WSIS History

West Side Institutional Synagogue was founded in 1917 (when it was known as the Institutional Synagogue) by the late Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein. Described as the "maverick rabbi", Goldstein sought to create a synagogue that that could attract young American Jews disenchanted with the European style shuls of their forefathers. What he built turned out to be one of the pioneering institutions of Modern Orthodoxy in the United States.

Initially located in a Harlem theater, during its first few decades the shul introduced myriad innovations that would eventually become hallmarks of modern orthodox synangogue life in America. These included English language sermons, cultural activities and outreach programs. While these innovations would eventually revolutionize the role of the synagogue in American modern orthodoxy, the true success was in their ability to lead people to the shul's main role - prayer services, where the congregants would develop an appreciation of their religion and its uplifting values.

During its first years, the congregation grew so quickly that it outgrew its physical environs several times. By the late 1920's the Institution had opened up a second branch on Manhattan's West Side which moved to its current home in 1937, becoming a magnet to an amazing variety of members - leading American businessmen, Holocaust survivors, Americanized youth and members of Congress.

Today, WSIS continues to build upon its rich history by serving the Jewish community through its many religious, educational and cultural programs.

Check out our origins! Read  "The Maverick Rabbi"

Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein and the History of West Side Institutional Synagogue
Delivered at WSIS on May 23, 2015 by Rabbi Adam Mintz
On the Occasion of the Shavuot and Memorial Day Joint Program of the
West Side Institutional Synagogue and Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim on
Modern Orthodoxy on the Upper West Side of Manhattan

This holiday weekend we celebrate Shabbat and Shavuot with joint services and programs between WSIS and KRA, two sister Modern Orthodox congregations on the Upper West Side. In honor of this joint celebration, I would like to focus my sermons and classes this weekend on the history of Modern Orthodoxy on the Upper West Side. Let us begin with the history of this great synagogue, West Side Institutional Synagogue and its founding rabbi, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein.

Our story begins with the mass immigration of Jews to the United States between 1881 and 1924. During that period nearly 2.5 million Jews came to these shores, most of them passing through Ellis Island and the Lower East Side. These immigrants, mainly from the countries of Eastern Europe, struggled to acclimate to American life and the English language. Yiddish remained their primary language and their professional and cultural life remained enclosed within the Jewish community. Herbert S. Goldstein was an exceptional case from the very beginning. He was born on the Lower East Side in 1890 to parents who had immigrated in the 1870s. While he began his studies at the Etz Chaim cheder, he was uncomfortable with the Yiddish spoken there and transferred to P. S. 2. He attended the prestigious Townsend Harris Hall High School (now known as Townsend Harris) and then Columbia College.  He began Columbia Law School but then his life took an unexpected turn. Aaron Reichel describes in his magisterial biography of his grandfather The Maverick Rabbi that Goldstein, whose family lived on the Upper East Side, attended the funeral of his rabbi, Joseph Mayer Asher. Rabbi Asher was the rabbi of Orach Chaim Congregation and a professor of Homiletics at The Jewish Theological Seminary. As the young Goldstein listened to the eulogies, he asked himself, "Does the American Jewish community really need another lawyer? What they need is a rabbi." He enrolled at JTS, the school of his rabbi and began the ordination process. However, in the midst of his studies he began to be concerned that JTS, Schechter's Seminary as it was called, was not Orthodox enough and may not have provided the necessary education and credentials for him. Goldstein met with Rabbi Moshe Zevulun Margolies, the Ramaz, to seek his advice. The Ramaz advised him to seek a second "Orthodox " semicha and arranged for him to study with a private tutor who conferred upon him a private semicha, followed by the granting of another semicha by Rabbi Shalom Elchanan Jaffe, a one- time president of the traditional Union of Orthodox Rabbis. In 1912, Goldstein was invited to preach on the High Holy Days at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun even though he had not yet received his ordination. He delivered the English language sermon while the Ramaz gave the sermon in Yiddish, and Goldstein eventually served as the English speaking rabbi at the KJ for a few years, succeeding Mordechai Kaplan in that role.

Reichel describes the need for a new approach to deal with the American Orthodox Jews in the late teens. He explains that the failure of Orthodoxy during this period to retain these second generation Jews rested largely in the fact that these young Jews wanted to Americanize. They associated Americanizing with rejecting the European ways of their parents and grandparents. Goldstein realized the need to establish a new synagogue that would address the needs of this generation of American Jews. Goldstein chose to create this new community in Harlem. By 1910, half of the families living in Harlem were Jewish, having taken advantage of the completion of the subway system which allowed easy access to downtown. In 1917, the Institutional Synagogue was founded at a temporary location on 116th St. The New York American called it "the first movement of its kind in America."

Let us focus on several aspects of this new synagogue that made it so innovative. First, Rabbi Goldstein did not place the emphasis on a special cantor who led the services. He wanted congregational participation and had rehearsals before the holidays to review the tunes. The tradition of an operatic cantor had become popular in America and Rabbi Goldstein believed that it had become too much of a "show".  He started a Hebrew school in the synagogue as was the practice of the time, given the large percentage of children who attended public school. Yet, this Hebrew school was unlike most of the others. He hired teachers who were filled with youthful positive energy and worked to eliminate the negativity often associated with these afternoon schools. It quickly developed the reputation as the premier Hebrew after-school program in the city. 

Rabbi Goldstein did not limit his innovations to the traditional. He introduced adult education and guest speakers in the synagogue. While we take these practices for granted today, the Institutional Synagogue was the first to introduce them. In 1924, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine paid an in-depth visit to the synagogue . Rabbi Goldstein's weekly class on the parsha met during the week and was very popular. He often invited guest speakers to attract people to the class or to teach it. In addition, Rabbi Goldstein had a gym in the synagogue building with an Olympic size swimming pool. Rabbi Goldstein wanted people to enter the building. Once inside the building they would notice the variety of programs and activities and in many instances become more involved.

Finally, Rabbi Goldstein introduced a weekly Oneg Shabbat. He would deliver a sermon during the Friday night service which would be followed by kiddush and refreshments. This was open to the entire community but was geared towards those people who were forced to work on Saturday morning. Rather than reject these people, he embraced them and allowed them to share in the Shabbat experience and the sermon. These innovations were highly successful and the initial membership drive totaled 1,700 members.

The Jewish community was not long for Harlem and a branch of the synagogue opened on the Upper West Side in 1928. Rabbi Goldstein and his family moved to the Upper West Side in 1932 and the synagogue entered its present location on 76th St. in 1937. Rabbi Goldstein died in 1970. The New York American was right. This synagogue which was an institution and not only a shul was indeed the first of its kind in America.

Rabbi Goldstein had the courage to recognize the predicament that faced American Orthodoxy in the first decades of the twentieth century and to create an innovative yet traditional institutional synagogue. This was a synagogue that was, to use a popular phrase today, both user-friendly and accessible, one that elevated the congregants ritually, spiritually and health-wise.  As we remember the legacy of Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein and this era in the history of the American Orthodox community, let us also remember how much of American Orthodoxy that we take for granted today we owe to the vision and courage of Rabbi Goldstein.

 

Tue, November 21 2017 3 Kislev 5778
West Side Institutional Synagogue • 120 West 76th Street • New York, NY 10023
Tel: 212-877-7652 • Fax: 212-877-9333 • Email: office@wsisny.org