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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2013
Number 78
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Assessing Jewish Worship In the United States

A review essay by Steven Windmueller

The Synagogue in America: A Short History by Marc Lee Raphael. New York University Press

Marc Lee Raphael is one of America’s premier Jewish historians. The Synagogue in America: a Short History represents his latest contribution to a body of work that includes his Columbia History of the Jews and American Judaism. As another reviewer of this volume has concluded, “...Raphael has provided his readers with intriguing vistas and insights into the contours of Jewish religious life”

Professor Raphael manages, in this two hundred page volume, to incorporate core information on the development and growth of the American synagogue, a rich presentation on the emergence of the denominational movements, an introduction to key rituals and practices that would symbolize the blending of the Jewish story with the American experience. Dr. Raphael employs the use of synagogue records of some 125 congregations as a critical source in describing Jewish religious life in this nation from the colonial period until the contemporary era.

Of special value in this text is the amount of attention the author pays to certain specific themes. Among the more impressive topics involve the relationship of the synagogue world to Israel, the changing dimensions of prayer and liturgy over time, key tensions among synagogue leaders at various settings and times over minhag and matters of decorum, and the impact of the Great Depression on Jewish communities and their congregations.

Another engaging feature of this historical survey was the specific attention given to synagogue architectural styles that would reflect distinctive periods of the American Jewish story. Associated with Dr. Raphael’s attention to the physical character of congregations would be his focus over the debates associated with synagogue seating patterns at different stages of the community’s development.

In such an overview, clearly key elements would need to be sacrificed and certain emerging trends left to others to introduce. For example, Raphael provides limited coverage to the impact of the ideological platforms associated with the movements of American Judaism, the core ideas that would shape and define Jewish religious thought and practice. The more recent developments taking place related to experimental minyanim and alternative seminaries are surprisingly absent. Within the world of American Orthodoxy, the impact of Rabbi Avi Weiss and his Yeshivat Chovevei Torah represents one of those missing elements, as does any reference to the significant growth and influence of Chabad Lubavitch.

Dr. Raphael is able, in the course of his writing, to offer instructive insights into the roles played by rabbinic leaders in different settings and the impact of major changes to the world of the American synagogue, including the impact of immigration patterns, post-Second World War suburbanization and the emergence in the 1960s and beyond of experimentation with ritual and religious practice.

While I am thrilled with the presence of such a volume for the richness of its information and its distinctive value as a resource, the voice of Marc Raphael would have been beneficial in helping to articulate what he may observe as the core trends and challenges that have defined the religious experience of Jews in America. As one who teaches the American Jewish experience and has previously drawn on Professor Raphael’s writings, this will be a welcomed addition to my students’ reading list.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish CommunalService at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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