Rabbi Dr. Jacob Sonderling

(tenure, 1921-1923)

Note: We are indebted to the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives for providing us with the following information regarding Dr. Sonderling.

Jacob Sonderling was born in Germany. His parents were both born in Hungary. He recounts in his autobiography that his great-grandmother was the sister of the famed Yismach Moshe and that his father was a Chassid and received Ordination from the Sanzer Rebbe. Dr. Sonderling attended a prepatory school in Moravia, where he recounts the Chief Rabbi was Rabbi Placzek, the uncle of Dr. Leo Beeck. At the age of fifteen he was sent to Gymnasium in Nikolsburg. He attended the Seminary in Breslau and later the Hochschule in Berlin.

After his education, he returned to Germany and became Rabbi in Goettingen and, in 1907, he received the “call” to the pulpit of Solomon Temple in Hamburg, as he states “the cradle of the reform movement the world over.” An avid Zionist, Herzel dubbed him his “fighting Rabbi.” The question of whether we are a People or a religion was terribly troublesome to him. He writes,

It happened in 1909 when the Zionist Congress was held in Hamburg and Max Nordau said publicly, criticizing the Reform movement, “What have they done, the reformers? They made Temples out of Synagogues – churches without a cross.” The following Saturday, I took the bull by the horns and said in my sermon, “I differ with all my colleagues in the Reich. Of course we are a People.” The trustees present almost fainted and, after services, I approached my colleague, thirty years my senior, “Are you under the same opinion?” He said, “We are not a People. We are German citizens of Jewish persuasion.”

In 1914 he met Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch of Chicago in Switzerland who told him, “One day you are going to come to America.” Rabbi Hirsch’s words were prophetic as Dr. Sonderling arrived in America in 1921 lecturing for the Zionist cause. He continues,

One of the first communities I visited was Chicago. Everything was new to me. I was what you call a “greenhorn.” Reporters came – I had never met one before, and I took their questions seriously. One of them asked me: “What do you think about American culture?” In all innocence I said, “America is a young country, and culture doesn’t travel by express.” The papers carried a story about it. So I became nervous. Two days later, five men came to see me. “I don’t want to see reporters.” “We are not reporters,” they answered. “We are officers of a Congregation and, listening to you last night, we decided you have to become our Rabbi.” “But I cannot speak English.” “You will learn.” “What kind of a Congregation are you?” “We are Orthodox.” “I’m not Orthodox.” “We are semi-Orthodox.” I didn’t know what it meant. They didn’t argue – just took out a contract and asked me to sign it. With the help of a dictionary, I found out that they offered me a decent salary and obligated themselves to bring my family over from Europe and to furnish me with an apartment. I signed. They left, and here I was sitting in my hotel room, believing I had dreamed it. So, four weeks after my arrival in a new continent, I had a Congregation. Another four weeks passed by, and they asked me whether I would agree that they amalgamate with another Congregation. That was new to me. “How do you do that?” “Oh, we sell our Synagogue. “Whom do you sell it to?” “In our neighborhood is a Negro Congregation – they want to buy the building.” I was bedeviled and bewildered. The next Saturday I went to my pulpit and said: “I found a new interpretation for a Bible text: First came the Irish, who built the Church; they left and sold the Sanctuary to Italians; then came the Jews and now the Jews sold it to the Negroes – now I understand what the Bible says ‘My House shall be a House of Prayer for all People.’”
So the two Congregations merged – mine was Hungarian (Agudas Achim), the other Lithuanian (North Shore Congregation). The honeymoon lasted four weeks – the fifth week started and there was trouble. On the one side the Hungarians on the other side the Litwaks. Finally I suggested: “Gentlemen, goulash, herring and sour kraut don’t mix.” I learned a great deal in those two years in Chicago.
It was the first Succoth night – a packed Synagogoue at the evening service. The Sexton asked me: “Where do we make Kiddush?” “In the Succah.” In a few minutes, he brought the goblet to the Cantor. I said to him: I told you in the Succah.” A few men in the first row put their heads together. I said quietly, “Who is the Rabbi here anyway?”

The Rabbi had made the wrong decision... Rabbi Sonderling explained his position in a speech on Simchat Torah. He continues,

Leaving the Synagogue, an old man said to me “Rabbi, you certainly spoke golden words, but next year let us make Kiddush in the Synagogue.” The truth dawned on me – minhag mvatel hadin (custom nullifies the law).

Rabbi Sonderling served Agudas Achim for two years. He finally made his home in California and, until his death in 1964, served as Rabbi of Fairfax Temple (Reform) in Los Angeles.

An interesting insight: As late as the early twentieth century, the Hamburg temple, the cradle of German Reform, refused a donation of one million marks from the American banker Henry Budge, who had returned to settle in Hamburg following his father’s death, because the sum was conditional on “men and women sitting together” in the new edifice. To Dr. Jacob Sonderling, then rabbi of the temple, that idea was shocking. “In the Hamburg Temple,” he reports, “men and women remained separated up to the last moment.”