It’s older than the US it­self — New York’s go-to shul

The Jewish Chronicle - - WORLD NEWS - BY ZAKI COOPER

OFTHE­many beau­ti­ful shuls around the world, there are not many that house com­mu­ni­ties older than the coun­tries they are in.

But that anom­aly ap­plies to the or­nate Span­ish and Por­tuguese Syn­a­gogue, Con­gre­ga­tion Shearith Is­rael, on the Up­per West Side of Man­hat­tan. The com­mu­nity dates from 1654, when 23 Jews from Re­cife, Brazil, of Sephardic ori­gin, found refuge in New York and es­tab­lished the con­gre­ga­tion. This is not just over 100 years be­fore the foun­da­tion of the US it­self, but two years be­fore Jews re­set­tled in Eng­land un­der Oliver Cromwell.

The shul’s rabbi, Meir Solove­ichik, is par­tic­u­larly proud of the lat­ter fact. Rabbi Solove­ichik, part of a rab­binic dy­nasty and a charis­matic in­tel­lec­tual, is keen on the history of the com­mu­nity. He points out that one of his pre­de­ces­sors as the com­mu­nity’s rabbi, Ger­shom Mendes Seixas (17451816), at­tended Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s in­au­gu­ra­tion in 1789 at New York Fed­eral Hall (Wash­ing­ton DC had yet to be de­clared the cap­i­tal). A year later, Pres­i­dent Wash­ing­ton sent his fa­mous let­ter to the Jews of New­port, Rhode Is­land, in which he said: “May the Chil­dren of the Stock of Abra­ham, who dwell in this land, con­tinue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other In­hab­i­tants.” Sev­eral con­gre­gants had fought in the War of In­de­pen­dence against the Bri­tish, and the shul still holds two dam­aged To­rah scrolls as ev­i­dence of the con­flict.

The sanc­tu­ary is beau­ti­ful, with a gold ark, stained-glass win­dows and bright red car­pets, rem­i­nis­cent of the House of Lords.

An ex-pat friend liv­ing in Man­hat­tan says it is the place to go on Tisha B’Av, when a can­dle-lit ser­vice in the sanc­tu­ary, dra­mat­i­cally draped in black, evokes a spe­cial at­mos­phere. The ser­vice is Span­ish and Por­tuguese style — shut your eyes and you could be at Be­vis Marks — but the con­gre­gants are an eclec­tic bunch. One Is­raeli vis­i­tor, a for­mer army gen­eral, is im­pressed by how the com­mu­nity weaves to­gether Jews with very dif­fer­ent back­grounds.

This in­clu­sive theme is suit­able for a com­mu­nity that counts amongst its mem­bers the poet Emma Lazarus (1849-87), whose fa­mous poem, The New Colos­sus adorns the Statue of Lib­erty. Zaki Cooper is a trus­tee of the Coun­cil of Chris­tians and Jews

Or­nate: Shearith Is­rael

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