Our History

Our History

Welcome to New York’s Historic Congregation Rodeph Sholom

(Rabbi Deborah Goldberg, Rabbi Mira Weller, Senior Rabbi Ben Spratt, Senior Cantor Shayna De Lowe, Rabbi Juliana Karol, Cantor Stefano Iacono)

Connection and Belonging One of New York’s great synagogues, almost 180 years after our founding, Congregation Rodeph Sholom is a steadfast beacon for purposeful Jewish living and the celebrating of Jewish traditions. We are a dynamic, Reform synagogue with meaningful worship services, educational opportunities for all ages, and true to our name, which is Hebrew for pursuer of peace, there are significant social action and tzedakah programs. Blending the teachings of our Jewish heritage with the best lessons of modern culture, our intent is to contribute to the continuance and vitality of the Jewish people through tikkun olam—helping to repair the world. A community of people who care for each other, Rodeph Sholom is an anchor of connection and source of belonging.

Journey of Growth Always growing would be an apt description of Congregation Rodeph Sholom’s journey. Starting with eighty founding members in 1842 on Attorney Street, 189 members moved to Clinton Street in 1850, then to a larger space on Lexington Avenue at 63rd Street in 1891, and finally landing in our stately home on West 83rd Street in 1930. A bold decision to build such an impressive edifice in the midst of the Depression, the Romanesque Temple House and Sanctuary built in 1929–30 and designed by Charles B. Meyers was dedicated on Purim in March 1930.

From its Orthodox beginnings, in 1875 the congregation began using a Conservative service with organ music and a choir. In 1901, Rodeph Sholom joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), becoming part of the Reform movement.

Our congregation made history in 1970 by establishing the first Reform Jewish day school in North America, now called the Rodeph Sholom School (nursery through eighth grade). In 1988 the School moved into our building on the West 84th Street side, and in 1993, we acquired new property on West 78th and 79th Streets to expand our school, community, and religious activities. Our congregation is a focal point of activity that also includes Youth and Teen learning and engagement and Sholom Sprouts, Adventures, and Discoveries for the youngest members.

Present Day We have evolved in response to the changing needs of our community. We look back and see how qualities of adaptability and steadfastness drove our history and has shaped us into who we are today. While remaining committed to worshipping our God and practicing our religion, we have gone from being an Orthodox to a Conservative to a Reform synagogue. We have moved from downtown to uptown. We were one of the first to welcome women and LGBTQIA+ rabbis and cantors as our clergy. “Also unusual, our Senior Rabbi retired in 2021 after 30 years, a remarkable reminder of permanence, as there have been only ten rabbis in its almost 180-year history,” says the eleventh Senior Rabbi, Benjamin Spratt.

A place that reflects a welcoming, warm, and ever-growing community, this is a true congregational home. Rodeph Sholom takes great pride in our history and is hard at work to fulfill the promise of our future.

Our magnificent Main Sanctuary A place to sit and shed the matters that press us. To relax and hear that small voice within us. A place we can find calm and be at ease. A place to hear wise stories and captivating melodies. There has always been a magical feeling about it. Look up and see the ceiling of blue filled with gold stars, like the night sky itself, a comforting blanket.

The Sanctuary is a breathtaking sight, enhancing our sense of reverence. It is an oasis for prayer and comfort and, too, for joyous communal celebration. Above the Ark that holds the Torah scrolls are these words in Hebrew, “Know before whom you stand.” In front of the Ark is an inspiring ner tamid (eternal light) along with a Reading Table, both gifts from loving congregants.

L’dor V’dor This place, our beautiful Sanctuary, it connects us to generations past. To think that they entered this grand space and felt the same awe we do every time we enter. We feel the holiness just as they felt it. How amazing is that? That something old, something built all those years ago, can instill such reverence and wonder. Is our amazing Sanctuary the thread that ties us l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation?

How grateful we can feel to have inherited such a thing. Its majesty urges us to be ever holier. Our precious Sanctuary. It holds our secrets; it still holds theirs. It is where we are safe to talk to G-d and to listen as G-d speaks to us. And maybe we may hear the voices of long ago, too. Would they feel as amazed to know we feel as they did?

Our Sukkat Shalom This is our place of connection. It is, to use Rabbi Spratt’s words, where we “build an ark of coming together.” Just to be together and feel that unbreakable durable connection in our beloved Sanctuary. It has stood watch throughout the generations. Our welcoming sukkat shalom for all seasons.

Our Holocaust Torah A most prized possession is the Holocaust Torah, known as #1,104, bequeathed to our congregation by a past president and his family in memory of his father and the other survivors of the Holocaust.

It began life as the sacred scroll for a synagogue in Czechoslovakia but was confiscated by the Nazis and left to languish. It rests now in a place of honor in the Temple’s Schnurmacher Chapel as a magnificent symbol of endurance.

Jump to:

The 1840s | The 1850s & 60s | The 1870s | The 1880s & 90s | The 1900s & 10s | The 1920s & 30s | The 1940s & 50s | The 1960s | The 1970s | The 1980s | The 1990s | The 2000s | The 2010s | The 2020s | Today

In the 1840s,

the Lower East Side, new Americans flooded into the city. Many used their new freedom to practice religion to set up houses of worship that would also serve as centers of social and cultural life.

• 1842: Agreement in German signed by 80 people to establish Congregation Rodeph Sholom at 157 Attorney Street, NYC Land purchased for use as cemetery at Park Avenue and 88th Street, then the outskirts of the City.  The original charter stated the immediate need to organize to worship, to visit the sick, to help new immigrants and educate the young.
• 1844: Rabbi Merzbacher, first Rabbi, left congregation over dispute on use of sheitels by women members.  He felt it was not necessary, and the CRS congregants at the time did.
• 1849: CRS participated in support of a Jewish Day School, known as Union Day School.

1. SLIDE--Jewish Life
In the 1850s and 60s,

as Rodeph Sholom became an established shule, leadership and congregants pursued tikkun olam and its central role in the serving the Jewish Community.

1850: With 189 members, CRS moved to new home on Clinton Street. Synagogue purchased tract of land in Cypress Hills for future site of new cemetery, presently Union Field Cemetery.
1858: CRS contributed financial aid to Jewish community in New Orleans stricken by epidemic.
1865: Representatives of CRS participated in Memorial services at Union Square for President Lincoln.
1866: Magazine Jewish Messenger praised congregation for allowing “liberal” Rabbi Huebsch to preach a sermon.

3-SLIDE Mt. Sinai
In the 1870s,

we worked steadily to ensure that Jews had access to health care and those who were needy had help getting food and clothing.

1871: Passover collection made for Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC; formerly known as Jews’ Hospital.
1875: Rabbi Aaron Wise, father of Stephen Wise, appointed Rabbi; renovated synagogue rededicated with Conservative service, using choir and organ for first time; criticism evoked by occasional sermons in English instead of German.
1878: Dedication of Union Field Cemetery in Cypress Hills, then a three-hour ride from the Synagogue by horse and buggy.
1879: Young Ladies Sewing Society distributed 100 dresses to Hebrew Free School.

In the 1880s and 90s,

an era of prosperity paved the way to assuring the future of Judaism in America, through founding new institutions and keeping up with the congregants as they moved out of their neighborhoods of origin and into more prosperous ones.

1884: Funds raised for relief of Jews suffering from pogroms in Russia.
1886: Rabbi Aaron Wise instrumental in founding Jewish Theological Seminary, espousing Conservative Judaism.
1887: Fire in Clinton Street synagogue necessitated rebuilding and rededication.
1889: Resolution passed to sell Clinton Street synagogue and move uptown due to changing demographics and the need for larger quarters.
1891: On September 4, first service held in new synagogue at Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street; Rodeph Sholom Sisterhood founded, revitalizing the Young Ladies Sewing Society.
1892: “Anniversary Oration,” celebrating 50th year of the Congregation, was delivered by 18 year old Stephen S. Wise.
1896: Sudden death of Rabbi Aaron Wise; Rabbi Stephen Wise declined invitation to succeed his father.
1897: Rabbi Rudolph Grossman inducted as new Rabbi; a revised Prayer Book introduced and used for many years.
1899: In a sermon, Rabbi Grossman appealed to the congregation to make the wearing of hats by men optional and to abandon second day of High Holy Day services.

4-SLIDE Lex Ave building
In the 1900s and 10s,

as Jews began to assume leadership positions in political life and in industry, American Jewish identity shifted to a strong emphasis on “being American.” Those of an older generation were disinclined to pass along fluency in Yiddish to their children and grandchildren. This was also an era where Jews served in large numbers fighting for America as US citizens.

1901: CRS joined the Union of America Hebrew Congregations and became a supporter of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
1906: In addition to aiding refugees suffering from persecution in Russia, the congregation helped victims of San Francisco earthquake.
1912: CRS paid tribute to Democratic Congressman Henry Goldfogle, later President of CRS, for leadership in protesting Russian discrimination against Jews.
1914: Women’s Association formed to implement cultural programs and philanthropic activities of Sisterhood.
1915: Nathan G. Meltzoff inducted as Cantor, serving until his retirement in 1952 when he became Cantor Emeritus.
1917: Congregation celebrated 75th anniversary for three days, together with 25th anniversary of Rabbi Grossman’s appointment.
1918: Dedication of bronze plaque bearing names of CRS members who served in World War I.

5-SLIDE WW1 Scene
US 2614
In the 1920s and 1930s,

CRS roared in robust health, purchasing land for what is our current building and having an architect draw up plans. The early 30’s continued a trend at CRS that is still with us to this day—welcoming clergy and staff who choose to spend their entire careers at CRS.

1923: Congregational Bulletin founded.
1924: Union Prayer Book adopted, marking CRS’ formal identification with Reform Judaism.
1926: Land on West 83rd Street purchased for building new synagogue; final service at Lexington Avenue synagogue held on October 4. New Gate House at Union Field Cemetery authorized to replace Chapel built in 1889.
1928: Temporary services held at Mecca Temple for two years, with Mitchell S. Fisher as interim rabbi (Rabbi Grossman passed away in 1927).
1930: In March, CRS moved to its present home on West 83rd Street. Louis I. Newman inducted as Rabbi, with Rabbis Stephen Wise and Nathan Kras participating in the ceremonies; Parents Association formed under sponsorship of Honorary President Samuel Falk. The Chronicle was launched.
1934: Sunday morning community services introduced. Offered until 1949, they featured classical choral works performed by a 40-voice community choir under the direction of Cantor Meltzoff, and included guest speakers Franz Werfel, Sean O’Casey, Orson Welles, and Jan Masaryk.
1937: Max Feder appointed first Executive Secretary, serving until retirement in 1972.

In the 1940s and 50s,

Rodeph Sholom worked hard to support the war effort, and to be essential part serving earlier pioneering generations as they grew into their retirement years in the 1950s. The 1950s was also an era of new view of early childhood education as a foundation for a good life, and CRS stepped up. In fact, our first Bat Mitzvah was for twins, making it a B’not Mitzvah!

1942: 100th anniversary of CRS celebrated with guest speaker Presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie.
1942-45: CRS became a model for congregational involvement in World War II war effort. Under the direction of the War Activities committee, it served as a distribution center for items sent to troops overseas and as a headquarters for local air raid wardens and air defense groups.
1952: Gunter Hirschberg appointed Cantor, succeeding Nathan Meltzoff who retired as Cantor Emeritus. Foundation Fund established to ensure Temple’s future financial stability.
1953: Golden Age Club founded for local seniors, a pioneer activity in the Reform Movement.
1954: CRS Associate Rabbi Aaron B. Ilson’s twin daughters, Anne and Blanche, were our first B’not Mitzvah on January 9, 1954.
1958: Nursery school founded under the direction of Mrs. Gerda Miller.

Cantor Gunter Hirshberg, Walter Weisman President, Mayor John Lindsey, Rabbi Lewis Newman 1961
In the 1960s,

with early waves of immigration now a faint memory, younger generations were interested in reclaiming their identity, through learning Hebrew and travel to Israel. The Six Day War of 1967 proved to be a strong rallying point for support of Israel and Jewish pride.

1963: Gunter Hirschberg ordained and appointed Associate Rabbi; Ephraim Biran inducted as Cantor.
1965: Congregation purchased four brownstone houses on West 84th Street as future site for Day School.
1967: Congregation celebrated 125th anniversary at Plaza Hotel with guest speakers Senator Jacob Javits and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
1968: First Festival of Jewish Arts initiated. Business and Professional Club established to meet needs of those not served by other Temple activities; Brotherhood celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Cornerstone Laying Ceremony 10-14-73
In the 1970s,

quality education based in the Reform Jewish way of learning and worship was a top priority for Rodeph Sholom.

1970: Rodeph Sholom Day School, first in U.S. sponsored by a Reform congregation, started as pilot project with kindergarten and 1st grade; Parents Educational Guild founded to represent parents of Nursery and Day Schools. The opera “Tamar and Judah,” with libretto by Rabbi Newman, performed as tribute to his forty years of service.
1971: CRS chosen by Channel 13 for live broadcast of “Hear Our Voices,” a tribute to cantorial singing; Sisterhood celebrated 80th anniversary.
1972: Rabbi Gunter Hirschberg appointed Senior Rabbi upon the death of Rabbi Louis I. Newman. Board of Trustees formally approved the Day School, consisting of kindergarten through 6th grade. CRS began family services.
1973: Rodeph Sholom Community Chorus founded with Paula Biran as Conductor.
1974: Children’s Choir founded by Cantor Ephraim Biran. Nutrition and Health Program initiated with neighboring church, including hot lunches served on the Sabbath for neighborhood senior citizens. Bernice Kaufman appointed Director of the Nursery School.
1976: Adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah initiated, with 37 men and women completing program. New prayer book, Gates of Prayer, adopted. Ecumenical Thanksgiving service celebrated with Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.
1977: Rodeph Sholom Day School moves into new building on West 84th Street adjoining the synagogue; early “Welcome the Sabbath” services and dinners for congregants and school parents initiated.

In the 1980s,

Tikkun olam, in the form of sewing, helping the poor, and making contributions to worthy causes, were part of CRS from the first day; but in this era, we upped our game considerably.

1981: Concerned Citizens Committee established as CRS’ social action and community outreach arm.
1983: In response to challenge from Mayor Koch to NYC synagogues and churches to house the homeless, CRS opens homeless shelter for men.
1985: CRS embarked on a major refurbishment of the lobby and the Sanctuary, restoring them to their original state.
1988: Rabbi Gunther Hirschberg elected President of the New York Board of Rabbis.
1989: Congregation mourned the death of Rabbi Gunter Hirschberg.

10-SLIDE RallyInWashington_2
150th Anniversary Confirmation Reunion 1992 cropped
In the 1990s, 

we gained a new Senior Rabbi and the decade saw CRS making a bold move with new clergy.

1990: Janet Neuberger elected as first female President of CRS.
1991: Rabbi Robert N. Levine installed as Senior Rabbi. Nursery School renamed in honor of the Schnurmacher family; Day School renamed to honor Rabbi Gunter Hirschberg. Sisterhood celebrated its centennial year. Meyer W. Nathans Service Award established; Caring Community established.
1992: The Congregation celebrated its 150th anniversary.
1993: CRS acquired buildings on West 78th and 79th Streets for expansion of Rodeph Sholom School; 79th Street building dedication ceremony.
1995: Camille Shira Angel appointed Assistant Rabbi, the first woman Rabbi at CRS and the second self-identified gay or lesbian Rabbi to serve a mainstream Reform Congregation.
1998: Lewis Steinman Religious School Enrichment program for special needs children established in CRS Religious School.

In the 2000s,

CRS took on some major capital projects. Accessibility and space upgrades ensured optimal access and worship experience for our congregants.

2000: Rebecca Garfein appointed first female cantor. CRS building and bimah made wheelchair accessible.
2001: Rodeph Sholom School added 7th and 8th grades.
2003: The sixth floor of CRS completely rebuilt to include Schnurmacher Chapel, Eisner Auditorium, and an outdoor play area for the nursery school; ground floor lobby expanded and renovated with a second elevator for access to the sixth floor.
2004: The first graduating class of the Rodeph Sholom School.
2005: CRS and Rodeph Sholom School implement new school governance plan giving RSS increased independence; Friends of RSS incorporated.
2006: Rabbi Robert N. Levine elected President of the New York Board of Rabbis with Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton giving the opening remarks at his Installation Ceremony on January 12 in our Main Sanctuary. On October 25, Rabbi Levine received the West Side Spirit’s Westy Award. We welcomed Rabbi Sari Laufer as our new Assistant Rabbi.
2007: CRS received the Union for Reform Judaism’s Irving J. Fain Social Action Award for our acclaimed reproductive rights committee, One Voice to Save Choice. We welcomed our new Assistant Cantor Shayna Peavey, now Shayna De Lowe. Sisterhood was a sponsor of the new Women of Reform Judaism’s The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.
2008: The CRS Board of Trustees elected Rabbi Ben Spratt as our Assistant Rabbi, dividing his time between the Congregation and the Rodeph Sholom School as Rabbi-in-Residence.

In the 2010s,

we actualized the conversations begun in the late aughts to design a welcoming environment with accessible opportunities and resources for all our congregants.

2010: We inaugurated the first Shireinu service for Jewish families with special needs at Rosh Hashanah, leading to four festival Shireinu services each year.
2012: The Shireinu program was honored with the UJA-Federation Caring Commission’s Synagogue Inclusion Award.
2013: CRS was honored with the Union for Reform Judaism’s Irving J. Fain Social Action Award for Project Kehila: Disaster Response.
2015: Rabbi Greg Weitzman, our Rabbinic Intern for three years, becomes our Assistant Rabbi.
2016: The Union for Reform Judaism honored CRS with its Exemplar Award for our Shireinu program. The Central Conference of American Rabbis appoints Rabbi Spratt as co-chair of the Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion, bringing our Shireinu program to a national level.
2017: We commemorate our synagogue’s 175th anniversary with a yearlong series of events to honor our rich history including lectures, a Heritage Weekend, a Night at the Temple, concerts, social action activities, and an Evening of Comedy featuring Jerry Seinfeld.
2018: After three years as our Rabbinic Intern, Rabbi Juliana Karol is installed as our Assistant Rabbi. The debut of Singin’ Swingin’ Shabbat paved the way to Sholom Sprouts, a community-wide umbrella program for families with young children. CRS Sisterhood receives the Women of Reform Judaism’s Gold Or Ami “Light of my People” Award.
2019: Completion of new construction includes a lobby entranceway and community room with multi-media exhibit; a new clergy suite on the 3rd floor; and new chapel, event space, classrooms, and youth lounge for Religious School and Sholom Sprouts on the 5th floor.

In the 2020s, 

we started the decade navigating a new normal on the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and continued to grow nonetheless with a new clergy team and expanded programming.

2020: Maintaining community virtually, we worshipped via live stream and participated in classes, events, and festival celebrations via Zoom. See how Rodeph Sholom came together, even while apart!
2021: We celebrated Rabbi Levine’s retirement after a 30-year rabbinate here with a Shabbaton street fair and added Assistant Rabbi Deborah Goldberg and Assistant Cantor Stefano Iacono.
2022: We entered our 180th year with the Installation of Rabbi Ben Spratt as the 11th Senior Rabbi, and Cantor Shayna De Lowe as Senior Cantor. By fall, we filled our Sanctuary for High Holy Day services, saw our Youth and Family programming grow to new heights, engaging babies through teens (and parents, too), welcomed Rabbi Mira Weller, and ended the year with the all-star concert, Hootenanny: A Celebration of Jewish Music.