Historical Markers
Isaac Leeser Historical Marker
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Isaac Leeser

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Market St. between 54th and 55th, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
September 28, 1998

Behind the Marker

In 1829, when Isaac Leeser came to Philadelphia, the Jewish community that awaited him was long established but lacked cohesion. Through his oratory and his pen, Leeser would evolve into the glue that held Philadelphia's Jewish community together, and then the larger one beyond it. In the 1800s, Leeser was the force most responsible for generating Judaism's New World growth while, at the same time, tailoring its Old World traditions. Over a forty-year period, he was the nation's most prolific Jewish writer and the architect of what would become American Jewry.

 Isaac Leeser (1806-1868), half-length portrait, left profile.
 Isaac Leeser, circa 1868.
Leeser's personal odyssey began in Neunkirchen, Prussia, in 1806, about eighty-five miles south of Bonn, just west of modern Germany's border with France. Both of his parents died when he was young, so Leeser was brought up by his grandmother, who encouraged his studies; both secular and religious. The boy dedicated himself to both, the latter under the guidance of the chief rabbi of Munster, an ardent adherent of Orthodoxy who worked hard to hold back a new reform movement in Judaism that was just beginning to take hold. Leeser adopted his philosophy, and took it with him-along with personal hopes for economic and spiritual growth-to the United States in 1824, when he immigrated to Virginia to live with his mother's brother, a prosperous merchant in Richmond.

Leeser spent the next five years working for his uncle during the week, teaching Judaism on the weekends to children at the local synagogue, and defending his religion in print when he saw it attacked. One of those defenses changed his life.

Leeser was so incensed by an anti-Semitic screed he read in 1828 that he insisted "its circulating without a reply would be extremely injurious to the interest of my brethren in this country." His fiery response-a long, passionate defense of Jewish history, literature, culture, and principles-came to the attention of Jewish communities throughout the country. The congregation of markerMikveh Israel, Philadelphia's oldest synagogue-banker markerHaym Salomon, a financier of the American Revolution, and markerAaron Levy, the founder of Aaronsburg, had both been members-were impressed enough to reached out to Leeser to lead them.

Leeser was not a rabbi. Indeed, the first ordained rabbi would not arrive in the United States until the 1840s. Just twenty-two at the time, Leeser arrived with big ideas and an understanding of how much he had to learn. "Knowing my want of proper qualification," he would later write, "I would never have consented to serve if others more fitting in standing, information, or other qualities had been there; but this not being the case (as is proved by there being two congregations at least in this country without a regular hazzan), I consented to serve."

Oil on panel portrait of Rebecca Gratz, showing part of her torso and face, displays her as a rosy-cheeked woman in elaborately-adorned, early-nineteenth-century finery.
Rebecca Gratz, by Thomas Sully, 1831.
Leeser did more than consent. As head of the congregation until 1850, he redefined the role of the hazzan, or prayer leader. By custom, hazzans conducted services and instructed children in the faith. Leeser wasn't satisfied with that; he believed that an active religion that spoke to his believers needed active leadership. In 1830, he delivered the first Jewish sermon ever incorporated into an American service, and, in time, made sermons a weekly event, which was still rare in synagogues even in Europe. He established a free Jewish school that he ran from his home, and promoted the idea of Jewish charities.

When Leeser took over at Mikveh Israel, there were then few Hebrew texts in America, no English translations of the Jewish prayer book or instructional catechisms for children, and the only English translation of the Torah and Old Testament was that of the King James version of the Bible prepared by the Church of England. Over time, Leeser remedied all of that, and he did it singlehandedly, providing American Jews with the texts they needed to worship. When he found no one willing to publish his translation of a Jewish instructional for children originally published in German, he printed and published it himself in 1830. Three years later, he printed and published his first book, The Jews and Mosaic Law, a learned and spirited defense of the faith, which he soon followed with a volume calling for loyalty to the old religion and its traditions, and a marker Catechism for Jewish Children.

Front page of Isaac Leeser's The Form of Prayers, According to the Custom of...
Still leading the congregation, his output in the 1840s was nothing less than heroic. Under Leeser's auspices, Philadelphia became the center for Hebrew printing and Jewish thought in America. In 1843, Leeser founded The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, the first monthly journal in the nation to address Jewish issues, which he continued to write for, edit, and publish until his death in 1868. In 1845, he printed and published his five-volume translation of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the bible that comprise the Torah, with Hebrew and English on facing pages. In 1848, he did the same with a new volume of the daily prayer book.

Heralded as the nation's leading advocate and defender of Judaism, Leeser spoke regularly in synagogues around the country and helped new congregations organize whenever asked. He was the Johnny Appleseed of his religion; there were fewer than 15,000 Jews in America when he arrived, and more than 200,000 when he died. Most, like himself, were immigrants from Germany and their children. He helped give their worship both text and context.

In 1850, Leeser retired from Mikveh Israel, in part over a disagreement with the congregation, and in part to concentrate on completing his mammoth English translation of the Old Testament-with facing pages in Hebrew-which he began putting out in 1853. In 1857, he returned to the pulpit when a new Philadelphia congregation, Beth-El-Emeth, was established to give him a more visible base from which to operate. He remained with the synagogue through the rest of his life while tirelessly continuing to publish Hebrew texts, including, in 1867, ten volumes of his own sermons under the title of Discourses on the Jewish Religion.

Always a staunch advocate of Jewish education, Leeser feared that secular schools diluted Jewish learning. Few agreed with him, and he could never garner any interest in creating a Jewish school system to rival the public schools. He did, however, convince enough followers of the need to establish an institution to train Jewish religious leaders, and, in 1867, opened Maimonides College in Philadelphia. Without him to lead it, the school folded shortly after his death. (Hebrew Union, the first permanent Jewish college in the United States, was founded in Cincinnati in 1875.) Nonetheless, Leeser also helped sow the seed of formal rabbinic education in the United States.
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