewish refugee who didn’t come to our area, but rather to Kansas. His name was August Bondi. Bringing to America his socially liberal values, August Bondi rode with the abolitionist John Brown, only to break with Brown for ethical reasons after the Potowatamy Massacre. Later, he would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor while serving the Union during the Civil War. He earned that honor by risking his life to bring wounded soldiers from both sides off of the battlefield and to safety. Hart Bondi, Greg Schermer, and their children, are his direct descendants. Those early German Jews who settled here, while maybe not as heroic as August Bondi, most certainly shared with him their motivation for coming to this country and their vision of what America should be.
So on Wednesday evening September 4, 1861 – Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5622 – our congregation held its first High Holy Day service. They had no building. They had no rabbi. So the services were led by a knowledgeable Jew by the name of Max Feder. Shortly after that, on October 21, 1861, they formally voted Congregation B’nai Israel into existence.
That’s right, Congregation B’nai Israel. That was, until recently, our original and official name. So where does the name Temple Emanuel come from? Back in 1885, we finally erected our first synagogue building. It was on Ripley Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues. At that time, belonging to our congregation was a very wealthy family by the name of Rothschild. In exchange for a major donation to the building fund, the congregation agreed to name the building after the patriarch of that family, Moses Emanuel Rothschild, who had recently passed away. So originally it was our building which was called Temple Emanuel, but with the passage of time, it was that name that stuck.
So our congregation came into being. Our first Board President was Isaac Berneis, and initially membership dues were a whopping $5.00 a year. Until we built that building in 1885, we rented space in which to meet, our first being a third floor room in a building at 3rd & Perry.
It was not until 1875 that our congregation acquired the services of a rabbi. Our first rabbi was Rabbi Isaac Fall. He served our congregation until 1890, which made him the longest serving rabbi of our congregation until yours truly. He is also the only rabbi buried in Mt. Nebo Cemetery. As part of our anniversary celebration, next October we will be holding a special ceremony at his grave. That ceremony, researched by the Cantor, is called a Hilu La Ceremony.
You might find this hard to believe, but Rabbi Fall was an Orthodox rabbi. That is not as strange as it might seem, considering the fact that in 1875 we were an Orthodox congregation. Granted, we were a liberal Orthodox congregation, but we were Orthodox nonetheless. But even at that time, we were seriously considering change. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations – which today we call the Union for Reform Judaism – the official North American organization of Reform congregations, was founded in 1873. Whether or not our congregation should join it, leave Orthodoxy and officially become a Reform congregation, was the subject of heated debate. It was not until 1879 that we decided to make that move. But even as the congregation voted to join the Reform movement, the president of our congregation at that time, John Ochs – you may have seen the Ochs mausoleum in our cemetery – resigned his post as president because of it.
Nor did the struggle over our Reform identity end with that vote. It went on for many years, painfully dividing our congregation. The planning of the dedication ceremony for our first building was embraced by the proponents of Reform as an opportunity to bring the practices of our congregation closer to their way of thinking. It was in that spirit that the Board voted that no hats were to be worn during the ceremony. They also invited a rabbi from Chicago to deliver the main address, in English. You have to understand. Up until that point, only Hebrew and German were spoken on our bimah. With this act, they introduced the use of English into our service. Later, in August of 1889, the Board voted to affirm the decision of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to include the counting of women in the minyan.
It should be noted that through all of this, Rabbi Fall tried to be responsive to all his congregants. As an Orthodox rabbi, he demonstrated himself to be extremely flexible and open to the changes proposed by the proponents of Reform. But he was walking a tight rope, with some finding him too open to change and others finding him not open enough to change. Finally, in August of 1890, the Board released him and turned around, engaging the services of their first rabbi who was a graduate of the Hebrew Union College.
Rabbi Samuel Freuder was ordained from the Hebrew Union College in 1886. He came to our community, having previously served a congregation in San Diego. However, his tenure at Temple Emanuel was short lived. He was a living example of the caution, “Beware lest you get what you asked for.” The congregation felt that they wanted someone more progressive than Rabbi Fall, and in Rabbi Freuder they found him. However, Rabbi Freuder went too far in the other direction. As one chronicler put it, whatever was forbidden, he considered permitted. The dissatisfaction with him was so great that in July of 1891, the Board released him. However, you could imagine their dismay when the local newspaper published an article in which Rabbi Freuder announced that he had resigned and was renouncing the Jewish faith altogether.
In our lobby, you will find a handwritten letter to our congregation from Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the father of American Reform Judaism; the founding president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the founding president of the Hebrew Union College, and the founding president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. In it he expressed his apologies for not being able to provide us with a student rabbi to conduct our High Holy Day services, but recommended that we contact an unemployed rabbi living in New York. On the surface, this is a very disappointing letter. Indeed, when Joan McGee found that letter in our records, as she was organizing our 125th anniversary celebration, her comment was, “Damned Union! Didn’t do anything for us then and is still not doing anything for us!” However, you have to look at the date – September 12, 1891 – and understand it in our historical context. For obviously, it was after our congregation went through this trauma with Rabbi Freuder, and probably conducted an unsuccessful rabbinic search, that we applied to the Hebrew Union College for a student rabbi for the holy days. But by then, it was too late. All the students had High Holy Day pulpits. This was but another manifestation of how I congregation suffered in the wake of its struggle over its Jewish identity.
That struggle would continue for quite some time, only ultimately finding resolution during the rabbinate of William Fineshriber. Rabbi Fineshriber, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College, came to our community in 1900. It was through his efforts that the old wounds were ultimately healed and it was under his leadership that we finally established ourselves solidly as a Reform congregation, with the formal conclusion of the struggle being our adoption, in 1902, of the UNION PRAYER BOOK, a prayer book which we would worship from, in its various incarnations, until, in the mid 1970’s, when we adopted GATES OF PRAYER, the prayer book which replaced the UNION PRAYER BOOK as the worship text of Reform Judaism.
It was also through Rabbi Fineshriber’s efforts that our congregation seriously embarked upon its mission to pursue social justice causes and to become a voice and a presence for social justice in this community; a mission which we still pursue today, as earlier this evening I testified to, as I called upon you to support our hunger relief efforts. It is not surprising that it was through Rabbi Fineshriber’s social justice efforts that our congregation came to assume a new position of esteem and respect in the eyes of our general community; a position we still hold today, in good part due to our Tikkun Olam efforts.
I share with you these tidbits from the early history of our congregation because we need to know our past in order to appreciate our present and to start to build for our future. History, whether it be world history or American history or Jewish history or the history of our congregation, is not made up of quantum independent moments in time. Rather, it is linear; it is cumulative. Our ancient rabbis understood this all too well when they coined the concept of “Shalshelet HaKabbalah – the Chain of Tradition.” What we are today is due in great part to the gifts bequeathed to us by those who came before us. What comprises the future will be due in great part to the gifts we pass on to those who come after us. Today, we stand as one moment in time along the time line of Temple Emanuel. So much of what we are today as a congregation, whether we realize it or not, is great part owing to those who came before us. What will happen to this congregation, and this Jewish community, in the future, will be due, in great part, to the decisions we make and the actions we take; we, our generation of Temple Emanuelites.
For the first 40 years of its existence, our congregation struggled desperately with issues of its Jewish identity. Should we be a Reform congregation? What does it mean to be a Reform congregation? How much change is not enough? How much change is too much?
Struggling with our Jewish identity as a congregation is not new to this congregation. In fact, it is a very old story as far as Temple Emanuel is concerned. But from that story we must learn important lessons.
Lesson Number One: Openness to change is an intrinsic part of the nature of this congregation, as it is an intrinsic part of the nature of Reform Judaism itself. We should not be afraid of change but neither should we embrace it blindly. Change can be good, but only when it is purposeful and thoughtfully arrived at. Every possible change must be evaluated on its own merits. Is this a change for the good? Will this serve to advance our goal of being a contemporary meaningful expression of Judaism for our congregants? Will this change serve us for the good in the long run, or only in the short run? Will this change stand the test of time? Where will it take us ten years down the road? Twenty years down the road? A hundred & fifty years down the road? On the other hand, are our ties to the past founded upon the innate values of the past or only because the past is comfortable while change is disconcerting? The changes we make today, and the changes we choose not to make today, are the legacies we leave for tomorrow. Before we make them or don’t make them, we need to honestly ask ourselves whether or not this is what we wish to be remembered for.
Lesson Number Two: As the philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” The early history of our congregation was a very difficult history – a very painful history – because of the ways in which we dealt with, or failed to deal with successfully, the issues of change. It was a history filled with conflict and controversy. Too many people drew lines. Too many people took sides. As my mother, of blessed memory, was fond of saying, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” It would appear that our Temple Emanuel forebears did not always appear to grasp that concept, and as a result, the congregation as a whole suffered.
Today, we, too, struggle with questions of change, both within the current life of our congregation, and especially as we consider the possibility of merger with the Tri City Jewish Center. The changes we are considering, and the decisions we will make about them, will most certainly impact the future of this congregation; the next 150 years of Temple Emanuel, or whatever it is we become if we decide to merge. As we grapple with these issues of change, we constantly need to ask ourselves two questions: (1) By making these changes, can we honestly claim that we are remaining true to our past, to our heritage? And (2) By making these changes, can we honestly claim that these are the legacies we wish to bequeath to our children and those who come after us?
As we go about our business, considering the future – the next 150 years – we need to constantly remind ourselves that we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can understand that others hold viewpoints which may differ from ours; viewpoints which may differ greatly from ours. Yet just because they differ from us does not mean that they are wrong. Each and every one of us holds the future of this congregation gently and lovingly within our hearts, within our minds, and within our hands. We all strive to do what we think will be best for our congregation and for its future. Though we may differ on approach, we do not differ on intent. And we need to respect that. We need to respect that though someone may disagree with us, they do so honestly and they do so lovingly when it comes to the Temple. Therefore, even though we may disagree, we need to maintain a respectful dialogue. We need to truly listen to each other; not just listen for the points we can dispute, but listen in order that we can come to understand where each of us is coming from. For only when we develop that groundwork of respectful understanding, can we build from that a successful compromise; a successful consensus; a successful meeting of the minds. And it is in that meeting of the minds that we will find the strongest future for Temple Emanuel. I do not know what that future will be. No one does. But let us explore it together.
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