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.