The Zionist thinker and Hebrew-language essayist Asher Ginsberg (better known by his pen-name, Ahad Ha’am) once said that “more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” If we were to paraphrase this proposition and substitute the synagogue for the Sabbath, its veracity seems highly doubtful, at least in the American experience. In most periods of the history of the Jews in the United States, fewer than half of American Jews have been members of synagogues, and surely not all of those who had memberships have participated in the religious, educational, cultural, and social activities of the institution, even after making a financial contribution.

Yet, we can say with some confidence of the American synagogue, after thinking about its history over more than three centuries, that it has been the most significant Jewish institution in the life of Jews. And, although it has offered to both young and old learning experiences in classrooms, from the early years of religious school and Hebrew school through confirmation and then in the form of adult education, and though it has provided a wide variety of ancillary activities in the form of sisterhood, brotherhood, youth fellowship, social action projects, and much more, nothing has been as central to the purpose of the synagogue as the sanctuary. Here, rabbis, cantors, choirs, and talented laypeople have used printed words (liturgies and Scripture) of all kinds, together with the spoken word (sermons, lectures, discussions) to make Judaism (call it spirituality, if you will) a part of the life of countless Jews. There is no reason to think that this will not continue, in old and new ways that blend centuries of Judaism with the American experience.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 206-207.

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