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“Rabbis need to see themselves as teaching Judaism, not as upholding the tenets of a particular movement”

The denominations, and the seminaries where they train their rabbis, will have to recognize this and take a more holistic view of their role in Jewish life. Rabbis need to see themselves as teaching Judaism, not as upholding the tenets of a particular movement. …
What’s more, the denominations, themselves, are no longer the most relevant force in shaping our synagogues. Instead of the large denominational divisions, imagine an entrepreneurial approach to synagogue life, one that encourages the growth of vibrant communities….

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 169.

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“…by the 1960s, there were hints of the dramatic changes that were to take place in American Judaism in the following decades”

Only with hindsight can we see that, by the 1960s, there were hints of the dramatic changes that were to take place in American Judaism in the following decades. For the most part, the immense transformation of Reform into a movement of considerable ritual and its effort to grapple with the presence of intermarried couples and nontraditional families was barely visible even by the middle of the 1960s. The demands of Conservative Jews for a strong statement of what the branch believes and for gender equality, both flashpoints of the 1970s, were barely discussed in 1965. And, among the Orthodox, even in the 1960s, the rigorous observance that, beginning in the 1970s, would characterize so many children of the moderate Orthodox of the 1940s and 1950s was still under the surface. Right up to the Six-Day War of 1967 and even beyond, in some ways, little had changed from earlier decades. But momentous transformations were just around the corner.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 168.

“The American synagogue, like so many other institutions, was dramatically affected by the economic downturn of 2008-2010…”

The American synagogue, like so many other institutions, was dramatically affected by the economic downturn of 2008-2010. It had a deleterious impact on almost every area of synagogue life, as budgets were cut significantly all over the land. But rabbis, arguably felt the impact more than any other professional in the synagogue community, as congregations released, rather than renewed, assistant and associate rabbis, reduced full-time rabbis to part time, and canceled searches that were under way to provide assistants to senior rabbis.

Orthodox rabbis were less affected than rabbis of the other branches, as only a small number of those ordained had planned to enter the congregational rabbinate. But even Orthodox rabbis, especially those who wanted to make a career of teaching in Jewish schools, saw the opportunities shrinking and their career goals placed on hold. It is, however, in the other branches that the high unemployment took hold.

In the spring and summer of 2009, as Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform rabbis sought jobs, there were approximately three rabbis available for every opening. There were older rabbis whose congregations encouraged them to retire so that they could hire a young rabbi with a much smaller salary; there were assistant and associate rabbis whose positions disappeared when their contract expired as congregations sought to balance their budgets; and there were newly ordained and recently ordained rabbis who had not yet found jobs. When the dust settled, two out of every three non-Orthodox rabbis seeking a job in 2009 remained, at the end of the calendar year, unemployed, with little opportunity for meaningful or gainful work opportunities in the near future in their profession.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 205-206.

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When Jews left their communities and moved to the suburbs in the 1940s-1960s, they “usually abandoned their synagogues”

When Jews left communities such as Lawndale in Chicago or the near east side in Columbus, Ohio, and moved to suburbs either inside or outside the city, they usually abandoned their synagogues (just as white Christians abandoned their churches). Of course, there were exceptions. As the black population exploded in the Hyde Park-Kenwood area of Chicago in the 1940s and 19505, K.A.M. made a commitment to remain in the neighborhood and worked vigorously to create a fifty-fifty balance of whites and blacks. Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein could claim, at the end of the 1950s, that “this temple was the single most effective anchorage in holding the white people here.” This was no easy task, as he also noted in a Yom Kippur sermon, for the “movement to the suburbs is, in the framework of our social and economic mores, almost as natural and instinctive as the flight of the birds to Capistrano.” And, in postwar Philadelphia, rather than flee the city, Mikve Israel and Rodeph Shalom reinvented themselves and remained in the city center as their congregants (and other synagogues) left North Philadelphia for the northern Philadelphia suburbs and beyond the city limits. Such congregations, however, were the exception.

Most abandoned synagogues became black churches, and Jews, in their new communities, either built new buildings with the same synagogue name as the old or started over with new synagogues with new names.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 125.

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The salaries of rabbis in America in the 1890s and 1900s depended upon denomination

While the status of women was quite similar from branch to branch, the salaries of rabbis were not. Generally, with very few exceptions, rabbis of Reform synagogues received salaries, paid monthly, which provided a reasonable standard of living for them and their families. In contrast, rabbis of Orthodox synagogues everywhere struggled to make ends meet. Many of these rabbis, in the 1890s and early 1900s, earned less than $1,000 a year in salary, and they were forced to sometimes collect the money themselves and to charge Jews for each rabbinical service. They frequently supplemented their small salary by overseeing kashruth (especially supervising animal slaughter); serving as an arbitrator in questions of Jewish law; performing marriages, divorces, and other life-cycle ceremonies; selling wine for ritual purposes (including later, during Prohibition, legally, because of provisions that allowed the sale of wine for religious use); and selling collections of their sermons. For example, Rabbi Gedaliah Silverstone, of Orthodox Tifereth Israel in Washington, D.C., claimed to have sold 4,000 copies total of three of his privately printed books. Rabbi Abraham Schapiro, of Portsmouth, Ohio’s Orthodox B’nai Abraham, was paid $600 annually in 1896 (he was offered $500 additional salary if he would close the bookshop he owned for supplemental income on Jewish holy days), while Rabbi Abraham S. Braude of Chicago, in 1916, received the same salary from his synagogue. Baltimore’s Chizuk Amuno hired Rabbi Henry W. Schneeberger in 1876 at $1,200 annually; when he sought a raise after nine years, his appeal was rejected (“no way of increasing revenue: he was told); after sixteen years of service, the trustees raised his salary to $1,600, but, when there were “not enough” funds, they reduced it to $1,500. In contrast, when Portland, Oregon’s Reform Beth Israel hired the newly minted rabbi Stephen S. Wise in 1899, they paid him $5,000 a year.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 54-55.

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The 1930s Depression Took a Huge Effect on Synagogues in America

While the 1920s represented a decade of expansion for the Conservative movement, the Depression of the 1930s caused a shrinkage everywhere. The finance committee chairman at Cincinnati’s Adath Israel reported, at the end of 1930, that, “during the past year, owing to the general business depression, there was a decided loss in membership and a decrease in membership dues”; five years later, he reported that the “economic depression has lasted for over five years and hurt us in every way.” In the early years of the Depression, Temple Sinai in Los Angeles reduced dues from $5 to $3.50 a month, while, at the Brooklyn Jewish Center Hebrew school, tuition and single memberships were cut in half, gymnasium membership was made free, and the raffle for the 1933 Chevy had to be canceled. At Montclair, New Jersey’s Shomrei Emunah, the treasurer, as late as 1936, was trying to get congregants who had owed dues since 1930 to pay “back amounts.” Temple Beth Israel of Phoenix, Arizona—Conservative until it hired a Reform rabbi in 1933—noted as early as 1930 that “pledges and funds were inadequate to cover the necessary expenditures” and thus it was necessary to borrow from the “cemetery fund.” The following spring, leaders went house to house to beg members for funds “to tide the Congregation over until September 1st,” and, in 1932, the president declared that “we are a bankrupt institution and our temple building has been sold.” Not even brotherhood “stag [without wives] parties” (1933) could put the synagogue in the black. At the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in Manhattan, the board reported a $60,000 deficit in 1931 and noted that staff members were owed thousands of dollars in back wages. Rochester’s Beth El lacked sufficient funds in 1930 to pay the mortgage, after numerous congregants resigned because of “financial reverses.” Banks threatened to foreclose on Seattle’s Herzl Congregation in 1930 and again (on the renamed Herzl Conservative Congregation) in 1936. In Washington, D.C., at Adas Israel, the leaders reduced the salaries of synagogue employees by 10 percent in 1932-1933 and another 10 percent the following year, while relying more and more on borrowing. At the Brooklyn Jewish Center, in 1931, where the president noted the “depressing conditions now prevailing in business” and the “often threatened danger of having our doors closed for lack of financial support,” he announced free tuition for the religious school and said that new members could join and make no payments for one year; annual dues were cut in half the following year for families and by 25 percent for singles.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 81-82.

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“To draw people back into the synagogue, we…need to train rabbis in the art of running engaging services…”

To draw people back into the synagogue, we…need to train rabbis in the art of running engaging services, certainly on the High Holy Days but also all year round. We responsibly fill our students with great Jewish texts and ideas, but we irresponsibly pay scant attention to teaching them how to use those texts and ideas to enliven services. We place great emphasis on the Saturday morning sermon, but ignore the rest of the service. Since people are looking for meaning, we need to unlock the liturgy for them. Therefore, instead of making the “senior sermon” the rite of passage for future rabbis, we should instead ask them to run a complete Shabbat morning service. They would pass only if the assembled participants found it intellectually engaging and spiritually uplifting.

Rabbi Judith Hauptman, “Growing The Conservative Movement”, The Jewish Week (18 October 2013), 27.

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“Some Jewish clergy…have…become the bearers of an insidious message—that…religious stuff is really not terribly important…”

Rather than defending Judaism’s distinctive system, some Jewish clergy and synagogues have allowed themselves to act as if some of their families are fully Jewish even if one spouse is not Jewish by any criterion. They have thereby also become the bearers of an insidious message—that all this religious stuff is really not terribly important and shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the really important thing, which is for everyone to play nice and get along.

Jack Wertheimer, “Intermarriage: Can Anything Be Done?Mosaic (September 2013).

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It’s not really the fault of synagogues not connecting with Jews in their 20s & 30s…

They don’t connect to these synagogues because there is no framework for them; synagogues are really structured for families. … Until they marry and have a family, they are trying to build a career, working long hours and maybe in graduate school. There are thousands of single young professionals between 22 and 35 who are not connected too much Jewishly.

I don’t blame the synagogues for not addressing this; synagogues look at them as transients and feel they often don’t pay membership. This is the Birthright generation that is used to getting everything for free. And in college, Hillel and Chabad give them free dinners.

Rabbi Perry Tirschwell quoted in Stewart Ain, “Vows to Serve The Young in Young Israel”, The Jewish Week (29 November 2013), 5.

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“Synagogues must serve a constituency broader than their current membership…”

Synagogues must serve a constituency broader than their current membership. I suggest that congregations set aside 5 percent of their budget to create an innovation fund offering mini grants to anyone, member or not, who wants to develop a new Jewish initiative.

The initiative should then be made available to both members and non-members in that congregation. The monthly Shabbat program mix is the ideal venue for the congregation to benefit from this investment. Equally important is that young people, who want to reinvent their Judaism, will feel supported by and increasingly appreciative of the sponsoring congregation. Right now, they are nowhere to be found on the synagogue landscape.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, “Jump-starting a Synagogue Stimulus Plan”, The Jewish Week (22 November 2013), 29, 31.