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Gratz College Recognizes Constitution Day, 2022: 

What the American Synagogue Learned from the US Constitution

Dr. Zev Eleff
President, Gratz College

In 1790, the trustees of Congregation Shearith Israel of New York approved a revised constitution. The document began: “We, the members of the K.K. [i.e., “Kehillah Kedoshah (holy congregation)] Shearith Israel, met this day by a legal summons from the junta [board] published in the synagogue two Sabbath days successively, do by these present in the most solemn manner, in the presence of the Almighty and of each other, agree to form such rules to serve for and be considered as a constitution, and to accede to such other institutions, rules, and regulations as may be conducive to the general good of this congregation.”

As historian Jonathan Sarna writes, the congregation’s intentions ran far deeper than an effort to draw from the language of the recently crafted and ratified U.S. Constitution’s preamble. It represented a deeper sea change in how synagogues related to their constituents and absorbed a uniquely American democratic spirit. A review of some of these materials throws light on how Jews reacted to the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution. From an even wider perspective, these texts suggest how minority groups – those not quite in the American mainstream – were nevertheless changed by American Independence.

Consider several differences between this document and earlier iterations of the Shearith Israel constitution. The pre-Revolution bylaws established by the congregation in 1761 stated that “In conjunction with the Parnasim [trustees] they are to collect and Form such Laws and Rules as may be necessary for the benefit and tranquility of the Congregation.” This is similar to an even earlier incarnation of the synagogue’s bylaws passed in 1728: “Whereas on or about the Year 5466 [1706] certain wholesome Rules and Restrictions have been made by the then Elders of our Holy Congregation, to Preserve Peace, tranquility and good Government amongst ym [them] and those after them, and as they have Been neglected to be put in due force for some time past, we now meet with common consent and Resolve to Revive the same with some amendments and additions, which are as follows.” The Colonial versions supposes that the elites are the very best leaders to decide what is good for the rest of Shearith Israel’s members.

The post-Revolution constitution takes a very different stance, one informed by the birth of the American Republic: “Whereas in free states all power originates and is derived from the people, who always retain every right necessary for their well being individually, and, for the better ascertaining those rights with more precision and explicitly, frequently form a declaration or bill of those rights. In like manner the individuals of every society in such state are entitled to and retain their several rights, which ought to be preserved inviolate.”

Other post-Revolution synagogue constitutions betoken this transformed perspective on a synagogue leadership’s right to govern. In Richmond, Virginia, the leaders of Congregation Beth Shalome began their new constitution as follows: “We, the subscribers of the Israelite religion residents in this place, desirous of promoting the divine worship which, by the blessing of God, has been transmitted by our ancestors, have this day agreed to form ourselves into a society for the better effecting the said laudable purpose, to be known and distinguished in Israel by the name of B’eth Shalom.” Sensitive to Jeffersonian rhetoric, the Virginians also invoked the Declaration of Independence: “It is necessary that in all societies that certain rules and regulations be made for the government for the same as tend well to the proper decorum in a place dedicated to the worship of the Almighty God, peace and friendship among the same. We do, therefore, agree that the following rules be adopted and be continued in force until a majority of the congregation propose to alter or amend the same.”

Closer to Gratz College, in Philadelphia, Congregation Mikveh Israel drafted a constitution in 1824 that also argued for a system of governance that derived authority from due process and a system of vote: “We, whose names are hereto subscribed, electors of the Hebrew Congregation of the City of Philadelphia, and citizens of the State of Pennsylvania, do hereby publish and declare, that we have formed ourselves into a body corporate by the name, style and title of Kaal, Kadosh, Mickve, Israel.”

The democratic spirit resulted in major changes within the synagogue. Voices of the non-elite men and women were taken far more seriously. In New York and in Charleston, South Carolina, younger generations of Jews felt empowered to make demands of their elders for synagogue reformers. When those in charge turned those young people away, the latter groups established new congregations – they even called it a “revolution.” All this is captured in the peculiar and particular framing of synagogue documents. This was far more than just rhetoric.