Professor Gross Recalls Historic Jewish Banquet That Launched Conservative Judaism Movement

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

J. (SAN FRANCISCO) -- Perhaps you’ve heard of the original Trefa Banquet (or treyf), an 1883 event at which the early American Reform movement made a bold, antagonistic statement by serving treyf dishes at a banquet to commemorate the ordination of the first class of American Reform rabbis. As the story is often told, a group of rabbis stormed out in protest and ran off to start the Conservative movement.

But, as Jewish Studies Professor Rachel Gross of San Francisco State University told the crowd Sunday night, that story is only kind of true.

“Our story starts on July 11, 1883, one of the most infamous days in American Jewish history,” Gross said, setting the scene.

“It was a hot and humid evening in Cincinnati. Two hundred and fifteen guests had assembled at the Highland House, a resort and restaurant, overlooking the Ohio River. They included a who’s-who list of the most elite Jewish leaders in the United States, as well as local non-Jewish civic leaders, Christian clergy and professors from the University of Cincinnati.”

Most of Gross’ material came from the research and work of Rabbi Lance J. Sussman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Following his lead, Gross argued that, to most of the guests, there was nothing remarkable about the food.

“Almost every violation of kashrut was in evidence — seafood, nonkosher meat, mixing milk and meat. This tells us, and we know from an enormous amount of other historical evidence — including cookbooks written and used by Jews — that it was normal for many American Jews in the 19th century not to keep kosher,” she said. “I do not think that this menu was intended to be provocative.”