Tag Archive: 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.

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 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.

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.