An American sanctuary

Marc Lee Raphael demonstrates how the synagogue has remained the pinnacle of Jewish life in the US since the first Jews arrived in NY.

Temple Emmanu-el New York_521 (photo credit: Illustrative photo: Adelman Paris 7)
Temple Emmanu-el New York_521
(photo credit: Illustrative photo: Adelman Paris 7)
The noted American Jewish historian Prof. Marc Lee Raphael recently published his “short history” of the synagogue in the US. The work begins with the arrival of the first group of Jews in New Amsterdam (New York) in 1654, and describes the synagogue they organized, Shearith Israel. Still in existence, this flagship congregation maintains its original Sephardic ritual.
From 1654 until the start of the Revolutionary War in 1776, synagogues were established in Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Newport, Rhode Island. Raphael explains how each of these was the center of the Jewish community and how each developed its own body of laws for the fluid operation of the individual synagogue. In the 18th century, meshulahim, emissaries from Eretz Yisrael, visited these congregations to raise money. One of them, Rabbi Carigal of Hebron, spoke at the Newport synagogue on Shavuot.
George Washington gave recognition to these congregations after becoming president, with letters in which he endorsed the freedoms of America for every Jewish citizen.
An explosion in the establishment of American synagogues occurred in the 19th century with the arrival of Jewish immigrants from Germany and German-speaking lands. Raphael surveys the growth of these synagogues, helping us understand how American Jewry spread out into many of the new states and the colonies that later acquired statehood.
In the synagogues formed during this period, the Reform ritual, bred in Germany, was a major influence. The founders of these synagogues were characterized, like the members of “Our Crowd,” as noted capitalists and merchants helping to fire the American dream.
By the 1870s, Isaac Mayer Wise founded the Hebrew Union College so new Reform rabbis could be trained in the US.
The great Eastern European immigration, starting in 1881, brought several million Jews to American shores by the time it ended in 1925. Raphael explains carefully and with many examples how these new Americans rebelled against the Reform dominance, broke away and formed their own Orthodox synagogues.
Focusing on 16 Orthodox synagogues from the south, north, east, midwest and west, he notes that “these synagogues were made up of hardworking, poor immigrants who were at work at least five days a week and whose wives were either at home with children (mostly) or themselves working.”
According to Raphael, “few members...were at shul daily unless at brief morning worship or at short after work services. In most of these synagogues there was no regular religious school.”
When Rabbi Tobias Geffen came to Shearith Israel, a breakaway Orthodox synagogue, in Atlanta in 1910, his first priority was to create a school for his and members’ children.
In spite of the growth of Orthodox synagogues, the Reform Movement continued to expand because of its appeal to Jewry in the US who wanted to be as American as possible.
World War I brought the change through the significant growth of the Conservative and Orthodox movements.
Conservative leaders Prof. Solomon Schechter and his successor, Dr. Cyrus Adler, were at the forefront of creating a synagogue movement that stressed “decorum in the services with cessation of constant chattering... had men and women sitting together... eliminated Yiddish sermons...and instituted a late-Friday evening service.” Essential to the service were “dignity... decorum... and beauty,” and this formula appealed to Jews throughout America.
Additionally the siddur prepared by Dr. Morris Silverman with Hebrew and English was introduced into many Conservative congregations. This new prayer book helped to refashion and shape the service, and bolstered eloquent sermonizing on all issues.
In the Orthodox movement, two towering figures rose to the fore in Manhattan: Dr. Leo Jung and Dr. Joseph Lookstein. In their congregations could be seen the model of an American Orthodoxy in which the rabbis quoted great literature in their sermons to buttress the rabbinic teachings. Lookstein and Jung made it eminently clear that America required a vibrant, vigorous Orthodox presence. In Atlanta, Rabbi Harry Epstein, the son of one of the founders of the Chicago yeshiva, sermonized in impeccable English and generated greater and greater attendance at services. This writer can personally attest that Epstein could speak to an audience of Atlanta high school students, of all religions, and receive a standing ovation.
The author also helps us understand how the American Orthodox rabbinate made the concept of Zionism a meaningful one, in particular stressing the creation of the Land of Israel as a living homeland for the European Jews who suffered through the Holocaust. Whereas noted Conservative and Reform rabbis like Israel Goldstein, Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise were leading proponents of Zionism, practically every Orthodox rabbi spoke frequently about the need to establish a Jewish state.
After World War II, movement to the suburbs became the defining aspect of the American synagogue. Sixty years later, new membership continues to be attracted because the synagogue never ceases to change. The Orthodox movement has become even more halachically oriented, and this can be seen in the sermons and array of classes offered. The Conservative Movement has given women more visibility as spiritual leaders, cantors and high-level educators. The Reform Movement has demonstrated a return to tradition, led by the movement’s leaders and rabbis. The Reconstructionist synagogues continue to grow and offer their own style of Jewish tradition inspired by Mordecai Kaplan. Sephardic congregations have increased in number, as have Chabad synagogues.
At the conclusion of his work, Raphael can confidently state that “the synagogue has been the most significant Jewish institution in the life of American Jews.” For him, the “sanctuary” is the central part of the synagogue. There rabbis, cantors, choirs and talented laypeople have raised the spiritual level of the attendees through the liturgy and the spoken word and made Judaism “part of the life of countless Jews.”