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Notes from Limmud 2006

A Sanctuary Transformed: The Revitalisation of American Synagogues

Jack Wertheimer

Historical overview

In the Colonial period there were five cities with synagogues: Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah. These were marked by having modelled themselves after Bevis Marks in London. Like there, they could not rely on the previous props that had sustained synagogue life during mediaeval times, viz. external compulsion to be members. (The synagogue elders collected the taxes and handed them over to the external authorities.)

When the Jews arrived in England and the New World, they had to figure out a way of establishing a community in the absence of this compulsion. They established a monopolistic synagogue—everything was centralised under the aegis of the single synagogue. Most importantly, the synagogue owned the cemetery: if you want to be buried in this cemetery, you must have been a member in good standing of the synagogue beforehand, and if you did not pay your dues, your heirs would have to pay them in order for you to be buried in the cemetery. That was the compulsion they used instead. And they could get away with it because they monopolised all services: services, cemetery, distribution of צדקה (charity), the baking of matza, the slaughtering of kosher meat.

This does not exist today—though there is still an effort to maintain this monopoly in various Latin American countries, under the aegis of the Jewish community rather than the synagogue—because of competition. More Jews came, in the 1820s and 1830s; and often the old-timers could not stand them and broke off to form new synagogues of their own. The oldest synagogue in New York, the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue, for example, spawned three Ashkenazi synagogues as a result.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the cathedral synagogue emerged. These were built by upwardly-mobile German-speaking Jews from central Europe. The scope of these shuls was defined in far narrower terms—a place for worship services and education of children only.

In the late nineteenth century, a new synagogue came into existence: eastern European immigrants established landsmannschaft shuls—synagogues attached to mutual aid societies, established by people from the same place. They had various kind of funds, e.g. providing brides with dowries and the werewithal for a wedding. The form of davening was imported wholesale from the Old World. Only men attended—there was no space for the women—and the rabbis spoke in Yiddish, which turned the younger generation off.

In the early twentieth century one further model emerged, that of the synagogue centre—copied from contemporary churches. There were multiple synagogues, but they still tried to bring under their roof all aspects of Jewish life. The most famous proponent of this was Mordecai Kaplan, who taught his rabbinical students to establish centres to do four things: to serve as a בית תפילה [house of prayer]; as a בית מדרש [study centre] for Jews of all ages, including both adult education and arts and music programmes. Thirdly, to house recreational activities, e.g. Mah Jongg, swimming pools, gymnasium with basketball court. ("The shul with the school and the pool.") The synagogue was to be open as close as possible to twenty-four hours a day. Finally, to act as a centre for social welfare activities—philanthropic and volunteer activities.

The last of these functions fell away quite rapidly. These synagogues were new buildings, and they had a lot to maintain. In order to be able to afford that they needed a large membership base which was well-heeled; so they became the reserve of the upper middle class.

The critique that emerged from the generation of young people who came of age in these synagogues in the fifties and sixties was that the sanctuary was a cold, sterile auditorium, where all you see is the back of the head of the person in front. The "priests" pontificate from the front. There is no warmth, spirit, כוונה or engagement.

In response to this, some of these young people created a different kind of synagogue structure: the chavura model. These were established by the younger Jews—people in their twenties and thirties—seeking a more personal, face-to-face interaction, sitting in circles, in which they would take turns in leading the services, experimenting with new liturgies, new melodies and new instrumentations: Trying to involve people more in תפילה [prayer] and intimacy.

In due course this philosophy began to be absorbed into the larger synagogues, which divided themselves into small chavurot.


Today there are 3500 synagogues in the States, the large majority of which are Orthodox synagogues. These in turn are mostly small—partly because they can only draw people from walking distance, and partly because they prefer to be small.

Outside of the world of Orthodoxy, however, synagogues are still only drawing in a quarter of their members in anything resembling a regular weekly movement. In the Conservative movement, which is contracting, attendance is higher than that; in Reform temples there is an increase in attendance on Friday nights, but only people who are attending a Bar/Bat-Miztvah attend on a Shabbos morning.

Prayer is difficult. It's hard to get people to participate in public worship. In surveys, Jews claim that at various times of the day they stop and engage in a private moment of worship. But that's very different from getting people to engage in public services.

Today the leading-edge synagogues, numbering many hundreds, are rethinking the nature of synagogue worship. One sees this, with variations, in all flavours of synagogues.

First, a rethinking about the spatial configuration for the worship service. It is not unusual in large synagogues to find they literally have ripped out the fixed pews and have loose chairs, and arrange themselves in a semicircle or something similar, to bring people closer together, to allow face-to-face interactions. All of this encourages a greater degree of movement within the synagogue.

In Reform temples, which historically have been the most rigid in terms of the way people are asked to comport themselves and the way services are conducted, they are beginning to cut loose, e.g. by carrying the Sefer Torah around the congregation after taking it out of the Ark. This was a source of major debate in the Reform movement. Similarly turning to face the doorway at the end of לכה דודי—never done in Reform temples beforehand; also a source of major debate.

This was only the beginning of the process, because rabbis then got it into their heads that maybe they don't belong up front, but in amongst the congregants. This is far more common now.

Another idea going around now is other forms of movement. In some congregations, dance has been incorporated into the synagogue service. Made famous by BJ (Bnei Jeshurun) in Manhattan doing snake dancing amongst the aisles. [I myself have seen the chazan in the JLE, a greybearded rabbi, start a conga at the end of לכה דודי which continued around the room for at least five minutes before they settled down and continued the service.]

The other important rethinking has to do with music. This takes place on many levels. Most importantly, communal singing has been elevated in significance—which is putting cantors out of business. The flip side to this is that the traditional melodies are falling by the wayside. What instead is coming in is an amalgam of American compositions (e.g. Debbie Freeman) and the Carlebach phenomenon, which is taking hold across the board, at least on Friday nights. The idea is for music to be incorporated into the service in such a way as to get people to sing together with each other. In Reform temples and some Conservative synagogues on the west coast—the cutting edge—where both organ music and guitars are passé, flutes and harps are coming in. [*boggle* And in Conservative shuls on Shabbos!?]

Another dimension: synagogues are becoming a lot more receptive to multiple concurrent services. When this began rabbis were beside themselves at the idea of fragmenting the congregation, at the one time at which they all came together. (Also the fact the rabbis were stuck with the most boring services.)

There is also a new emphasis on petitionary prayers, particularly the מי שברך for the חולים [prayer for ill people], which was traditionally offered by a man called up to the Torah. This has now been elevated to a central place in the service, and anyone who wishes to participate in this can. What is going on that might account for the significance that is being attached to this?

Ways of encouraging partiticipation: In some Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, all of the reading of the Torah is done by congregants. Congregants get to give דברי תורה [expositionary sermons].

You also have, today, the idea of the "Syneplex"—e.g. a service alongside yoga* or even bicycle trips; on the grounds that better people should be in synagogue doing something than not going to synagogue altogether.

[* The New North London Synagogue ran a four-week yoga course once on Shabbos mornings at nine o'clock. The idea was that it was an alternative to פסוקי דזמרא—a different way of spiritually warming up—and the participants would rejoin the main service for ברכו (the start of שחרית proper).]

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