Pen­nies for Heav­en: The His­to­ry of Amer­i­can Syn­a­gogues and Money

Daniel Jud­son

By – May 28, 2018

It is an oft-quot­ed adage in syn­a­gogue cir­cles that a bud­get is an eth­i­cal doc­u­ment; it lays out the val­ues of an insti­tu­tion in a more detailed and hon­est way than any mis­sion state­ment could. In read­ing Daniel Judson’s remark­ably well researched and enter­tain­ing Pen­nies for Heav­en, one under­stands just how deeply our finances mir­ror our beliefs.

Jud­son com­mences his study of Amer­i­can syn­a­gogue finances at the very begin­ning of Amer­i­can Jew­ry, exam­in­ing how the first com­mu­ni­ties to set­tle in the New World dealt with fund­ing their build­ings, allo­cat­ing char­i­ty, and pay­ing their staff. For the rest of the book, Jud­son explores how many of these ear­ly fis­cal choic­es were ques­tioned and mod­i­fied by lat­er generations.

Though Jud­son is a mas­ter­ful sto­ry­teller who can make long-ago syn­a­gogue pres­i­dents come alive, he is per­haps most impres­sive when show­ing how syn­a­gogue finances par­al­lel trends and move­ments in the Amer­i­can Jew­ish sto­ry. For exam­ple, he demon­strates how the move away from rais­ing mon­ey through sell­ing seats toward a mod­el of open seat­ing was as much a reflec­tion of the demo­c­ra­t­ic and equal­iz­ing spir­it of post – World War II Amer­i­ca as it was a prod­uct of finan­cial neces­si­ty. Like­wise, he explains that the phe­nom­e­non of pop-up, for-prof­it mush­room syn­a­gogues” — which were vehe­ment­ly opposed by the Jew­ish estab­lish­ment — was a direct result of the entre­pre­neur­ial spir­it of the first part of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. It was also an out­growth of the ten­sion, com­mon­ly felt at the time, between one’s fideli­ty to insti­tu­tions and one’s ded­i­ca­tion to the self.

Since mon­ey is involved in near­ly every deci­sion of a reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty, Pen­nies for Heav­en reads much like a broad­er his­to­ry of the Amer­i­can syn­a­gogue. In it, we learn about the rise of the pro­fes­sion­al rab­binate, lib­er­al Judaism’s turn toward social jus­tice dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, and the birth of sub­ur­ban Jew­ry. The book also explores many of the most press­ing ques­tions in syn­a­gogue life today: How can a com­mu­ni­ty be both open to all and still well fund­ed? How can a com­mu­ni­ty preach lib­er­al val­ues and not alien­ate its wealthy, more con­ser­v­a­tive donor base? How much should neigh­bor­ing syn­a­gogues com­pete with one anoth­er for resources? Though all of these ques­tions are couched in a wider dis­cus­sion of a his­tor­i­cal phe­nom­e­non, each exam­ple feels press­ing and rel­e­vant — even if it hap­pened two hun­dred years ago.

Judson’s analy­sis cul­mi­nates in the final chap­ter, which address­es the unique trends in syn­a­gogue fund­ing today. As the author explains, the suc­cess­es of Chabad, the rise of the inde­pen­dent minyan­im, and the break­down of denom­i­na­tion­al affil­i­a­tions have thrown into ques­tion the ways that syn­a­gogues approach finances. How­ev­er, rather than regard­ing these changes with fear, Jud­son gives us the tools to greet them with opti­mism. His pages are filled with sto­ries of com­mu­ni­ties who faced major chal­lenges because of trans­for­ma­tions hap­pen­ing with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and Amer­i­can soci­ety at large — and who nev­er­the­less per­se­vered. Pen­nies for Heav­en thought­ful­ly reas­sures the read­er that when syn­a­gogues face finan­cial pres­sures, they stand on the shoul­ders of gen­er­a­tions who came before them. If our Amer­i­can fore­bear­ers could reimag­ine a renewed and sus­tain­able Judaism, then so might we.

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

Discussion Questions

Pen­nies for Heav­en pro­vides the first full-scale account of Amer­i­can syn­a­gogue financ­ing from the colo­nial era to the present. Based on a wealth of doc­u­men­ta­tion, the vol­ume explains how syn­a­gogues raised mon­ey and spent mon­ey. It shows how the absence of gov­ern­ment fund­ing cre­at­ed a wide range of fundrais­ing tech­niques, includ­ing free-will offer­ings,” the sale of seats, dues plans, bin­go, and vol­un­tary com­mit­ments (but not, as in church­es, pass­ing the plate”). It also exam­ines long-neglect­ed account books to show how syn­a­gogues expend­ed funds on build­ings, salaries, upkeep, and more. It even looks at so-called mush­room syn­a­gogues,” cre­at­ed just for the high hol­i­days, which threat­ened year-round syn­a­gogues and, for a time, fell under a gov­ern­ment ban. Well-writ­ten and replete with mem­o­rable anec­dotes, this book makes a major con­tri­bu­tion to Jew­ish eco­nom­ic his­to­ry and will help rab­bis, syn­a­gogue offi­cers, and gen­er­al read­ers place the eco­nom­ics of today’s Amer­i­can syn­a­gogues into his­tor­i­cal perspective.