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The Election of Hazan at Philadelphia.


This event, for such it is in some respects, which has excited so much attention not alone in American congregations but likewise in England and the West Indies, took place finally on the Sunday before the Eve of Passover, the 13th of April. There had been every effort made by the parties opposed to my re-election to procure candidates strong enough to supplant me, advertisements had been sent abroad both through American and English Jewish publications; and the consequence was that during the course of last summer and the winter which has just closed, the unusual number of five or six had either presented themselves' to officiate on trial, or had at least reconnoitered the position to judge whether they could with safety venture on an assault. The most prominent candidates, when the day of elec­tion drew near, were generally understood to be Mr. Sabbathai Morais, an Italian gentleman, but lately a resident in London, where he had filled the respectable situation of teacher of the Portuguese Orphan <<106>>School, which brought him also in contact with occasional duties in the Synagogue Shaar Hashamyim, and the Rev. Jacob Rosenfeld, a native of Lissa in Posen, and for several years Hazan of the Shearith Israel congregation of Charleston. Opinions fluctuated a good deal as to the one of these who would prove successful, and the result of the ballot­ing will show that this uncertainty was well founded.

The question may be asked, “Why was Mr. Leeser not thought of as likely to succeed?” But if any one is in the least acquainted with the circumstances connected with the office and the materials composing the congregation, the matter will readily be understood. Of laws relating to the office of minister there are absolutely none, unless the following may be regarded as such, although it merely relates to the officer him­self, and leaves the duties to be defined from time to time by the Board of Managers then in being. The law is in the following words: “The Hazan and Shohet shall enter into written contracts (under a penalty) for the faithful performance of their respective duties, which shall be particularly expressed in each said contract.” Common sense would surely dictate that if duties are to be specified in a contract they ought to be defined somewhere by law in express words; or else the person who is charged with drawing up the contract may put in what be pleases, and the Hazan elect has either to resign the office for which he has been chosen perhaps against the strenuous opposition of the one who drafts the contract, or sign  a paper which is not alone distasteful to him but wrong in principle.

In an article headed Philadelphia, in the Occident for last November, I gave a mere sketch of my residence in this place, and told the reader that twice I was forced by uncontrollable circumstances to sign a penalty contract, to wit, the first time in the winter of 1838, and the second time in the summer of 1841, although previously to my effecting a compromise with the Kahal on the subject, I had actually resigned my office into the hands of the then President, a step which, had I been left to my own conviction, I would have persevered in and retired ten years ago to private life, as I finally did at the end of last September. Of this I can assure my friends, and I trust they are numerous everywhere, that no paltry love for office or desire for the salary attending it, had the least influence on me, and that in fact I was wearied out with arguments and solicitations, before I could bring myself to affix a signature to a paper which I always have considered and still continue to do as a disparagement of the dignity of a Jewish minister.

Here is a copy of the contract as it was finally executed in May, ’41; <<107>>and I would only remark that the first bond of ’38 contained a penalty of but $500, and the words sickness or accident excepted, were not included, and these latter were inserted to meet the objection I had made that I would not accept a salary during sickness or unavoidable absence as a favour but as a right. The original draft of the contract of ’41 also contained a penalty of $1000 which likewise was objected to by me, as a stretch of authority on the part of the person who drew it up, he being told to make one like the first, and still without any power being given him by the Parnass he changed $500 into $1000, and had at last influence enough to induce the Board and Congregation to adopt this clause as their act and will.

ARTICLES of agreement between Isaac Leeser of the one part and the Portuguese-Jewish Congregation of the City of Philadelphia, incorporated by the name, style, and title of “Kahal Kadosh Mikvé Israel,” of the other part, made and entered into, at the City of Philadelphia, on the — day of the — month of 1841, corresponding with the

as follows, to wit :

First. The said Isaac Leeser doth covenant on part to serve, act, and officiate as Hazan or reader to the said Congregation, from the 29th (twenty-ninth) day of September, 1840, last past, for and during the full term of Ten years thence next ensuing, and to be fully Complete and ended; during all which period, he will well, and truly, and diligently, and faithfully perform all the duties usually belonging and incident to said station.

That he will on every Sabbath Eve, Morning and Night, and on all Holydays and Festivals (sickness or accident excepted), attend at the Synagogue, and then and there, in a devout manner, read the prayers in the “Original Hebrew Language,” according to the custom of the “Portuguese Jews.” That he will attend all funerals that take place in the burial-ground of the Congregation, and perform the funeral and subsequent mourning service. That he will not at any time perform any marriage or funeral rites without the consent of the Parnas or of the Adjunta. That he will support and abide by the Charter and By-laws of the Congregation, and implicitly obey them, so far as they may be properly applicable to him. That he will obey all lawful orders of the Parnas for the time being, so far as is consistent with Jewish laws and usages.

Second. In consideration of said services, the said Congregation agrees to pay the said Isaac Leeser, as a full compensation therefor, the sum of twelve hundred and fifty dollars per annum, during each of the ten years before mentioned,. in equal quarterly payments of three hundred and twelve dollars and fifty cents each, on the days and times that the same may grow due, and payable respectively, or when lawfully thereafter by the said Isaac Leeser  required.

And for the due and faithful performance of the foregoing covenants, each <<108>>party doth hereby bind himself unto the other, in the penal sum of eight hundred dollars.

In witness whereof, the said Isaac Lesser hath hereunto set his hand and Seal, and the said “Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel,” have caused their common or Corporate Seal to be hereunto affixed, attested by their Parnas and Secretary, the day and year first hereinbefore written.

Let me call the reader’s attention to the terms herein stated, and it will be seen that the person who signs it has no claim to be called the minister of the congregation; he has no right to teach, exhort, or admonish the people; he is merely to read the service three times every Sabbath and holy day, marry and bury only by order of Parnass or Adjunta, and obey all lawful orders of the Parnass (adjunta not mentioned) not inconsistent with Jewish laws or usages. As regards “supporting the Charter and By-Laws of the congregation,” there are none applicable to his office, except that the prayers, &c., shall always be read in the original Hebrew language, according to the custom of the Portuguese Jews, and that the Parnass may, on any special occasion, direct the Hazan or any other suitable person, to deliver an address or moral lecture in English. Now, therefore, as regards preaching, the Hazan stands on the same level with any suitable person, and the Parnass is alone authorized to designate who is suitable or not, he not being limited by any check which this clause of the charter contains. Nay, if it suits his views, he may by this authority order the Hazan to be silent, whilst he permits a person notoriously unfit, either by his religious bad conduct or ignorance, to inflict his English lecture on the people. Another thing is to be observed, that all our prayers are not in the original Hebrew language, the Kaddish, for instance, which is Chaldean, so also “Uba Leziyon Goel” and other pieces which are recited either at home or in Synagogue, they having been composed in the language of the people during the time of the second temple, when pure Hebrew was not the vernacular of the Israelites.—I remark this merely to show how absurd it is for persons not thoroughly acquainted with the subject to make laws affecting our worship, and to draw up contracts specifying the duties of Hazanship; and some of my personal friends will no doubt recollect that I pointed out this inconsistency to them several years ago.

That I did not feel easy under such a contract, when I had not alone no rights but my duties not specified, or at least very inadequately so, may readily be imagined. It is true I had no collision with the present Parnass as regards his authority; but suppose it had occurred, what <<109>> remedy had I in the premises? He might have said that the orders were within the limits of my contract, and if I had even good reasons to differ from him, an appeal to the congregation, where he and his Board of Managers are present and I excluded, would have surely ended in my defeat, as it is impossible to believe that where the President is everything by law, and the Hazan nothing but a paid servant, the latter would not be condemned for daring to differ from his legal master. I will do Mr. Hart the justice to say that until lately he always sought my advice with the suavity of manner so peculiarly his own, and he will also do me the justice to assert that I was always ready to aid him with wholesome counsel in all religious questions which presented themselves; we were personal friends, and not merely Parnass and Hazan to each other. But such a conjunction is not a necessary result in our congregational affairs, as I have found out bitterly to my cost and heartfelt vexation; hence I do insist that a man worthy to be the minister or spiritual chief of any body of people does himself an injustice by voluntarily assuming an obligation which exposes him to arbitrary rule. I so felt it, and hence made every effort both by arguing with some leading men in conversation, and addressing a formal note to the congregation seven or eight years ago, to strike out the by-law, which I have quoted above, as both useless and injurious. Whoever knows how hard abuses perish, will not wonder that a committee, appointed on various public measures by the meeting of the Kahal, made a report in writing, a printed copy of which afterwards reached me, “that it is inexpedient to alter the by-law xxvii;” this report was accepted, at least I know nothing to the contrary, and so the matter slept for some years, as I could not after such a rebuff move any farther in the affair.

But as my time was so near expiring, I induced a friend, whose attachment and devotion I regard as one of the brightest phases in my hitherto unhappy life, to offer, near two years ago, the draught of a by­law defining the duties and privileges of the Hazan and minister of the congregation. If I am not mistaken, the Parnass read it before it was offered, and surely he could not object to the various clauses it contained, as it did not propose to lessen the duties and responsibility to the authority usual in Jewish communities, but to define them by a special enactment. At present I decline discussing the project, but refer the reader to the Occident for February ’50 (No. 11, Vol. vii.), where he will find it at length, and then he can judge for himself whether its acceptance and adoption would have been unworthy of the most <<110>>learned and respectable congregation in the world.

Still who can account for the perversity of taste? No sooner was the proposal read for the information of the meeting which was held in the spring of ’49 (I do not know the precise date), than one of the adjunta, although all discussion is out of order when a paper is read, as it has to lie over for action till a subsequent meeting, moved that the office of Parnass be abolished. Of course this was merely a jest, as it could not be received; but it shows how a fair and honourable proposition of a highly respectable member was regarded by the men in authority. After this it need not surprise any one that I despaired of sustaining my position, and that when the by-law came up in order in the meeting before Rosh Hashanah 5610, it was withdrawn by my friend, as a motion had been made already to reject it. Had it now been respectfully taken up, discussed, and rejected, or referred to a proper committee of which the proposer had been chairman or at least a member, for amendment, with whatever instructions the meeting might have thought proper to accompany it, I should have found no fault, deeply grieved and mortified though I might have been; as I have no right to force my views on any one, little as he has the right to force me. I am republican enough for that. But such an unceremonious act of tyranny, that will listen to no reason, but demands absolute submission, roused my indignation, and regardless of the consequences I penned a short article for the October Occident, 1849, to which I may recur hereafter, when discussing the act of the congregation towards me in this particular.

Enough for the present that I did what was in my power to do to place myself right before my distant friends. I have been abundantly censured by public voice and private conversation, independently of the acts of the Kahal and adjunta for my imprudence; but if it were the last thing I should write, I cannot say that I regret the step I took, since something was necessary to be done to bring the subject clearly before the people, ere the period of the election arrived, as the office I held had to terminate within a year from that time. I could not foresee that the board would resort to an evidently illegal course, and that the congregation could by any possibility be induced to confirm it without giving me a hearing as this foreknowledge might have deterred me from placing so potent a weapon as a public censure against a man with gentlemanly feelings in the hands of so very astute a person as the one is who has directed the opposition against me. In this respect only have I been wrong, as I shall perhaps prove hereafter; but it is doubtful whether my absolute silence would have mended the <<111>>matter in the least, or promoted the views of my friends. For my part I do not believe it.

Let this be as it may, the simple proposition of modifying the by-law xxvii. so as to strike out under a penalty was twice negatived, if I am rightly informed,* and once I am certain, since September ’49; and at the meeting of Sunday, the 24th of March, ’50, the following resolution which I find in an anonymous pamphlet (of which perhaps more another time) was adopted:

* All the proceedings of the board and congregation are secret, no one but members or their sons being privileged to attend at the latter; hence it is not always easy to get a reliable account; still I believe that my statements may be depended on as generally correct.

Resolved, That a special meeting be held on the third Sunday of June next, for the purpose of electing a Hazan to serve for ten years, at a salary of $1300 per annum, if a single man, or $1700 per annum if a married man; that the Hazan so elected shall execute a contract similar to the existing one, with this addition, that he shall in all things conform to the Jewish law; and that the Parnas give notice of this election in the Asmonean, and such other Jewish publications as he may think proper.

As soon as I became aware that the congregation had come to such a resolve I gave up the last idea, faint as it had been for years past, ever since the committee had reported it inexpedient to recommend a change in the existing rules, or rather in the non-existing ones, of being re-elected, and in fact I had stated so to the President two days before when he informed me what terms would be proposed for the regulation of the office; in addition to which the words “that he shall all things conform to the Jewish law” were evidently to be viewed as an insult to me personally.†

† I have heard that at the last meeting the terms were so modified as to strike out these words. What can one think of this? Perhaps, however, my informants are mistaken.

At all events I made up my mind not to apply for the office, and I have adhered to this resolution, and had I been sure of a unanimous re-election on my own terms, nothing that I know of could have induced me to ask, by a direct application to the Kahal, for the office, under the published conditions which I conceived dishonourable. I had, however, a faint hope that the vote was arrived at without due reflection, and that when the day for election arrived different counsels might prevail, and that some compromise might yet be possible. Although, therefore, I could on no account answer to an advertisement <<112>> notwithstanding it had appeared in my own magazine, I gave my friends full liberty to vote for me, and it is possible at least that had an election been gone into on the 16th of June last, I should have had a majority of votes. Some one has said to me, that I would have stood on high ground if I had retired at once when I would not accept the terms offered by the meeting. But I replied, that I would not myself give up the congregation with whom I had been so long connected; they might dissolve the connexion, but I could not think it right for me to retire whilst there was a shadow of a hope of reconciliation. I trust that my absent friends will think me justified in this course; at all events, I feel more satisfied for not having relinquished my post, till “they lifted the latch and bid me begone.” But I solicited no one’s favour or vote; I made no concession, entered into no conditions, and left the question to be decided by its simple merits so far as I was concerned, and perhaps I thereby secured the election of my successor, when another and more suppliant demeanour might by chance, I confess a very poor one, have brought me again into office.

I have already informed the readers of my magazine, that the election was postponed from June 16th to April 13th, and as my term expired on Sept. 27th, the board were authorized to engage a person, or persons, to officiate in the interim. The choice of these gentlemen fell on Mr. A. Finzi and Mr. M. C. D’Azevedo, who officiated during the winter and spring, when no candidates were here on trial. As said already, several of these presented themselves, in due course, and were heard on various Sabbaths; and though no change had taken place in the position of things, I was urged by several persons to become a formal candidate, which I declined doing, but sent to one of them a note in the following words, from which it will be seen how little I required to satisfy my just demands:—

Dear Sir:—Several of my former supporters having asked me under what terms I would accept office again, I would offer the following propositions. They are no more than I could reasonably expect, and if agreed to by the majority of the congregation will simply render my stay comfortable, and nothing farther. The resolution of the last year, that the minister should sign a pledge that he would in all things act by the Jewish laws, is one I cannot submit to, and if insisted upon will virtually compel me to decline entering office again. My known character must be my security, and if this is not enough, my signing any such declaration will not make me more trustworthy than I am already. I will not enter into any argument to prove the justice of my propositions; but if desired by you and my other personal well-wishers, I will cheerfully meet you and discuss them in a <<113>> dispassionate and familiar manner. I cannot offer any written application to the meeting about accepting office, since I would not accept it under the terms offered in the published advertisement. But as nothing is said in the constitution and by-laws about candidates, the people can vote for me, if they choose, without my being a formal applicant. A simple contract, mutually agreeable to the congregation and myself, can easily be drawn up, if there is a sincere desire entertained to re-engage me again.

Respectfully, &c.

March 24, 5611.


1st. Election to be either during good behaviour;

Or, during a long term of years, say 15 to 20;

Or, to be for one year, and until so long thereafter, as either party give to the other three months’ notice, prior to the termination of the year, of the discontinuance of the engagement.

2d. An adequate salary, not to be diminished during the continuance in office.

3d. No penalty in the contract, unless a nominal one.

4th. Liberty of addressing the people in sermons and exhortations at all times.

5th. No more censures by the Board; any complaint against the Hazan to be brought before the Congregation, when he is to be summoned to defend himself, in person, or by counsel, like other officers of the Congregation.

Had, therefore, the choice of the congregation fallen on me, there would have been no difficulty to settle our differences, which I am willing to assume were as much a matter of principle with them as with me, on fair and honourable terms. But the result has proved that, for the present, at least, there could be no reconciliation, as I have been told that the parties who hold the chief influence over a large portion of the people, had determined not to yield; and hence they represented that my election was impossible, and they reiterated it so often that at length it became a fixed conclusion in the minds of some doubtful ones, who at length, by their desertion of me, secured the choice of a successor at this time. I do not complain of this proceeding, as I anticipated it for more than four years; but it justifies me in the independent stand I have taken, either to be minister on free and honourable conditions, or a private Israelite; for sooner would I earn my bread by daily toil, than feel that I had succeeded to office and power by unworthy truckling to those who have no right to claim unconditional submission from me.

In addition to the multiplied prejudices already existing against me, <<114>>through the many acts of vexation practised by those in power, and which I had naturally to resent by a species of armed neutrality, if I may use such a phrase, active electioneering was carried on by the friends of Messrs. Morais and Rosenfeld, whilst my friends had naturally to be passive, not being able to employ the means my opponents resorted to. Notwithstanding all this, I had eleven votes, and I return publicly my sincere thanks to Messrs. Myer D. Cohen, Rowland Cromelien, William Florance, Hyman Gratz, Leon Hyneman, A. T. Jones, Moses Nathans, Joseph Newhouse, David Pesos, Theodore Pincus, and Solomon Solis, for their unflinching adherence to the person they thought best qualified to serve the cause of Israel, as minister of their congregation, and their votes prove one thing, if nothing else, that the confidence of a large and respectable portion of Israelites in this place is unabated in the man who has for twenty-one years been their messenger in the hours of prayer, and their spiritual teacher, so far as his capacity and means permitted him to be.

I subjoin the ballottings, which, as will be seen, were six in number, and at one time indicated almost the success of Mr. Rosenfeld; in fact it seems that the opposition against me only cared to get me set aside, and were indifferent who succeeded; but my friends have this satisfaction, that their votes were not given to accomplish an act of injustice, which the impartial of the whole world will condemn.

  First Second Third Fourth Fifth Sixth
Morais 13 11 12 15 18 20
Rosenfeld 13 15 14 12 9 6
Leeser 11 11 11 10 10 11

Total number of votes 37; necessary to a choice 19.

Wherefore Mr. Morais was declared, on the sixth ballot, duly elected Hazan, for three years, this being the term to which the ten years offered in March ’50 were reduced. I stop here for the present.

P.S.—Since the above was in type, the author of the subjoined has sent me the communication, which he had originally forwarded to the contemporary Jewish journal printed in New York. It is perhaps too laudatory of myself in its tone, and as such ought to be excluded from the Occident; but as it exhibits the best proof that I am not condemned by all the congregation, and gives the candid reason of my friends for supporting me with their votes, I trust that I may not be deemed egotistical for laying it before the readers of my own work. It <<115>>is due, moreover, to my supporters that they be permitted to tell the world why they did not forsake me when others did.

Philadelphia April 21st, 1851.

To the Editor of the Asmonean,

Sir,—On perusing the Asmonean of last week, I find published a statement of the six ballotings for Hazan of the Congregation “Mickvé Israel” of Philadelphia, on the last of which the Rev. S. Morais was declared duly elected.

My purpose is to ask of you the favour and privilege of correcting an unjust inference that has been drawn from this publication of the vote. To those abroad, and in fact to all such as are not electors of this congregation, it would appear, upon the mere exhibit of the ballot, in the absence of any comment, that the Rev. Isaac Leeser was an applicant for the office. Such, however, was not the case. He has long since avowed his determination not to offer himself as a candidate under the conditions required by the existing laws of the congregation, (which his friends have unsuccessfully endeavoured to remove or render acceptable,) and he has uniformly resisted every solicitation to that effect. The eleven votes given on four successive ballots, were but as mall portion of the support he undoubtedly would have received had he consented to become an applicant, many bestowing their suffrages on others while much preferring Mr. Leeser; and I feel justified in adding that not one of those voting for the reverend gentleman did so with the remotest expectation that he would be elected. The high esteem and profound regard engendered and fostered during an intercourse of over twenty years—a due appreciation of unsurpassed abilities, and a grateful recollection of invaluable labours in their behalf and in that of Israel, aided by the firm conviction that a majority of his Congregation had failed to do him justice, were among the causes that prompted eleven of his friends to offer Mr. Leeser the humble and unostentatious tribute of their vote fort he station he had so long honoured. The successfully combined efforts of private enmity, assisted by misrepresentation, and directed by the skilful manoeuvres and untiring exertions of an influential opposition, have at present prevailed against superior claims and just demands, yet there remains to us the certain consolation that the name of Isaac Leeser will live revered and honoured in the memory of a grateful people, when those of his enemies are long forgotten. 

A. T. J.

Note.—I  again offer the pages of the Occident to the President, Board, and members of the Congregation Mikvé Israel, for any respectfully worded and duly authenticated reply, if they consider themselves aggrieved by aught I have written or may publish hereafter. I wish merely to defend myself with strict truth and perfect impartiality, not to assail or wound others; and I assure them that I would have <<116>>avoided coming in collision with my former constituents had their unjust proceedings, after my successor had been elected,—when a slight act of politeness could have tended to no one's injury but have greatly gratified my feelings,—not shown me that from the majority of the body corporate I had nothing to expect but insult and accumulated wrong; hence a longer silence would have proved that I was afraid to meet the issue before the world, and this I can sincerely assure both friend and foe I am not.