The Syn­a­gogue in Amer­i­ca: A Short History

Marc Lee Raphael
  • Review
By – October 31, 2011

In his book, The Syn­a­gogue in Amer­i­ca: A Short His­to­ry, Mark Lee Raphael has accom­plished what seems like an impos­si­ble task, cre­at­ing a short and com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry of syn­a­gogues in Amer­i­ca. Raphael draws on his exhaus­tive study of the archival records of approx­i­mate­ly one hun­dred and twen­ty-five Jew­ish con­gre­ga­tions, along with sur­veys, inter­views, and oth­er pri­ma­ry sources. It is a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry of Jews in Amer­i­ca told through the words of con­gre­gants, rab­bis, can­tors, and accounts of the period. 

Shearith Israel, which appeared on a New York map in 1695, was the first doc­u­ment­ed syn­a­gogue build­ing in colo­nial Amer­i­ca. Dis­crep­an­cies about date of ori­gin of syn­a­gogues abound in syn­a­gogue archives. Raphael is a mas­ter­ful researcher and ably sifts through con­flict­ing reports to iden­ti­fy what appears to be the most accu­rate por­trait of the peri­od. New­port, Rhode Island’s Jeshu­at Israel dates its begin­ning as 1658 and is thought to be the first con­gre­ga­tion” in colo­nial Amer­i­ca. The syn­a­gogue lat­er became known as Touro,” the name of its first spir­i­tu­al leader, Can­tor Isaac Touro, a native of Hol­land, who was appoint­ed in 1758

Oth­er colo­nial con­gre­ga­tions in North Amer­i­ca were Philadelphia’s Mikve Israel (1781), Con­gre­ga­tion Mickve Israel of Savan­nah (1733), Beth Elo­him of Charleston (1749), and Beth Shalome in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia (1789). All six of these syn­a­gogues were Sephardic (Span­ish-Por­tuguese) in their rit­u­als and orga­ni­za­tion. Many of the con­gre­ga­tions got mon­ey, mem­bers, and reli­gious items from estab­lished Sephardic com­mu­ni­ties in Eng­land and Hol­land. Only the Touro Syn­a­gogue build­ing still stands today. 

The first half of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry brought dra­mat­ic changes to syn­a­gogue life with the arrival of over 30,000 Cen­tral Euro­pean Ashke­nazi Jews. Cus­toms changed and con­gre­ga­tion­al antag­o­nisms grew. Dif­fer­ences in min­hag (rit­u­al), such as those between Pol­ish and Ger­man con­gre­gants, split con­gre­ga­tions. For the first time in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, there was more than one syn­a­gogue in a town. This pat­tern of the repeat­ed split­ting of con­gre­ga­tions has con­tin­ued in all branch­es into the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. This also led to an increas­ing need for funds to cre­ate new syn­a­gogue build­ings and to buy land for a ceme­tery. Sanc­tu­ary seats were sold, as were rit­u­al hon­ors, and appeals for dona­tions became main­stays of synagogues. 

Raphael iden­ti­fied still oth­er dra­mat­ic changes in nine­teenth cen­tu­ry syn­a­gogue life. Syn­a­gogues start­ed to reform” them­selves. The reform” process did not mean they nec­es­sar­i­ly became part of the Reform” denom­i­na­tion. More often it was a response to the new immi­grants’ desires to become Amer­i­can and accept­ed by the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty. Raphael sug­gests that this new empha­sis may also have been a response to the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry empha­sis on beau­ty, dig­ni­ty and order” lead­ing to almost a Protes­tanti­za­tion” of Judaism. Syn­a­gogues devel­oped con­sti­tu­tions which had bylaws man­dat­ing trustees to be com­mit­ted to pro­mot­ing “ order and deco­rum dur­ing divine ser­vices.” Wor­shipers were fined for leav­ing their seats or talk­ing dur­ing wor­ship and the ser­mon; some even pro­hib­it­ed chil­dren under six in the sanc­tu­ary dur­ing the prayer ser­vice. In all con­gre­ga­tions women lacked any con­gre­ga­tion­al vot­ing rights and were only rec­og­nized as mem­bers of the ladies aux­il­iary, a fundrais­ing group. 

The sec­ond half of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry also brought more rad­i­cal changes. Reform Judaism was begin­ning in Ger­many and immi­grants brought these beliefs with them to Amer­i­ca. Accord­ing to Raphael, clas­si­cal Reform Judaism reject­ed tra­di­tion­al Juda­ic belief in Divine rev­e­la­tion — that God revealed the Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai” and reject­ed the author­i­ty of Scrip­ture, the com­mand­ments of the Torah, and even the cer­e­monies, cus­toms, obser­vances and rit­u­als of the tra­di­tion.” Rab­bi Isaac May­er Wise, an activist Reform rab­bi, arrived from Bohemia in 1848 and imme­di­ate­ly began to insti­tute Reform changes first in his con­gre­ga­tion in Albany, New York and then his pul­pit in Cincin­nati. He trav­eled all over the coun­try encour­ag­ing syn­a­gogues to adopt what he called Amer­i­can Judaism.” He called a con­fer­ence in Cleve­land in 1873 out of which grew the Union of Amer­i­can {Reform­ing} Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tions. By 1879 it had one hun­dred and five syn­a­gogues as members. 

Changes in syn­a­gogues var­ied but the adop­tion of the Union Prayer Book, which severe­ly trun­cat­ed the litur­gy in ser­vices, became the mark of a full-fledged Reform con­gre­ga­tion.” Some insti­tut­ed far more rad­i­cal mea­sures, for exam­ple, adding instru­men­tal music and a mixed choir to the prayer ser­vice, no longer call­ing men to the Torah, elim­i­nat­ing the women’s gallery, for­bid­ding men to wear a prayer shawl, and drop­ping the mourner’s prayer (kad­dish) dur­ing Sab­bath ser­vices. Some con­gre­gants became con­cerned about the nature of the reforms tak­ing place in their syn­a­gogues and split off to form more tra­di­tion­al syn­a­gogues which sought to con­serve” more of the tra­di­tion­al rit­u­al. This was the begin­ning of the devel­op­ment of the Con­ser­v­a­tive” stream of Judaism. 

Still oth­er great changes in syn­a­gogue life were in the off­ing in the 1880s. Great waves (over two mil­lion) of East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish immi­grants began to set­tle in Amer­i­ca and they brought with them a com­mit­ment to tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish Ashke­nazi syn­a­gogue prac­tice. There was an explo­sion” of tra­di­tion­al syn­a­gogues as they sought to estab­lish hous­es of wor­ship that matched their reli­gious prac­tices. Ortho­dox” immi­grant syn­a­gogues appeared all over the nation wher­ev­er Jew­ish immi­grants set­tled, includ­ing Atlanta, Min­neapo­lis, and St. Louis. Some of their chil­dren brought still more changes as they split off from their par­ents’ immi­grant Ortho­dox” syn­a­gogues to form Con­ser­v­a­tive” con­gre­ga­tions that were more open to mod­er­at­ing tra­di­tion­al cus­toms, cer­e­monies, and obser­vances. Lat­er gen­er­a­tions would bring still oth­er syn­a­gogue changes, includ­ing Recon­struc­tion­ism and the devel­op­ment of dif­fer­ent streams in the world of Ortho­dox Judaism. 

Raphael has a storyteller’s tal­ent and a scholar’s mas­tery of the sub­ject. His vivid por­traits of syn­a­gogue life and its many per­mu­ta­tions and his respect for all aspects of Jew­ish con­gre­ga­tion­al life make this book appeal­ing to all read­ers who rel­ish read­ing Jew­ish and Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, end­notes, index, photos. 

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions