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Schechter kin observe scholar’s yahrtzeit
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Schechter kin observe scholar’s yahrtzeit

At Cambridge seminar, local rabbi is reminded of ancestor’s impact

Solomon Schechter at his desk at Cambridge University studying ancient documents from the Cairo Geniza at Ben Ezra Synagogue.    
Solomon Schechter at his desk at Cambridge University studying ancient documents from the Cairo Geniza at Ben Ezra Synagogue.    

A century after the death of Solomon Schechter, the Judaics scholar who revitalized Conservative Judaism, his descendants paid homage to his memory at Cambridge University in England.

Among them was his great-grandson, Rabbi John Schechter of Congregation B’nai Israel in Basking Ridge, who earned his ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Solomon Schechter served as president from 1902 to 1915.

Along with his wife, Cantor Erica Lippitz of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, John Schechter attended the second of two conferences observing his forebear’s 100th yahrtzeit.

The day-long gathering in England, held Nov. 22 at the Divinity School at St. John’s College, featured presentations on Solomon Schechter’s impact on the study of Jewish antiquity and on contemporary scholarship and religious thought. Arriving in the United States in 1902, Schechter transformed JTS into a locus for Jewish scholarship and rabbinic training.

For John Schechter and Lippitz, the highlight of the visit was examining some of the 193,000 sacred and secular texts and documents that the elder Schechter shipped to Cambridge from among the 300,000 items he famously explored in 1896-97 after their discovery in the Cairo Geniza. 

“To hold the documents of the Geniza and to listen to the scholars explain how these parchment letters and manuscripts reveal our history delights me,” Schechter wrote in a Dec. 30 e-mail to NJ Jewish News. “I feel sentimentally connected to the way in which Schechter’s dedication and brilliance ultimately shaped the fortune of our family here and in Israel.” 

The trove of materials that Solomon Schechter found in Cairo spans some 1,000 years, from 870 to the 19th century. They were stored in the city’s Jewish section at the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which dates back to 882 CE.

A geniza is a synagogue storeroom for discarded sacred texts and documents no longer suitable for use. The Cairo Geniza contained both sacred and secular items — including Hebrew schoolbooks, letters, wedding contracts, and poems. Among the contents were the oldest Yiddish documents in the world and manuscripts written by Maimonides.

“The oldest prayer book in the world was stored there,” said Schechter, the first member of his family to become a rabbi since his great-grandfather. The Geniza was “one of the greatest Jewish treasures ever found.” 

Solomon Schechter learned of the Cairo site from two Scottish Presbyterian sisters who were scholars at Cambridge, Agnes Louis and Margaret Gibson. On a visit to Cairo in 1896 they bought an ancient document they could not identify, “so they asked Solomon Schechter to check it out,” said Lippitz. “Having a photographic memory for all kinds of Jewish texts, he recognized it as a page in Hebrew from the Book of Ben Sira, which had not been seen since the year 900. 

“Schechter knew what he was holding in his hand,” she said. 

After studying some of the material on site, the scholar received permission from local rabbis to pack fragments and manuscripts into barrels and ship them to Cambridge, where he was a teacher of talmudic studies.

“He very quickly realized that this was more than the work of a lifetime. In fact, scholars have not yet finished studying and analyzing the items 100 years later,” said Lippitz.

In November, his descendants were given special access to the treasured artifacts. 

The younger Schechter called them “Hebrew, Judaeo-Arabic, Aramaic, and Arabic puzzles, which are an unparalleled resource for the academic study of Judaism, Jewish history, and the wider economic and social history of the Mediterranean and Near East in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period. They shed light on the mundane as well as the religious and cultural activities of that world.” 

Both Schechter and Lippitz were struck by the diversity of the documents, which reflected a cosmopolitan tradition that was often in dialogue with other communities and religions.

“Literally seeing and reading the variety of interactions with Islamic and Christian thinkers that are reflected in the Geniza documents, I’m much surer of our ability, as a people, to thrive in the complicated world of today — just as our ancestors did across the Mediterranean region,” John Schechter wrote.

The Geniza material “also told us how Jews lived and how well we got along with other people of all different faiths at the time,” Lippitz said. “It told us how flexible Jewish law can be and about the variations in Jewish communities across the region and beyond. It told us how Jews communicated from Europe to the Middle East to Africa and how we remained in contact and influenced one another.” 

Among those who attended the conference in Cambridge was Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, a former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and David Starr, Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Associate Professor in Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis University. 

Last March, the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania also held a centenary symposium in honor of Solomon Schechter. 

Apart from the 193,000 manuscript fragments and other items housed at Cambridge, some 40,000 other pieces from the Cairo Geniza are at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. 

Documents from the JTS and Cambridge collections are available for viewing at genizah.org/TheCairo-Genizah.aspx.

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