The first ordained rabbi to serve in an American congregation was Rabbi Abraham Joseph Rice (originally Reiss, 1802-1862). After studying in Germany, in Wurtzburg and then Fuerth, Rice was prevailed upon by his fellow rabbis to join the increasingly large number of German Jews heading to America and become their Chief Rabbi.
Arriving in New York in 1840, Rabbi Rice, his wife Rosalie and his sister Blume, discovered that the American Jewish community was not looking for, nor willing to accept, a Chief Rabbi.* The Rices next tried Newport, RI, home to the oldest synagogue in the United States. Again they were disappointed, for they discovered that Newport had not succeeded in maintaining a viable Jewish community.
In 1841, Congregation Nidchei Israel in Baltimore, Maryland, hired Rabbi Rice. During his decade of service at Nidchei Israel, Rabbi Rice established the Hebrew and English benevolent Academic Association (a school in the basement of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation) and oversaw the dedication of Nidchei Israel’s new building (now known as the Lloyd Street Synagogue). He maintained his scholarly studies, advocated for a National Beit Din (court of Jewish law) and was a frequent contributor to Reverend Isaac Leeser’s journal, The Occident. One of the most interesting questions Rabbi Rice dealt with as the only officially ordained clergyman was how to properly transliterate the names of American towns into Hebrew when writing ketubot and gittin (wedding contracts and bills of divorce).
Rabbi Rice was greatly troubled by the impoverished quality of Jewish life in America. Not only was lax Shabbat observance tolerated, but standards of Kashrut were often questionable and there was constant pressure on him to alter the synagogue liturgy. In 1849, Rabbi Rice left Nidchei Israel, but was asked to return in 1862. He agreed on the condition that there would be strict adherence to Orthodox standards. Unfortunately, only a few months later, Rabbi Rice suffered a fatal heart attack on October 29 (5 Cheshvan), 1862.
*The first person to hold the title of Chief Rabbi of New York was to be Rabbi Jacob Joseph – who also struggled with the community’s independence.
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