“Jewish Revival” before Chabad: The Legacy of Herbert S. Goldstein

West Side Institutional Synagogue; photo via Wikipedia
West Side Institutional Synagogue; photo via Wikipedia

By Dr Gil Graff

Recent biographies of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe have, appropriately, underscored the extraordinary leadership of Menachem Mendel Schneerson and his father-in-law, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, in “kiruv” – drawing Jews nearer Torah and a connection with mitzvot (one mitzvah at a time). By the end of the 20th century, not only Chabad, but such entities as Aish ha-Torah, Ohr Somayach, and community kolelim combining daily study with adult education, were among an expanding array of kiruv organizations in North America. Lesser known, however, is that a generation before the appearance of Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson on the shores of the United States (1940), a significant “Jewish revival” initiative was mounted in New York by Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein.

A 1914 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Goldstein served as English speaking rabbi at New York’s Kehilath Jeshurun, 1913-1917. Recognizing that many children of the more traditional Russian Jewish immigrants were drifting from the religious commitments of their parents, Goldstein launched what he unabashedly called a Jewish revival movement. He resigned his position at KJ and, financed by his father-in-law, Harry Fischel, Goldstein founded – in Harlem, home at its peak to 178,000 Jews – the Institutional Synagogue. This “institution” was a combination synagogue, Hebrew school, and “Y.” Besides drawing 1000 people to weekly shabbat services and educating 1000 children in its Talmud Torah, the IS included a gym and met the social, athletic and cultural interests of its members through sixty-seven clubs.

Known as “the Jewish Billy Sunday,” Goldstein held mass Jewish religious revival meetings. He advised his audiences that, throughout Jewish history, there had been diverse “parties”: for example, a party for God and a party for Baal. The lesson of Jewish history, exhorted Goldstein, was that it was exclusively the God party that had, over time, endured. “The Institutional Synagogue is the place where you can come and drink deep from the traditional well-springs of our faith,” offered Goldstein.

In the words of historian Jenna Weissman Joselit, “Goldstein possessed an uncanny ability to understand the needs of American-born youth and to balance their affinity for things American with the requirements of tradition.” The late 1920s saw a sharp drop in Harlem’s Jewish population; only 25,000 Jews remained, by 1930. In response, the Institutional Synagogue established a West Side branch that, eventually, became the West Side Institutional Synagogue.

Beyond his congregational rabbinate and leadership, inter alia, of the Orthodox Union, Rabbinical Council of America and Synagogue Council of America, Goldstein taught homiletics to successive generations of students at Yeshiva University who viewed him as one of the “heroes” (to be emulated) of the rabbinate. Goldstein’s expansion of the role of the synagogue beyond worship and the study of Jewish texts – an approach that he shared with Mordecai Kaplan – was to become ubiquitous by mid-20th century. Though little remembered a century later, the legacy of Goldstein’s Jewish “revival” effort – including the ongoing project of re-imagining the synagogue – is enduring.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.