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Solomon Schechter (Hebrew: שניאור זלמן שכטר; December 7, 1847 – November, 19 1915) was a Moldavian-born Romanian rabbi, academic scholar, and educator, most famous for his roles as founder and President of the United Synagogue of America, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and architect of the American Conservative Jewish movement.
Born in Focşani, Moldavia (now Romania) to a Jewish Romanian family adhering to the Chabad Hasidic branch, he attended yeshivas in Eastern Europe. Schechter received his early education from his father who was a shochet ("ritual slaughterer"). Reportedly, he learned to read Hebrew by age three, and by five mastered Chumash. He went to a yeshiva in Piatra Neamţ at age ten and at age thirteen studied with one of the major Talmudic scholars, Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson of Lemberg. In his twenties he went to the Rabbinical College in Vienna, where he studied under the more modern Talmudic scholar Meir Friedmann, before in 1879 moving on to undertake further studies at the Berlin Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums and at the University of Berlin. Three years later he was invited to the UK, to be tutor of rabbinics under Claude Montefiore in London.
In 1890, after the death of Solomon Marcus Schiller-Szinessy, he was appointed to the faculty at Cambridge University, serving as a lecturer in Talmudics and reader in Rabbinics. To this day, the students of the Cambridge University Jewish Society hold an annual Solomon Schechter Memorial Lecture.
His greatest academic fame came from his excavation in 1896 of the papers of the Cairo Geniza, an extraordinary collection of over 100,000 pages of rare Hebrew religious manuscripts and medieval Jewish texts that were preserved at an Egyptian synagogue. The find revolutionized the study of Medieval Judaism. Jacob Saphir was the first Jewish researcher to recognize the significance of the Cairo Geniza, as well as the first to publicize the existence of the Midrash ha-Gadol, both later studied with great panache by Schechter.
Schechter was alerted to the existence of the Geniza's papers in May 1896 by two Scottish sisters, Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson, who showed him some leaves from the Geniza that contained the Hebrew text of Sirach, which had for centuries only been known in Greek and Latin translation. Letters, written at Schechter's prompting, by Agnes Smith to The Athenaeum and The Academy quickly revealed the existence of another nine leaves of the same manuscript in the possession of Archibald Sayce at Oxford University. Schechter quickly found support for another expedition to the Cairo Geniza, and arrived there in December 1896 with an introduction from the Chief Rabbi, Hermann Adler, to the Chief Rabbi of Cairo, Aaron Raphael Ben Shim'on. He carefully selected for the Cambridge University Library a trove three times the size of any other collection: this is now part of the Taylor-Schechter Collection. The find was instrumental in Schechter resolving a dispute with David Margoliouth as to the likely Hebrew language origins of Sirach.
Charles Taylor took a great interest in Solomon Schechter's work in Cairo, and the genizah fragments presented to the University of Cambridge are known as the Taylor-Schechter Collection. He was joint editor with Schechter of The Wisdom of Ben Sira, 1899. He published separately Cairo Genizah Palimpsests, 1900.
In 1902, traditional Jews reacting against the progress of the American Reform Judaism movement, which was trying to establish an authoritative "synod" of American rabbis, recruited Schechter to become President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA).
Schechter served as the second President of the JTSA, from 1902 to 1915, during which time he founded the United Synagogue of America, later renamed as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Schechter emphasized the centrality of Jewish law (Halakha) in Jewish life in a speech in his inaugural address as President of the JTSA in 1902:
Schechter, on the other hand, believed in what he termed Catholic Israel. The basic idea being that Jewish law, Halacha, is formed and evolves based on the behavior of the people. This concept of modifying the law based on national consensus is an untraditional viewpoint.
Schechter's name is synonymous with the findings of the Cairo Geniza. He placed the JTSA on an institutional footing strong enough to endure for over a century. He became identified as the foremost personality of Conservative Judaism and is regarded as its founder. A network of Conservative Jewish day schools is named in his honor, as well as a summer camp in Olympia, Washington. There are several dozen Solomon Schechter Day Schools across the United States and Canada.