The Columbia Judaica collection became truly significant through the generous donation of Temple Emanuel, the oldest Reform congregation in New York City. In 1862, Temple Emanuel purchased 2500 rare books and 45 manuscripts from a rare book dealer in Amsterdam, Fredrich Mueller. This collection was made up of the libraries of important scholars, including Rabbi Yaakov Emden of Altona (1698-1776), the famous Talmudist and Kabbalist, and Guiseppe Almanzi of Padua (1801 – 1860), a bibliophile and poet. The Almzanzi library included books from the library of Hayyim Joseph David Azulai (HIDA, 1724 - 1806), a rabbi and scholar who traveled the world collecting and researching Hebrew rare books and manuscripts. The Almanzi collection was used by the great scholar and bibliographer Morris Steinschneider and Leopold Zunz.
Temple Emanuel purchased this important collection and held it until 1892, when the Rabbi, Gustav Gottheil, convinced the temple board to donate the library to Columbia. According to temple and university documents, the gift was as a token of appreciation for the free tuition which Columbia had begun offering to a number of Jewish students from the newly established Jewish Theological Seminary. It is interesting to note Rabbi Gustav Gottheil’s son, Richard, was the Professor of Rabbinical Literature and the Semitic Languages at Columbia, a position endowed around the same time by Temple Emanuel.
Richard Gottheil bought many manuscripts for the university, and by the end of the 1890s, more than 200 Hebrew manuscripts were added to the original Temple Emanuel collection. In 1896, the New York Times described the Columbia Judaica collection as “the largest in the country.” In 1900, the famed Reform leader Stephen Wise, a Columbia alumnus, donated a collection of 600-700 printed volumes from the collection of his father, Aaron Wise, to the university. In 1906, Gottheil went to France, where he purchased dozens of manuscripts related to southern French Jewry, including 32 mahzorim and thousands of communal and private documents.
Professor Gottheil’s widow donated his personal library to Columbia in 1939 after his death. This consisted of 10,000 volumes, about one third of which were in Hebrew.