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October 17: Israel Jacobson and the Invention of Reform Judaism

October 16, 2015

11892Israel Jacobson, a German businessman and philanthropist who in 1801 established one of the first schools in Germany in which the children of Jewish parents and the children of Christian parents were educated together, was born in Halberstadt on this date in 1768. Jacobson received an Orthodox education and became a rabbi, but he was strongly influenced by the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskole) and became a religious innovator. In 1810 he built a synagogue on the school grounds, where he experimented with Reform innovations: introducing an organ for the first time in a Jewish house of worship, seating men and women together, replacing hymns and prayers in Hebrew with German, adding rabbinical sermons from the pulpit, removing head coverings, introducing the ritual of confirmation, and much more, which earned Jacobson an historical reputation as the father of Reform Judaism. His innovations were outlawed, however, by 1823, through the influence of Orthodox leaders; Reform Judaism would be repressed until it was transported to the U.S. in the 1840s and ’50s. Jacobson’s life ended in embitterment at age 60, and the majority of his ten children, from two marriages, would be baptized.

“After his father-in-law, Hertz Samson, died in 1795, Jacobson inherited two important positions — District Rabbi for the Weser region and position as Administrative Agent for Duke Charles Ferdinand of Brunswick. After Jerome became King of Westphalia in 1807, Jacobson switched allegiance to the new ruler and became head of a Central Consistory (religious council) whose job was to bring order and consistency to the state’s Jewish affairs.... Only a year earlier, he had written to Napoleon proposing the establishment of a “Supreme Council” based in France to govern religious matters for Jews all over western and central Europe. Now, Jacobson would fulfill his dream on a smaller scale.... Although the main purpose of the Consistory was to run government affairs such as census taking and paying community debts, Jacobson utilized its powers to impose unprecedented religious reforms on its entire Jewish populace.” —Strange Side of Jewish History