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The Synagogue in America

The Synagogue in America: A Short History

Marc Lee Raphael
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 259
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  • Book Info
    The Synagogue in America
    Book Description:

    In 1789, when George Washington was elected the first president of the United States, laymen from all six Jewish congregations in the new nation sent him congratulatory letters. He replied to all six. Thus, after more than a century of Jewish life in colonial America the small communities of Jews present at the birth of the nation proudly announced their religious institutions to the country and were recognized by its new leader. By this time, the synagogue had become the most significant institution of American Jewish life, a dominance that was not challenged until the twentieth century, when other institutions such as Jewish community centers or Jewish philanthropic organizations claimed to be the hearts of their Jewish communities. Concise yet comprehensive, The Synagogue in America is the first history of this all-important structure, illuminating its changing role within the American Jewish community over the course of three centuries. From Atlanta and Des Moines to Los Angeles and New Orleans, Marc Lee Raphael moves beyond the New York metropolitan area to examine Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstuctionist synagogue life everywhere. Using the records of approximately 125 Jewish congregations, he traces the emergence of the synagogue in the United States from its first instances in the colonial period, when each of the half dozen initial Jewish communities had just one synagogue each, to its proliferation as the nation and the American Jewish community grew and diversified. Encompassing architecture, forms of worship, rabbinic life, fundraising, creative liturgies, and feminism, The Synagogue in America is the go-to history for understanding the synagogue's significance in American Jewish life.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6930-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1 Building the Synagogue Community in Colonial America: The Earliest Years
    (pp. 1-14)

    FOLLOWING THE ELECTION of George Washington as president of the United States of America in 1789, laymen from all six Jewish congregations in the new nation sent him congratulatory letters. He replied to four of them—those in Charleston, New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond—with a single letter and to the Hebrew Congregation in Savannah and to the Newport congregation with individual greetings. Thus, after more than a century of Jewish life in colonial America, the 1,500 or so Jews present at the birth of the nation proudly announced their religious institutions to the country and were recognized by its...

  5. 2 Reforming Judaism Everywhere: Ushering in Change in the Nineteenth Century
    (pp. 15-43)

    IN THE 1790S, an increasing number of Dutch, German, Polish, and even French Jews became more outspoken about their lack of comfort with the Sephardic ritual at Mikve Israel of Philadelphia, and they began in 1795 to worship at the German Hebrew Society “according to the German and Dutch Rule”—that is, following Ashkenazic ritual customs. By 1801, the society had purchased land for a cemetery, and the following year it dedicated a “new German Shul,” Rodeph Shalom, with a constitution in Yiddish. It was the first Ashkenazic synagogue in the Western Hemisphere—notwithstanding a possible short-lived Ashkenazic group in...

  6. 3 An Explosion of Immigrant Synagogues: Jewish Mass Migration to America
    (pp. 44-65)

    MORE THAN TWO million Jews, most from eastern Europe, came to the United States between the early 1880s and the end of “open” immigration, in 1924. In every community where these Jews settled in the last decades of the nineteenth century, they established synagogues. Even the smallest of communities with Yiddish-speaking Jews had multiple Orthodox “synagogues,” usually very small. These were frequently just one or two rented rooms, and their sole function was prayer (and talking). There was no visible evidence from the outside that they were synagogues. In 1900, the small immigrant Jewish community of Des Moines had three...

  7. 4 Conservative and Orthodox Judaism Define Themselves: Between the Wars
    (pp. 66-119)

    THE MOST STRIKING fact about American synagogues between the World Wars, not only with hindsight but also evident at the time, is the confusion between Conservative and Orthodox, as these two branches of American Judaism sought to define themselves internally and in contrast to each other. By the subsequent period—the postwar America of the 1950s—this confusion was generally sorted out, but it took decades, and the result was never totally predictable. Who could have foreseen that three synagogues of Roxbury and Dorchester, Massachusetts, Adath Jeshurun, Beth El, and Beth Hamidrash Hagadol, described as “modern Orthodox” immediately after World...

  8. 5 Expanding Suburbs and Synagogues: The Post–World War II Years
    (pp. 120-168)

    ON NOVEMBER 13, 1946, in Culver City—an independently incorporated city on the western side of Los Angeles County and the home of MGM Studio as well as Hughes Aircraft—three families sat around discussing the need for a West Side Reform congregation in Los Angeles as Jewish servicemen returned home and, with other Jews, began to move to the West Side of Los Angeles in significant numbers. Discussions in early 1947 focused on the availability of low-interest mortgage loans for these Jewish veterans and the confidence these families, now forty to fifty in number, had in the expansion of...

  9. 6 Reinventing, Experimenting, and Ratcheting Up: Judaism after 1967
    (pp. 169-208)

    THE SIX-DAY WAR in Israel, in 1967, and the second half of the 1960s in America initiated a transformation in all of American Judaism that is still in the process of development more than forty years later. They not only caused synagogue Jews to retrieve, in different ways, aspects of “the tradition” but also led them to experiment with new and diverse ways of expressing their religiosity: meditation centers, spiritual retreats, communes, self-improvement seminars, support groups, yoga classes, est, Esalen, and cults. Focusing on what is sometimes called “spirituality”—open talk about the divine presence in people’s lives—Jews everywhere...

  10. Appendix: Counting Synagogues
    (pp. 209-210)
  11. Sources
    (pp. 211-226)
  12. Index
    (pp. 227-246)
  13. About the Author
    (pp. 247-247)