America's Holy Haunted Houses

By Allan Nadler
Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween is most certainly no Jewish holiday; yet its spooky mood is curiously congruent with the ambience that overcomes American synagogues this time of year. With the termination of the hectic Fall holiday season, the large majority of synagogues across America, so recently overwhelmed with congregants, will once again take on the gloomy appearance of deserted, if not quite haunted, houses. And the sermons of thousands of rabbis will, as they have for well over a century, resound with the old perplexed plaint, "Where have all the Jews gone?"

As a congregational rabbi, I was myself more than once guilty of rhetorically expressing, from the pulpit, the same faux-distress at this annual, ritualized plummet in attendance.  (During this post-holiday period, we counted a "regular Shabbat" attendance of ten percent of the holiday's numbers to be a fine turnout indeed.)  Even back then, however, my deeper wonder was why the Jewish masses bothered converging even over the holidays.  For all but the genuinely devout, High Holy Day services are a painfully long and alienating yearly ritual—an awful, rather than awe-inspiring, show.

So it is not surprising that American Jews' persistence in attending High Holy Day services is matched by their massive abandonment of synagogues following Yom Kippur. This despite the synagogues' long history of relentless self-reinvention: refurbishing their facilities, endlessly revising the liturgy, and making use of enough ploys and gimmicks to make the cast of Mad Men blush—all in order to attract more warm bodies to their weekly services. Shuls became "synaplexes," Kabbalat Shabbat became "Friday Night Live," and the services themselves took on the feel of cafeteria-style worship, with ever more liturgical choices being offered. All to no avail.

As a breezy new institutional history of American synagogues makes evident, the disconcerting emptiness of its pews has been the synagogue's most persistent problem since the mid-nineteenth century. Assessing synagogue attendance in the early twentieth century, the book's author, Marc Lee Raphael, observes:

About the only thing missing were bodies for Sabbath services . . . A survey of twenty-seven Boston synagogues in 1926 (mostly Reform and Conservative) noted that only 8 to 12 percent of the Jewish population above age thirteen attended the synagogue on an average Sabbath. It was no different in Cleveland, where approximately 10 percent of the total Jewish population attended a synagogue on any given Sabbath. Nearly everywhere, especially in major cities with significant Jewish populations, Jews attended worship services in very small numbers.

Sparse attendance stubbornly continued to plague the many hundreds of sprawling, ritually diverse, and architecturally innovative new suburban synagogues and "Jewish centers" that sprouted like mushrooms across the land during the Jews' massive demographic shift to suburban America in the 1950's and 60's, a phenomenal growth that is artfully chronicled by Raphael. While countless millions were expended on the construction of these impressive new edifices designed by leading architects (most famously Frank Lloyd Wright), one could easily count the few Jews who entered these sparkling synagogues on a regular basis. Raphael, who researched the records of more than 150 American synagogues, has a wonderful ear for the pithy and sardonic observations of their rabbis:

According to rabbis, over and over and everywhere, those who did belong rarely showed up except for the High Holy Days. Rabbi Louis Binstock of Chicago noted, as did dozens of others in the decade of the 1950's, that, "in spite of the boom in construction and enrollment, we are a bust in devout prayer and regular worship. Congregations contain more and more families, but fewer and fewer who are faithful."

More than three decades later, one of America's most famous rabbis extended the lament from Sabbath attendance to the dismally low rates of synagogue membership and even denominational affiliation of Jews in the United States:

Despite all of this synagogue-related activity and creative engagement with tradition, we must again remind ourselves that every survey undertaken in these four decades indicated that "unaffiliated" is the largest (and, frequently, fastest-growing) category among American Jewry . . . Those Jews who identify as Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, or Reform constitute fewer than half the Jewish population in America. The rest are what Rabbi Harold Schulweis of (San Fernando) Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles calls "None Jews."

It is for precisely these sad reasons that the most consistent feature of synagogues in the land of the free has been a chronic inchoateness marked by extreme architectural, spiritual, and liturgical malleability, and an almost endless shiftiness. This utter absence of anything remotely resembling religious uniformity is of course dictated by American Jews' freedom to choose not to attend religious services at all—the happy consequence of unprecedented freedom from any form of religious coercion.  Since the Colonial era, the growth of alternative venues for social association, both Jewish and secular, have rendered synagogue membership entirely elective.

Though Raphael's book is finely written and provides an accessible overview of the major historical, demographic, and liturgical changes in the synagogue's long and ever-adapting history, it is marred by numerous surprising omissions and serious errors, mostly related to the laws and traditions of Jewish prayer

Raphael's engaging portrait of the emergence of Jewish congregations during the Colonial and early-Republican periods is the most original part of the book, and will prove the most illuminating to his readers. Even here, however, there are surprising errors of omission. In his discussion of the earliest American versions of the siddur (prayer book) with English translations, for example, he mysteriously fails to so much as mention the seminal publications of Isaac Leeser, whose pioneering translations of the entire Jewish liturgy, as well as the Torah, were used for more than a century in hundreds of North American synagogues. In describing the classical Reform Union Prayer Book's drastic excision from the services of all references to Zion, Jerusalem, and messianic hope, Raphael never once points to the staunch anti-Zionism of the Reform movement.  (This was a position only softened in 1937 by the Columbus Platform—Reform Judaism's first public acknowledgment that the Jews indeed constituted a nation.)

Raphael's gentle treatment of the Reform movement is more than matched by a palpable cynicism, often bordering on contempt, in his assessment of America's Orthodox synagogues. A central contention of the book is that the only distinguishing feature between Orthodox and Conservative synagogues for most of their history—Raphael incorrectly posits that it was not until the 1980's that a clear boundary emerged between the two denominations—was the lack of decorum in the former. While correctly observing that a great number of Orthodox-affiliated congregations, particularly in the Midwest, did not have separate seating for men and women, he fails to note that this was at most a compromise by the Orthodox Union so as not to lose member congregations, and was never sanctioned by the rabbis of these congregations. But most disconcerting is Raphael's often disparaging tone whenever discussing Orthodox shuls and their services. His treatment of America's earliest Orthodox synagogues opens with the observation that "these were frequently just one or two rented rooms, and their sole function was prayer (and talking)." The parenthetic aside here is emblematic of a disdainful view of Orthodoxy which permeates the book.

Raphael's assertion that talking was one of only two reasons people went to Orthodox shuls is "supported," so to speak, by the recollections of one Hyman Goldman, a disenchanted former lay member of an Orthodox shul, whose remarks Raphael dug up in the archives of Adas Israel, Washington, D.C.'s largest conservative synagogue. Goldman recalls that in his former shul, "People did not come to pray. Some brought along their newspapers, or the racing sheet. The women, although they were not as yet sitting with the mensfolk, came there to display their new dresses and spent most of the time on the street outside the synagogue."

Aside from the questionable historical reliability of such personal memoirs, not least in speculating as to others' innermost motivations to attend religious services, what Raphael does not mention is that, to this day, almost the only synagogues that do not struggle with chronic, abysmally low attendance are the Orthodox ones. Nor does he bother contending with the statistical evidence of the ever-rapid growth of both old and new Orthodox congregations at a time when Reform is stagnant, while synagogues affiliated with the Conservative movement are suffering an unprecedented, precipitous decline. As for the chronic problem of lack of decorum in Orthodox synagogues, it would be a fair topic of discussion had Raphael applied a similarly critical eye to the failings of the more "dignified" liberal synagogues, such as the abysmal lack of congregational participation, and low levels of literacy in prayer.  Certainly the raucousness, of both prayer and conversation, in Orthodox shuls is more than matched by the still silence that haunts services at too many "temples."  

Entirely absent from the book is any discussion of the music of the synagogue. Although Raphael mentions the introduction of organs and the shortening of the Torah reading in many Reform temples, he never even touches on the very important role of the great American cantors and liturgical composers in fashioning the services and attracting so many Jews to them. Alas, in the too few instances in which Raphael discusses the content of the liturgy, his lack of knowledge becomes agonizingly evident. For example, in marshalling evidence of the increasing role of women in Modern Orthodox shuls, Raphael observes that "when someone names a sick person for whom the congregation prays, the names of the father and their mother are mentioned . . . when the Patriarchs are mentioned in the prayer for the sick, the names of their wives (the Matriarchs) are also invoked." Raphael further notes that "although women are rarely [sic] counted in the quorum of ten needed for public worship, the minyan, many [Orthodox] congregations have a special custom when a man or a woman is reciting the gomel prayer, a blessing of appreciation for surviving illness, childbirth, or danger recited publicly, women are counted in the minyan." Not only is this nonsense, but Raphael is confusing the occasions for birkat ha-gomel that follow upon the blessings of the Torah with the prayer for the sick (mi-shebeyrakh) recited by the sexton. In the latter, the invocation of only the mother's name of an ill person has always been the tradition, as has been the inclusion of the Matriarchs, and none of this is evidence of any accommodation of feminism within Orthodoxy.  This does not mean that real evidence of feminist inroads within Orthodoxy is not thick on the ground.  Raphael seems oblivious to the growth of women's services, women synagogue officers, and, most recently, Modern Orthodox women rabbis. Nor does he seem cognizant of the large number of egalitarian-Orthodox services sprouting up in both America and Israel. 

But the most questionable hypothesis of Raphael's book is his oddly optimistic assessment of both the centrality and the bright future of American synagogues, a strange sanguinity not only unsupported by any statistical data, but belied by the results of Raphael's own research. The book begins with the essentially correct assertion that while the synagogue was an indispensable institution in early American history, since the mid-19th century, its centrality has been edged out by a proliferation of Jewish organizations and social clubs. It goes on to document the fact that well under half of all American Jews are affiliated with any synagogue, and that the numbers are in steady decline. Despite all this, Raphael devotes the last pages of his book to what sounds like a paid advertisement for the Synagogue Council of America; he shares that wherever he traveled across the land, he found the houses of worship of all three denominations "packed" on a weekly basis and brimming with activity. And while concluding with a laundry list of services provided by synagogues—not only religious services, but Hebrew school, youth groups, adult education, sisterhoods and brotherhoods and so much more—he asserts that it is the sanctuary worship that will continue to "make Judaism (call it spirituality, if you will) a part of the life of countless Jews. There is no reason to think this will not continue." 

Alas, there is every reason to think this will not continue, especially among those like Raphael who so glibly exchange the terms "Judaism" and "spirituality."  Intending to write a celebratory history, Raphael may well find that what he has written is an elegy. 

 Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University. He is currently serving as the Norman and Gerry Sue Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.

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