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  • The Synagogue in America, A Short History
  • Susan L. Porter (bio)
The Synagogue in America, A Short History. By Marc Lee Raphael. New York: NYU Press, 2011. vii + 247.

Even in America, where the percentage of Jews affiliated with synagogues has always been a minority, the synagogue, as Marc Lee Raphael notes in The Synagogue in America, A Short History, has always been "the most significant Jewish institution in the life of Jews" (207). Synagogues have served a variety of purposes for Jewish communities in America. In this useful book, Raphael articulates the complex history of the American synagogue by categorizing and discussing a number of these functions. He reports an ambitious research methodology, stating that he examined materials relating to about 125 synagogues representing all denominations across the United States (2, 211-212). Raphael's background and experience have prepared him admirably for this task; a Reform rabbi as well as an eminent historian, he brings a broad understanding of synagogue issues ranging from worship practice to finances to this work.

The book retells what is, in many ways, a familiar narrative—in America, where a nation of immigrants brought particular religious practices with them and modified them as they adjusted to life in an individualistic, religiously unregulated society, synagogues, like other religious institutions, took on characteristics that reflected that culture. Raphael's framework of regional and denominational inclusiveness highlights the commonalities of experience in these institutions and adds depth to the growing literature on synagogue history and the development of Jewish denominationalism in the United States. He focuses on several themes—worship rituals, the content of rabbinic sermons, synagogue architecture, particularism vs. Americanism, social justice, attitudes toward Zionism—that distinguished various groups over time and reflect the issues that encouraged the growth and evolution of various denominations.

Raphael is particularly interested in the intense focus on "decorum" that was, he notes, a common concern of all the institutions he discusses (11). Decorum was, of course, an important code word for assimilative practices that reflected nineteenth-century (Christian) ideals of beauty and propriety. Raphael offers a helpful analysis of the differences between various nineteenth-century "reforms," modifications to traditional ritual practice, and "Reform," which he defines as the adoption of a Reform prayer book (27-29). This distinction is important, he argues, because virtually every American synagogue eventually embraced some [End Page 312] "reforms," and even those which joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) after it was founded in 1877 continued to observe a wide range of practices. In an environment where synagogues were voluntary associations, lay leaders wielded significant power, enjoyed their autonomy, and tried to please members, who would otherwise leave to form new congregations. Such departures occurred frequently, and every town had multiple places of worship that reflected a variety of needs. As a result, umbrella organizations needed to cast a wide net to attract dues-paying congregations. The national Conservative organization, United Synagogues of America, founded in 1913, noted the experience of the UAHC and insisted on remaining inclusive; to this day, it has not enacted a succinct platform (187-188).

While interest in improving the order and harmony of worship services was first associated with the Reform movement, Raphael shows how Jews of all stripes increasingly became concerned that the American-born children of immigrants would choose to worship in congregations whose practices seemed more "American." As he points out, Conservative Judaism, like Reform Judaism, owed its popularity in the first half of the twentieth-century to Jews who found Orthodoxy too culturally alien and began to incorporate moderate reforms, such as mixed seating and English readings, into their worship services. Even Orthodox congregations adopted some moderate reforms.

Raphael's book does an excellent job of delineating the distinctions among the denominations over time by comparing the gestalts of various synagogues at various points. Thus the reader learns how synagogues were designed and arranged, what rabbis discussed in their sermons and lectures, and which denominations focused more on fundraising and social action. These categories are useful not only for demonstrating denominational difference. They also reveal commonalities that demonstrate how all American Jews were deeply influenced by outside events and the...


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