The Jewish Center circa 1918
In the early twentieth Century, the Upper West Side of Manhattan became the fashionable address for the elite of New York Jewry, as they migrated from neighborhoods like Yorkville and the Lower East Side. Ashkenazic Jews moving to the neighborhood had to choose between several Eastern European shtieble-like synagogues, with an informal approach to prayer services, and Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, whose service and liturgy were decorous but foreign. Two successful immigrant clothing manufacturers, Joseph H. Cohen and William Fischman, had moved to the neighborhood after a long affiliation with Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun, and were determined to create a traditional Orthodox Synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In order to do this, they needed religious leadership, and reached out to Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary who had recently left his pulpit on the East Side, to be their leader. Rabbi Kaplan conceived the idea of a Jewish Center that "would bring Jews together...for social, cultural and recreational purposes in addition to worship." Though Rabbi Kaplan had expressed distinctly unorthodox religious views in his previous position, Cohen and Fischman, who were aware that he held these views, felt that he would be an outstanding leader if he did not publicize or popularize them. In January 1918, the first services were first held in the new, still unfinished building on West 86th Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus. Over the next few years, as Rabbi Kaplan gave increasingly public voice to his radical theological views, his relationship with the nascent congregation- now with a membership of 100 families- became increasingly untenable, and in 1921, he tendered his resignation.
In 1922, a young Rabbi was brought to The Jewish Center from a position in Cleveland, Ohio to occupy the pulpit left vacant by Rabbi Kaplan's resignation. Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung was a graduate of the Hildesheimer Seminary in Berlin, held a Ph.D from the University of Giessen, and had studied at the Universities of Berlin, Vienna, Marburg, Cambridge and London. During his time at The Jewish Center, Rabbi Jung was a forceful spokesman for Orthodox Judaism in a time when it was unpopular, and he was involved in the founding and support of almost every major Orthodox organization in the United States and abroad, from the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations to Agudath Israel, from Torah Umesorah to the Beth Jacob movement (in Poland and the United States) to Chabad. Rabbi Jung had close relationships with Orthodox Rabbis of many different ideological orientations, and collaborated with them in his Rabbonim Aid Society, a charitable initiative offering physical and financial support to immigrant Rabbis. Of particular note were Rabbi Jung's heroic efforts during World War II, during which he was responsible for rescuing thousands of Jews. Rabbi Jung was known to generations of Jewish Center members for his regal bearing, emphasis on decorum and his erudition, but most of all for the relationships he developed with the members of The Jewish Center family through his legendary walks around the reservoir in Central Park and visits in the homes of Jewish Center members. Rabbi Jung served as Rabbi and as Rabbi Emeritus of The Jewish Center for 65 years, until his death on Shabbat Chanukah in 1987 at the age of 95.
Following Rabbi Jung's retirement and assumption of the role of Rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, who was the Associate Rabbi since 1958, was engaged as the third Rabbi of The Jewish Center in 1959. He previously occupied the position of Rabbi at Congregation Kodimoh in Springfield, Mass. Rabbi Lamm was a student of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Dr. Samuel Belkin during his time in Yeshiva University. He taught Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva during his tenure at The Jewish Center. Rabbi Lamm emerged as a forceful and articulate spokesperson for the philosophy of Torah UMadda, in which Torah and secular wisdom are melded into a comprehensive world view. Rabbi Lamm's sermons attracted many new people to the Shabbat services. He showed that traditional Judaism had something relevant, thoughtful and inspiring to say about the issues of the day. In 1976, Rabbi Lamm was named President and Rosh HaYeshivah of Yeshiva University, a position he held with distinction until assuming the position of Chancellor in 2003. Rabbi Lamm still prays at The Jewish Center and occasionally honors us with his inspirational and scholarly presentations.
Following Rabbi Lamm's departure, The Jewish Center invited Rabbi Isaac Bernstein, an Irishman and graduate of the famed Gateshead yeshiva in the north of England, to the pulpit of the Center. Rabbi Bernstein was famed for his fiery sermons and innovative classes, as well as his distinctly Irish sense of humor. Rabbi Bernstein was the Rabbi of The Jewish Center until 1981, after which he returned to London to assume the post of Rabbi of the Finchley Synagogue. Sadly, he passed away at a relatively young age, in 1994.
In 1981, Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, a young musmakh of Mesivta Torah Vodaath and a Harvard Ph.D, was brought to serve as Rabbi of The Jewish Center, having served previously as founding Rabbi of the Young Israel of Sharon, Mass. Rabbi Schacter served as Rabbi of The Jewish Center for 19 years, and under his leadership, the membership tripled and the educational offerings offered by the Center began to expand. Rabbi Schacter left The Jewish Center in 2001 to serve as dean of the Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute in Brookline, and now serves as University Professor at Yeshiva University and Senior Scholar at Yeshiva University's Center for The Jewish Future.
In 2000, Rabbi Ari Berman, who began his career as Rabbinic Intern at The Jewish Center, assumed the position of its Senior Rabbi. Rabbi Berman was a rising star in the Kollel Elyon of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, and was the speaker on behalf of his cohort at its Chag Hasemikha. Rabbi Berman was the founding Rabbi of The Jewish Center Young Leadership minyan, which remains the most popular destination for young people on the West Side on Shabbat morning. Under Rabbi Berman's leadership, The Jewish Center implemented its Strategic Planning Initiative. Under this program, The Jewish Center greatly expanded its educational offerings, and began the extremely successful Jewish Center University program, in which members of the Jewish Center clergy and staff, as well as renowned academics, teach classes aimed at the broader Jewish community. Rabbi Berman also created the May and Samuel Rudin Lecture Series and oversaw the development of other programs such as JC Connections and the Jewish Center Business Forum.
In 2007, after 13 years at The Jewish Center, Rabbi Berman announced that he and his family would be taking a leave of absence to spend a year in Israel. Rabbi Yosie Levine, a Columbia alumnus and RIETS musmakh who joined The Jewish Center as Rabbinic Intern, was named Associate Rabbi, assuming full Rabbinic leadership for the year of Rabbi Berman's sabbatical. In June of 2008, Rabbi Berman announced that he and his family would be making aliyah. Shortly thereafter, Rabbi Levine was unanimously voted in as the seventh Rabbi of The Jewish Center.