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The Great Defection of 1866


In 1865 Cleveland had two congregations of German speakers, one with twice as many members as the other. Then in 1866 a group of 34 members resigned from the larger synagogue and joined the smaller. The story of the great defection.


In 1840 Cleveland's German-speaking Jewish pioneers founded an Orthodox congregation, The Israelitic Society,  which became Anshe Chesed, from which a more progressive / less traditional Tifereth Israel congregation would emerge in 1850.

The story of the two congregations is one of stormy early years and then nearly a century of quiet growth until 1948, when many families, some descended from founders, left both now-Reform synagogues to form Suburban Temple, a Reform congregation.

Not well known, though described in Allan Peskin's This Tempting Freedom, is an 1866 event we will call the great defection. We also learn of it in the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History entry for Gustav Cohen  (link here), the educated chazzan (cantor) who was then Anshe Chesed's spiritual leader. Peskin's text is shown below.

Late in 1865, 30 members of Anshe Chesed petitioned Congregation Tifereth Israel for membership provided that Cohen be hired as cantor. The congregation refused. The following year 34 members of Anshe Chesed again petitioned Tifereth Israel for membership under the same conditions. The congregation agreed, and Cohen accepted the Tifereth Israel offer until his release in 1867 when Tifereth Israel hired an ordained rabbi. ...

In 1865 Cleveland had only two established congregations. Both were small. The older one, Anshe Chesed, had twice as many members as the younger one, Tifereth Israel. The 34 families who, as a group, had left Anshe Chesed were about one third of its membership.

June 21, 1866
Tifereth Israel accepts the petition

See the petition and the names of the petitioners

Although the Tifereth Israel trustees could have accepted these 34 applications for membership at a trustee meeting, they chose to do it at a meeting of the congregation on Thursday evening, June 21, 1866. These new members were relatives, friends and neighbors of their current members. Many may have attended the meeting, which for some would have been a joyful reunion.

Tifereth Israel, which had been half the size of Anshe Chesed the year before, was now about equal in size. With several community founders among its new members, it was now similar in stature. The June 21st meeting would also have been a celebration.

What caused this unusual shift of membership?

One third of the members of a congregation moving as a group to another would have been a story for our local Jewish newspaper, but this happened more than 20 years before we had our first newspaper.  With no contemporaneous accounts, we are left to speculate on why these members of Anshe Chesed left and joined Tifereth Israel.

Was it initiated by Rev. G. M. Cohen seeking a position that would let him apply his musical talents and also reduce his rabbinic duties as he was not ordained? Were these men weary of the continued tension between tradition and modernity at Anshe Chesed? Were some unsure of the change, but ready to do it with friends and with men of deep religious conviction such as Isaac Hoffman, who had been the first to sign the petition? Some members had been here for 25 years. Had they listened to their wives and their adult American-born children who thought separate seating of men and women was "old country" and wanted family seating (which Tifereth Israel had adopted in 1861) and other "American" practices? Had some Anshe Chesed members seen their married children, with their grandchildren, join Tifereth Israel? Or might it have been in the hope of reuniting a community whose synagogue had been divided into two congregations, neither one able to hire and retain an ordained and well educated rabbi?

Learn more about:

Jewish Cleveland before the Civil War

This Tempting Freedom by Allan Peskin (28 page ebook)


Arnold Berger    July 3, 2023

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