The year was 1858. Abraham Lincoln — not yet president — held his famous series of debates with Stephen Douglas. Future President Theodore Roosevelt was born, and John Brown organized a raid on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry. Minnesota became a state — the 32nd. But for a group of 16 German-Jewish immigrants here in Philadelphia, 1858 was probably best remembered for what took place on Sept. 26.
On that day — a Sunday, the fourth day of the festival of Sukkot — the city's newest congregation, Adas Jeshuron (as it was first known), was founded. It was the fifth synagogue in a city that was then home to about 50,000 Jews. The name of the new shul, which was located at Third and Brown streets, reflected the German roots of its founders; the prayerbooks used were written in German and Hebrew.
During the next 150 years, Congregation Adath Jeshurun, more fondly known as "A.J.," underwent five changes of address once it left the Third and Brown site, explained Gavi Miller, the executive director, as the Jews moved farther and farther out from the city center, following demographic trends in the general population.
Eventually, in the early 1960s, the congregation secured a patch of land in Elkins Park. The location was the congregation's first home outside of the city limits.
The numbers that make up the address (7763 Old York Road) are symbolic in nature, said Miller; they mark the date the congregation broke ground for its new home — July 7, 1963. Its doors opened in 1964, and the congregation has been located there ever since.
Over the course of the past 15 decades — through eight rabbis, 11 cantors, 31 synagogue presidents and a few mergers, including its most recent one with Oxford Circle Jewish Community Centre-Brith Israel in 2004 — A.J. has gone through many transformations.
And it was the last three rabbis (Max Klein, Yaakov Rosenberg and the current one, Seymour Rosenbloom) who together account for 98 years on the pulpit, and have led the congregation through many of those changes, according to synagogue officials and members alike.
Strong leadership from the bimah was reflected in Klein, who had tremendous influence in the formation of the congregation in the early 1900s, noted synagogue president Stephen Sussman. During Klein's 50 years at A.J., congregants began to wear yarmulkes for the first time, and the musical traditions that A.J. is known for today began to take root, with the organization of the synagogue's first choir.
The music-infused prayers and songs that are such an integral part of A.J.'s services initiated by Klein have continued under Cantor Howard Glantz, who came to the pulpit five years ago, after longtime cantor Charles H. Davidson — "the musical voice of A.J.," as Sussman called him — retired after 38 years of service.
Davidson composed a great deal of original music, and arranged many other versions of prayers and songs for the congregation, and Glantz said that he has been building upon his predecessor's work, as showcased in the rich music he organized for the opening anniversary celebration on May 4 of this year.
"The sounds that A.J. produces," explained the current cantor, "are a defining part of the shul."
The shul's members take pride in having slightly different tunes than other synagogues, said Glantz, such as that used for the Aleinu prayer, and in knowing "that no other congregation is singing it that way."
It was also Klein, added Miller, who brought the synagogue, founded as a Reform entity, into the Conservative movement, making A.J. one of the earliest members of the United Synagogue of America, now known as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
As secular society changed during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, it was Yaakov Rosenberg who spoke out against segregation — and insisted that Jews needed to do something about it, noted Seymour Rosenbloom, his successor.
The current rabbi added that this is just one example that highlights a component of great importance to the A.J. community — not just what it means to be a Jew, but what it means to be an American Jew, and how that encompasses getting involved in various causes and issues.
"What pulled us there was the social-action interests," said congregant Lana Dishler, explaining what drew her and her husband, Bernard, to A.J. more than 35 years ago — for example, supporting Israel and increasing awareness of the plight of Soviet Jewry, and attending demonstrations to bolster that support.
"History really means something at A.J.," she said.
She also noted that longtime membership, such as hers, is common, as are multigenerational families, since three, four or even five generations of the same families have celebrated milestones at the shul.
Rosenbloom, now in his 30th year on the A.J. pulpit, has ushered in another chapter, according to Sussman, as the rabbi has brought about "a new level of intellectual curiosity" to the proceedings — leading discussions and debates on various and timely themes.
Another component that makes A.J.'s service different is the original prayerbook compiled decades ago by Klein.
To coincide with this anniversary year, Rosenbloom has written and edited the Seder Avodah, a siddur for Shabbat, Yom Tov and weekdays. He explained that he made changes to what Klein instituted years ago — streamlining and consolidating many of the repetitious portions, and updating the entire package to reflect theological changes within Judaism and influences from secular society.
For example, traditional prayers that had been omitted from the service have been restored and the spellings of words have been modernized, as have the English explanations of prayers adjacent to the Hebrew text.
Rosenbloom also added the names of the four matriarchs to the Amidah prayer and replaced many masculine pronouns with gender-neutral ones, reflecting the inclusion of women into the worship service. He also changed the wording in part of the prayer for mourning from "husband" or "wife" to "spouse," so that gay or lesbian partners can recite it.
"I tried to build the Seder Avodah to meet the current needs, and the future needs, of the congregation," explained the rabbi.
The siddur is just one example, said Miller, of combining 150 years worth of traditions with changes that have come A.J.'s way. "The key to our success," noted Miller, "is balancing what is unique to A.J. and also adjusting to new things. It's the preservation of the old, mixing with the new."
Multiple events have been scheduled for this fall as part of the extended commemoration, beginning with an academic symposium featuring three scholars of Jewish American history, to take place on Sunday, Sept. 7.
The program will include lectures by Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Jonathan Sarna, a longtime history professor at Brandeis University; and Deborah Dash Moore, professor at the University of Michigan.
The symposium, explained Sima Sussman, chairwoman of the event, will explore the factors that have shaped the American-Jewish experience from 1858 to 2008, and its meaning in today's Jewish communities.
A bus tour of the former locations of the congregation, as well as other historic sites, will be held on Oct. 19, and on Oct. 26, Rosenbloom will lead a tour of the A.J. cemetery, a burial ground for members of the congregation, located at Bridge and Walker streets in Frankford; the rabbi will also conduct a book burial and memorial service. The anniversary festivities will conclude on Nov. 8, with a commemorative Shabbat-morning service and the official unveiling of the revised Seder Avodah, followed by a gala dinner that evening.
The congregation is also publishing a commemorative book, Congregation Adath Jeshurun: The First 150 Years, written by congregant Ruth Waldman Schultz, with a detailed account of the shul's history. It's an updated version of a similar book the synagogue published in 1967. This new book is dedicated to the memory of Sandy Schinfeld, a vice president and longtime member of the congregation, who was on the steering committee of the 150th anniversary celebration. She was killed in a car accident in April.
The theme of these anniversary-year events, remarked Lana Dishler, "is to explore the past, present and future, and show our younger congregants all we've been — and from them, to gain strength for the future."