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“Orthodox rabbis rarely made any comments on the events unfolding on the American scene in the 1920s or early 1930s”

…Orthodox rabbis rarely made any comments on the events unfolding on the American scene in the 1920s or early 1930s. They generally ignored race, immigration, pacifism, isolationism, the League of Nations, lynching, Sacco and Vanzetti, civil liberties, the Klan, racial segregation, industrial (textile, railroad) strikes, Einstein’s theory of relativity, modern technology, modern war, Prohibition, economic warfare, Bolshevism, political events in Europe, and the Depression. Only with the rise of the Nazis and the 1939 White Paper that drastically curtailed Jewish immigration to Palestine, did European events become part of their sermons. Instead, they talked about Torah (which, all Orthodox rabbis agreed, God had revealed verbally to Moses at Mt. Sinai), commandments (“word of God,” they all agreed), ceremonies, customs, observances, rituals, holidays, festivals, and themes associated with the calendrical events in the Jewish/Judaic year. The scientific and philosophical literature of their day was useful primarily to support the conclusions of Judaic values and beliefs.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 90.

“In most periods of the history of the Jews in the United States, fewer than half of American Jews have been members of synagogues” yet, “it has been the most significant Jewish institution in the life of Jews”

The Zionist thinker and Hebrew-language essayist Asher Ginsberg (better known by his pen-name, Ahad Ha’am) once said that “more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” If we were to paraphrase this proposition and substitute the synagogue for the Sabbath, its veracity seems highly doubtful, at least in the American experience. In most periods of the history of the Jews in the United States, fewer than half of American Jews have been members of synagogues, and surely not all of those who had memberships have participated in the religious, educational, cultural, and social activities of the institution, even after making a financial contribution.

Yet, we can say with some confidence of the American synagogue, after thinking about its history over more than three centuries, that it has been the most significant Jewish institution in the life of Jews. And, although it has offered to both young and old learning experiences in classrooms, from the early years of religious school and Hebrew school through confirmation and then in the form of adult education, and though it has provided a wide variety of ancillary activities in the form of sisterhood, brotherhood, youth fellowship, social action projects, and much more, nothing has been as central to the purpose of the synagogue as the sanctuary. Here, rabbis, cantors, choirs, and talented laypeople have used printed words (liturgies and Scripture) of all kinds, together with the spoken word (sermons, lectures, discussions) to make Judaism (call it spirituality, if you will) a part of the life of countless Jews. There is no reason to think that this will not continue, in old and new ways that blend centuries of Judaism with the American experience.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 206-207.

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“Not much changed from earlier decades in the Reform synagogue during the 1950s and well into the 1960s”

To a great extent, not much changed from earlier decades in the Reform synagogue during the 1950s and well into the 1960s, though, by the late 1960s, as we will see, the synagogue had become a very different place from what it was in the 1940s and 1950s. Rabbi Joseph Narot came to Miami’s Temple Israel in 1950, eliminated head covering and prayer shawls, and frowned upon the bar mitzvah ceremony. At Pittsburgh’s Rodef Shalom, Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof put the normative position of the early postwar period well: “We believe that the essential of the worship of God is the ethical mandate and that the ceremonial is incidental, if anything. That is our principle…. We shall never make a religion for us out of all these observances. . . . No rabbi will ever try to persuade you that God commanded you to light lights on Friday night.” The Sabbath-morning service at Temple Beth-El in Providence began at 11 A.M., ended at noon, and included a bar mitzvah! While not every Reform synagogue, by any means, fit the description of “classical” Reform—there are examples of retrieval of tradition and of restoring customs and observances absent from Reform services for decades (e.g., the sanctification of the wine, the wearing of the head covering and the prayer shawl, the use of a wedding canopy, and the construction of a sukkah)—the patterns of synagogue worship, religious school, adult education, youth groups, social activity, and social action had much in common around the country….

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 132-133.

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“The content of American-educated Orthodox rabbis’ English-language sermons was dramatically different from that of the (mostly) Yiddish-language sermons of an earlier generation”

…the content of American-educated Orthodox rabbis’ English-language sermons was dramatically different from that of the (mostly) Yiddish-language sermons of an earlier generation. This was particularly true between the World Wars in New York City, where Leo Jung on the West Side and Joseph Lookstein on the East Side—self-proclaimed ‘modern Orthodox” rabbis—drew upon the works of Carlyle, Dickens, Freud, Goethe, Ibsen, William James, Macaulay, Shaw, Tennyson, and Whitman, as well as on the vast body of rabbinic literature, to craft sermons much like those of American-born Reform and Conservative colleagues. Keeping in mind the warning of a contemporary Conservative rabbi, Israel Herbert Levinthal, that his printed sermons were often delivered ‘extemporaneously” and written “out a long time after their delivery,” the historian looks for typescript sermons or sermons reprinted in synagogue bulletins and the Jewish press immediately after delivery. They are abundant, and, by the 1930s, Orthodox rabbis in various places turned a Latin phrase, digested a German book on philosophy or literature, or followed the scientific arguments of the leading writers of their time as easily as they could quote from the Talmud.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 89-90.