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About Israel Baer Kursheedt
Mr. Israel Bear Kursheedt,
Who for so many years was one of the bright links which connect this with the past age, a Rabbi by education, and a thorough man of the world, no longer walks among us the reverend head of a family, and the respected counsellor in matters of religion; since he was summoned hence on Friday afternoon, the 30th of April, the eve of Sabbath Acharay Moth and Kedoshim, just before the commencement of the Lord’s holy day, after having completed, not long before, his eighty-sixth year. It is seldom the privilege of mortals to enjoy an unclouded intellect till the last breath is drawn at so advanced an age; but Mr. K. happily illustrated the aphorism of our sages, that the older the righteous grow in years, the stronger their intellectual powers become; and quiet and calm, in the full consciousness of his approaching dissolution, he awaited the moment which should sever the silver cord that had so long bound him to the earth.
He was surrounded by the members of his family, who were in New York, except one, we think, who could not reach home in time, so suddenly at length came the summons which had been so long expected, as he was, apparently, not worse that day than many times before; and there were present, besides, the Rev. S. M. Isaacs, whom he had requested to superintend his interment, and Rev. Dr. Raphall, for whom the deceased entertained a high sense of regard. The former gentleman commenced the prayers for the dying, to which Mr. K. responded whilst his power so to do lasted; and when this was so no longer, his gestures proved that he joined in and felt the force and sublimity of the words by which Israelites testify to the last their faith and attachment to the ever blessed Father, who has chosen them for his witnesses on earth. And so he fell asleep, blessing his children with his last power of speech, and adoring God with the latest flickering of earthly life which <<163>> had been assigned to him, an end fitting for the righteous, and of which all may say, “May mine be like his.”
On Sunday morning his remains were carried to their resting-place in the Cemetery of the Portuguese congregation, on Long Island, in full view of the Atlantic Ocean. Before the mournful procession quitted the house, the Rev. Mr. Isaacs made some feeling remarks to the persons assembled round the bier; but though we were in attendance, we did not hear him, as not knowing of his intention to speak, we did not enter the house, awaiting, with many others, the starting of the funeral in the street. On. the ground, where we found another melancholy procession of a child that had been suddenly killed on the day of Mr. K.’s decease, the Rev. Mr. Lyons took charge of the ceremonies, which were performed according to the usual form of the Portuguese ritual, and but for fear of obtruding on a solemn occasion like that, we would have offered to say a few parting words before the coffin was lowered into its narrow dwelling; but, as it was, we forbore, although we felt that it was due to the deceased from the living, and to call the attention of those to the reflection that the end of life is death, and that this is the entrance to a brighter existence. But what was impossible for us to do was happily accomplished by Dr. Raphall, on Thursday afternoon, at the house of mourning at the conclusion of the afternoon and evening service, which we were privileged to read, in the absence of the Hazan at the dwelling of the other mourners. Dr. R. truly said that we should visit the mourners, not merely to see them, but to afford them consolation; and then he adverted to the highest consoling thought which the grieved ones can feel, that he who has departed is only gone before to the mansion of the Father, where all who are left must sooner or later join him.
The Doctor dwelt on the learning and good deeds of the departed, and said that he had discharged his duties as a man and Israelite, and argued hence, that of him we may apply the words of Solomon, “Better is the day of death than that of birth,” for the first is the crown of our existence, whilst the last opens to us a career where our spiritual happiness may be shipwrecked through our abandoning ourselves to sin and transgression. These ideas were fully illustrated in the address of the eloquent Divine, which failed not to leave a due impression on the numerous hearers who were assembled to listen to the expected panegyric of a departed friend.
Mr. Kursheedt was one of the oldest acquaintances we had in America, as we met him on the first day of our arrival at Richmond, the 5th of May, ‘24, and we reached New York the afternoon of his decease, and <<164>> only the report, which was current, that he was no worse than usual, prevented us from joining the family at the moment of his death. We always regarded him in the light of a religious teacher, and in former years, when any grave question of controversy occurred, we used to consult him, and adopted his decisions as “the word of judgment” for our guidance, as he had been a scholar in the Yeshibah of the celebrated Rabbi Nathan Adler, of Frankford on Main, and a fellow-student of the late Abraham Bing, Rabbi of Würzburg (one of the most erudite Talmudists of the present century, who, in his turn, has sent forth many able scholars), and the great Rabbi Wolf Heidenheim, so famous for having been the editor, translator, and printer of the very best editions of the German Prayer Books, the Pentateuch, and Psalms, and the author of several commentaries and other works, leaving an honourable and enduring name among Israel. We remember hearing Mr. K. relate that Mr. Heidenheim was not as distinguished for acumen in casuistic studies as several others, especially Mr. Bing; but that he showed early a fondness for research in ancient MSS. and critical and grammatical works, which he afterwards used to so great advantage in the cause of sacred literature, and thereby opened a field of easy cultivation scarcely less fruitful than that first developed by Mendelssohn and Wessely. As may be expected, the scholar and companion of such men, could not have been otherwise than well instructed in the religion of our fathers; and hence, Mr. Kursheedt was for many years, before the arrival of others bearing rabbinical diplomas, regarded by nearly all the Israelites of the country as reliable authority, although he never occupied any public functions, being for a great portion of the time since his arrival in Boston, in 1796, engaged in commercial pursuits. Notwithstanding this, Mr. K. was, we believe, the first in the country who delivered a course of religious lectures in the Elm Street Synagogue when it was first established, and whenever called upon he was ready to take his part in religious ceremonies and give decisions when required.
From a sketch in the Asmonean of May 7th, which we understood to have been furnished by Dr. Raphall, it appears that Mr. K. was born at Singhafen, on the Rhine, on the 4th day of Passover, 5526 (6th of April, 1766). He early lost his father, whereupon his mother removed to the village named Kursheidt, near Königswinter, from which circumstance, as was formerly often done by Germans who had no family name, he took, as a surname, the title of Kursheedt, in addition to that of Israel Bear, as he was originally called. His friends, discovering in him mental powers of no common order, sent him to the rabbinical <<165>> college mentioned above, and he was, perhaps, the last survivor of that glorious band who enjoyed the instruction of the truly wise and pious Nathan Adler. He remained at Frankfort till the breaking out of the French war, when the city’s being occupied by General Custine put a period to his studies, whereupon he turned his attention to commerce, and became a contractor to supply the Prussian army with provisions; but the peace of Basle having caused the Prussian army, on the Rhine, to be disbanded, his employment in this line ceased, and he resolved to repair to England.
But at Hamburg, whither he had gone with that intention, he heard of an American sloop, of from 70 to 80 tons burthen, waiting for a return cargo to Boston. Having heard that a congregation existed in that city, he decided on visiting America. He procured letters of introduction to Mr. Hays, of Boston, and Mr. Isaac Moses, of New York, and embarked in that frail vessel, and was 70 days on the passage. Still, though he was so long at sea, he met with kindness on the part of the commander, who afforded him every facility in his power to observe his religious duties. On his arrival at Boston, he was disappointed in not finding any congregation, Mr. Hays being the only Israelite resident there; whereupon, he soon left for New York, where he became acquainted with the late Rev. Gershom Mendes Seixas, who was for fifty years and more the minister of the Philadelphia and New York congregations, and who speedily learned to appreciate the knowledge and talents of the newcomer, who became, in 1804, his son-in-law, by espousing the eldest daughter of Mr. S., who still survives her husband, and we hope will be spared many years to her numerous children and grandchildren.
Mr. K. embarked in business in New York, and met, as usual with merchants, with many vicissitudes in his long and active career. In 1812 he removed to Richmond, Virginia, taking his family by land, and sending his effects, including his valuable Hebrew library, by sea. The vessel in which these were embarked, was captured by a British cruiser and carried to Bermuda; but, after a time, his Hebrew prayer books, a part of his library, and Masonic insignia, were returned to him, but he could never learn whether he owed this kindness to a Jewish or Gentile Mason. During his sojourn in Richmond, he took an active part in congregational affairs, and was, with others, instrumental in erecting the Synagogue in which the old congregation still worship.
In 1824 he returned to New York, and finding that a great change and increase of Israelites, through immigration, had taken place during an absence of twelve years, he united in a movement to obtain the use <<166>> of the only Synagogue then existing there, for an earlier service than was customary among the regular attendants. This proposal was rejected. Efforts were then made to establish a new congregation, at first with the Porguguese Minhag, the same as the first had; but it was soon changed into the Polish form, and the society yet exists under the name of Bnai Jeshurum, from which has since sprung the Shaaray Tefillah Synagogue. Mr. K. took an active part in this movement, though his family always continued with the ancient Synagogue, and we think that he was always a member of it also.
About the year 1834, Mr. K., aided by others, established the Hebrath Terumath Hakkodesh, or society for the relief of the poor of Palestine, and he continued to feel a deep solicitude for the success of this useful charity till his last moments.
In 1840, when the dreadful persecution at Damascus took place, Mr. Kursheedt presided at the public meeting held in New York, to express sympathy with our suffering brothers. This movement was seconded in Philadelphia, and perhaps elsewhere in this country; and then was beautifully proved, that Israelites feel for each other, if even oceans separate and continents intervene between them.
This, we believe, was the last time that Mr. K. appeared active before the public. Advancing age admonished him to enjoy the tranquility of his house; though he always took a deep interest in all that concerns Judaism. He often, when we met him, expressed his regret at the inroads unauthorized reforms were making in our ranks, and liberal as he was, and mild and even in temper, he expressed his indignation at the proceedings of some of our modern chiefs, in terms not to be misunderstood.
It was, perhaps, owing to his retiring disposition, as much as to the small number for a long time able to appreciate his learning, that Mr. K. did not occupy a larger space in the estimation of the American Israelites; but, no doubt, had he been educated early in the general sciences, which in his youth were little esteemed among the Jews, we should have had from his pen many contributions to our literature. As it is, his influence was confined to a narrower circle; but it struck deep root there, and his children have not been idle spectators in the affairs of our people, and we find them contributing their share towards the public good, both in New York and New Orleans; and we trust that they will redouble their efforts to honour the memory of their father, and prove that the lessons they have received will fructify yet farther in the minds of others.
We have as yet been able to procure but few details of Mr. K.’s life, <<167>> except the meagre details above, partly received from himself and partly from the contribution of Dr. Raphall; but we shall esteem it a favour if his relatives would supply us hereafter with any circumstances which they may call to mind.
Though so strictly educated, and under such influences Mr. Kursheedt’s piety had no tinge of bigotry; we often thought him too indulgent, and not energetic enough in denouncing the wrong. Yet his example has worked effectually on his own household, where he has left the strong impressions of his own convictions. In prosperity he was not elated, and forgot not his Maker when wealth poured in upon him and he was successful in all he undertook; nor was he, on the other hand, depressed in adversity; and a change of circumstances which would have rendered common men melancholy and fretful, only sobered his spirit and made him more thoughtful and dependant on God’s mercy; and though, since perfection belongs not to man, he may occasionally have erred in not pursuing the proper course, we may freely conclude this brief, imperfect sketch of departed worth with “the memory of the righteous will be blessed:” and well would it be for us, if we had many among us who would walk as humbly with God, with as great a knowledge of His ways, as the late Israel B. Kursheedt, on whom be peace.
We insert the subjoined proceedings of the German Congregation of New Orleans, which have been sent to us for publication :
“Synagogue Chambers, Hebrew Congregation Shanarai Chassed, “NEW ORLEANS, May 10th, 1852.
“At a meeting of the above congregation, held on the 9th inst., the following resolutions were unanimously adopted, and ordered to be spread on the minutes:
“Whereas, This congregation have learned with deep regret of the demise of the venerable I. B. Kursheedt, of the city of New York; and, whereas, in the death of so good and pious a man,—one so talented in our faith, one so highly appreciated for his many virtues, deeds, and the founder of the leading Jewish Institutions of New York, the Israelites of America have lost an ornament and a true friend :
“Be it resolved, That the members of the Congregation Shanarai Chassed, of New Orleans, assembled, hereby tender to the afflicted relatives of the deceased their sincere sorrow and condolence on the occasion of their sad deprivation.
“Be it further resolved, That a copy of the above resolutions be transmitted to the relatives of the deceased, and further resolved, that the same be published in the Asmonean and Occident.
“A true copy from the minutes:
“ISAAC HART, Sec’y.”
Israel Baer Kursheedt's Timeline
April 6, 1766
December 18, 1805
New York, New York, United States
April 29, 1807
November 18, 1808
New York, NY, USA
June 7, 1811
New York, NY, USA
June 3, 1814
Richmond, VA, USA
March 29, 1819