Category: Synagogues


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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To a great extent, not much changed from earlier decades in the Reform synagogue during the 1950s and well into the 1960s, though, by the late 1960s, as we will see, the synagogue had become a very different place from what it was in the 1940s and 1950s. Rabbi Joseph Narot came to Miami’s Temple Israel in 1950, eliminated head covering and prayer shawls, and frowned upon the bar mitzvah ceremony. At Pittsburgh’s Rodef Shalom, Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof put the normative position of the early postwar period well: “We believe that the essential of the worship of God is the ethical mandate and that the ceremonial is incidental, if anything. That is our principle…. We shall never make a religion for us out of all these observances. . . . No rabbi will ever try to persuade you that God commanded you to light lights on Friday night.” The Sabbath-morning service at Temple Beth-El in Providence began at 11 A.M., ended at noon, and included a bar mitzvah! While not every Reform synagogue, by any means, fit the description of “classical” Reform—there are examples of retrieval of tradition and of restoring customs and observances absent from Reform services for decades (e.g., the sanctification of the wine, the wearing of the head covering and the prayer shawl, the use of a wedding canopy, and the construction of a sukkah)—the patterns of synagogue worship, religious school, adult education, youth groups, social activity, and social action had much in common around the country….

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 132-133.

…the content of American-educated Orthodox rabbis’ English-language sermons was dramatically different from that of the (mostly) Yiddish-language sermons of an earlier generation. This was particularly true between the World Wars in New York City, where Leo Jung on the West Side and Joseph Lookstein on the East Side—self-proclaimed ‘modern Orthodox” rabbis—drew upon the works of Carlyle, Dickens, Freud, Goethe, Ibsen, William James, Macaulay, Shaw, Tennyson, and Whitman, as well as on the vast body of rabbinic literature, to craft sermons much like those of American-born Reform and Conservative colleagues. Keeping in mind the warning of a contemporary Conservative rabbi, Israel Herbert Levinthal, that his printed sermons were often delivered ‘extemporaneously” and written “out a long time after their delivery,” the historian looks for typescript sermons or sermons reprinted in synagogue bulletins and the Jewish press immediately after delivery. They are abundant, and, by the 1930s, Orthodox rabbis in various places turned a Latin phrase, digested a German book on philosophy or literature, or followed the scientific arguments of the leading writers of their time as easily as they could quote from the Talmud.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 89-90.

The denominations, and the seminaries where they train their rabbis, will have to recognize this and take a more holistic view of their role in Jewish life. Rabbis need to see themselves as teaching Judaism, not as upholding the tenets of a particular movement. …
What’s more, the denominations, themselves, are no longer the most relevant force in shaping our synagogues. Instead of the large denominational divisions, imagine an entrepreneurial approach to synagogue life, one that encourages the growth of vibrant communities….

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 169.

Only with hindsight can we see that, by the 1960s, there were hints of the dramatic changes that were to take place in American Judaism in the following decades. For the most part, the immense transformation of Reform into a movement of considerable ritual and its effort to grapple with the presence of intermarried couples and nontraditional families was barely visible even by the middle of the 1960s. The demands of Conservative Jews for a strong statement of what the branch believes and for gender equality, both flashpoints of the 197os, were barely discussed in 1965. And, among the Orthodox, even in the 1960s, the rigorous observance that, beginning in the 1970s, would characterize so many children of the moderate Orthodox of the 1940s and 1950s was still under the surface. Right up to the Six-Day War of 1967 and even beyond, in some ways, little had changed from earlier decades. But momentous transformations were just around the corner.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 168.

The American synagogue, like so many other institutions, was dramatically affected by the economic downturn of 2008-2010. It had a deleterious impact on almost every area of synagogue life, as budgets were cut significantly all over the land. But rabbis, arguably felt the impact more than any other professional in the synagogue community, as congregations released, rather than renewed, assistant and associate rabbis, reduced full-time rabbis to part time, and canceled searches that were under way to provide assistants to senior rabbis.

Orthodox rabbis were less affected than rabbis of the other branches, as only a small number of those ordained had planned to enter the congregational rabbinate. But even Orthodox rabbis, especially those who wanted to make a career of teaching in Jewish schools, saw the opportunities shrinking and their career goals placed on hold. It is, however, in the other branches that the high unemployment took hold.

In the spring and summer of 2009, as Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform rabbis sought jobs, there were approximately three rabbis available for every opening. There were older rabbis whose congregations encouraged them to retire so that they could hire a young rabbi with a much smaller salary; there were assistant and associate rabbis whose positions disappeared when their contract expired as congregations sought to balance their budgets; and there were newly ordained and recently ordained rabbis who had not yet found jobs. When the dust settled, two out of every three non-Orthodox rabbis seeking a job in 2009 remained, at the end of the calendar year, unemployed, with little opportunity for meaningful or gainful work opportunities in the near future in their profession.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 205-206.

When Jews left communities such as Lawndale in Chicago or the near east side in Columbus, Ohio, and moved to suburbs either inside or outside the city, they usually abandoned their synagogues (just as white Christians abandoned their churches). Of course, there were exceptions. As the black population exploded in the Hyde Park-Kenwood area of Chicago in the 1940s and 19505, K.A.M. made a commitment to remain in the neighborhood and worked vigorously to create a fifty-fifty balance of whites and blacks. Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein could claim, at the end of the 1950s, that “this temple was the single most effective anchorage in holding the white people here.” This was no easy task, as he also noted in a Yom Kippur sermon, for the “movement to the suburbs is, in the framework of our social and economic mores, almost as natural and instinctive as the flight of the birds to Capistrano.” And, in postwar Philadelphia, rather than flee the city, Mikve Israel and Rodeph Shalom reinvented themselves and remained in the city center as their congregants (and other synagogues) left North Philadelphia for the northern Philadelphia suburbs and beyond the city limits. Such congregations, however, were the exception.

Most abandoned synagogues became black churches, and Jews, in their new communities, either built new buildings with the same synagogue name as the old or started over with new synagogues with new names.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 125.

While the status of women was quite similar from branch to branch, the salaries of rabbis were not. Generally, with very few exceptions, rabbis of Reform synagogues received salaries, paid monthly, which provided a reasonable standard of living for them and their families. In contrast, rabbis of Orthodox synagogues everywhere struggled to make ends meet. Many of these rabbis, in the 1890s and early 1900s, earned less than $1,000 a year in salary, and they were forced to sometimes collect the money themselves and to charge Jews for each rabbinical service. They frequently supplemented their small salary by overseeing kashruth (especially supervising animal slaughter); serving as an arbitrator in questions of Jewish law; performing marriages, divorces, and other life-cycle ceremonies; selling wine for ritual purposes (including later, during Prohibition, legally, because of provisions that allowed the sale of wine for religious use); and selling collections of their sermons. For example, Rabbi Gedaliah Silverstone, of Orthodox Tifereth Israel in Washington, D.C., claimed to have sold 4,000 copies total of three of his privately printed books. Rabbi Abraham Schapiro, of Portsmouth, Ohio’s Orthodox B’nai Abraham, was paid $600 annually in 1896 (he was offered $500 additional salary if he would close the bookshop he owned for supplemental income on Jewish holy days), while Rabbi Abraham S. Braude of Chicago, in 1916, received the same salary from his synagogue. Baltimore’s Chizuk Amuno hired Rabbi Henry W. Schneeberger in 1876 at $1,200 annually; when he sought a raise after nine years, his appeal was rejected (“no way of increasing revenue: he was told); after sixteen years of service, the trustees raised his salary to $1,600, but, when there were “not enough” funds, they reduced it to $1,500. In contrast, when Portland, Oregon’s Reform Beth Israel hired the newly minted rabbi Stephen S. Wise in 1899, they paid him $5,000 a year.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 54-55.

While the 1920s represented a decade of expansion for the Conservative movement, the Depression of the 1930s caused a shrinkage everywhere. The finance committee chairman at Cincinnati’s Adath Israel reported, at the end of 1930, that, “during the past year, owing to the general business depression, there was a decided loss in membership and a decrease in membership dues”; five years later, he reported that the “economic depression has lasted for over five years and hurt us in every way.” In the early years of the Depression, Temple Sinai in Los Angeles reduced dues from $5 to $3.50 a month, while, at the Brooklyn Jewish Center Hebrew school, tuition and single memberships were cut in half, gymnasium membership was made free, and the raffle for the 1933 Chevy had to be canceled. At Montclair, New Jersey’s Shomrei Emunah, the treasurer, as late as 1936, was trying to get congregants who had owed dues since 1930 to pay “back amounts.” Temple Beth Israel of Phoenix, Arizona—Conservative until it hired a Reform rabbi in 1933—noted as early as 1930 that “pledges and funds were inadequate to cover the necessary expenditures” and thus it was necessary to borrow from the “cemetery fund.” The following spring, leaders went house to house to beg members for funds “to tide the Congregation over until September 1st,” and, in 1932, the president declared that “we are a bankrupt institution and our temple building has been sold.” Not even brotherhood “stag [without wives] parties” (1933) could put the synagogue in the black. At the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in Manhattan, the board reported a $60,000 deficit in 1931 and noted that staff members were owed thousands of dollars in back wages. Rochester’s Beth El lacked sufficient funds in 1930 to pay the mortgage, after numerous congregants resigned because of “financial reverses.” Banks threatened to foreclose on Seattle’s Herzl Congregation in 1930 and again (on the renamed Herzl Conservative Congregation) in 1936. In Washington, D.C., at Adas Israel, the leaders reduced the salaries of synagogue employees by 10 percent in 1932-1933 and another 10 percent the following year, while relying more and more on borrowing. At the Brooklyn Jewish Center, in 1931, where the president noted the “depressing conditions now prevailing in business” and the “often threatened danger of having our doors closed for lack of financial support,” he announced free tuition for the religious school and said that new members could join and make no payments for one year; annual dues were cut in half the following year for families and by 25 percent for singles.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 81-82.

To draw people back into the synagogue, we…need to train rabbis in the art of running engaging services, certainly on the High Holy Days but also all year round. We responsibly fill our students with great Jewish texts and ideas, but we irresponsibly pay scant attention to teaching them how to use those texts and ideas to enliven services. We place great emphasis on the Saturday morning sermon, but ignore the rest of the service. Since people are looking for meaning, we need to unlock the liturgy for them. Therefore, instead of making the “senior sermon” the rite of passage for future rabbis, we should instead ask them to run a complete Shabbat morning service. They would pass only if the assembled participants found it intellectually engaging and spiritually uplifting.

Rabbi Judith Hauptman, “Growing The Conservative Movement”, The Jewish Week (18 October 2013), 27.