The Jewish communities of New York City saw a period of unprecedented growth and transformation during the first four decades of the 20th century. Beginning in 1880, New York was inundated with Eastern European Jewish immigrants who were fleeing violence and oppression and seeking better opportunities. By 1923, New York’s Jewish enclaves – the Lower East Side in particular – had absorbed over two million new residents (Weisser 5). Over the following two decades, as the immigrant population aged, their socioeconomic status rose, and their mostly US-born children came of age, many Jews moved from the Lower East Side to form new Jewish communities in places like Harlem, Brownsville in Brooklyn, and the South Bronx. These demographic changes, and the concomitant shifts in religious attitudes they spurred, can be traced in the history of the city’s synagogues.
In the early 1900s, New York City - most notably the Lower East Side – was overflowing with synagogues. Most of these congregations grew out of landsmanshaftn, or societies that were developed by groups of predominantly Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came from the same hometown. The landsmanshaft’s objective was to pool together its members’ meager resources, so that they could aid one another, their fellow landsmen, in times of need, an early form of insurance. These societies also acted as social support networks during their members’ acculturation to American life.
While the first landsmanshaftn were formed in the 1840s, and the first Eastern European congregation in New York, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, was in founded in 1852, the phenomenon of landsmanshaftn synagogues really began to swell in the 1870’s (Dunlap 22; Soyer 46). These congregations were concentrated in the areas where their compatriots – whether Hungarian, Litvak, Galitzianer, or other – lived. Most met in rented rooms in tenements, storefronts or meeting halls. In fact, there were many buildings that housed several congregations simultaneously. The congregations were minimally organized and had limited resources.
In most cases, landsmanshaftn synagogues did not have a permanent rabbi and the congregation’s members took turns leading services. On rare occasions when they had surplus funds, they would hire a visiting cantor or rabbi from the “old country” on an ad-hoc basis. In the Orthodox sphere especially, rabbinical professionalization was in its infancy. The first Orthodox rabbinical seminary, Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, was not established until 1896, and the first professional rabbinical organization in Orthodox Judaism, the Rabbinical Council of America, was not founded until almost four decades later in 1935 (“Mission & History;” “About Us”). The Orthodox rabbis of the day earned a meager salary and frequently took on other religious tasks, such as performing weddings and selling kosher wine, to make ends meet.
The synagogue was much more than a place to pray. For its active members, it was an entire way of life. Synagogues catered to a range of religious needs, frequently offering kashrut supervision, mikvot, and arbitration in matters of Jewish law. It was a place of Jewish learning, where regular classes were held for children and adults. It was a place of Jewish charity, where auxiliary groups coordinated a variety of service projects, from attending to sick, needy, and bereaved members of their congregation to fundraising for Jewish causes in their local community, their hometown, and in Palestine. Lastly, the social function of these synagogues cannot be overstated, as they provided a place of belonging in a new and often bewildering environment and helped immigrant landsmen to feel connected with their families and the community they left behind in the “old country.”
During the first two decades of the 20th century, estimates of the proportion of New York’s adult male Jewish population who attended weekly Sabbath services ranged from 5 to 40%, most tending toward 20% (Adler 500; Margoshes, table opposite 122; Moore et al. 2:97; Sarna 163).The attendance levels of women and children were unreported, but were undoubtedly even smaller. While many Jews bemoaned an apparent decline in religiosity, the primary obstacle to Sabbath service attendance was the practical reality that, for most, Saturday was a mandatory workday. The High Holidays, however, brought much of the otherwise unaffiliated population back to the synagogue. Perhaps as many as 75% of New York’s Jewish population attended High Holiday services annually, spurring the rise of “provisional” synagogues, entities which were formed only to meet this temporary demand (Moore et al. 2:97). Lifecycle events, such as bar mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals, also drew crowds beyond a congregation’s regular members.
By 1918, the demographics of New York’s Jewish communities had begun to undermine the dominance of the Lower East Side’s landsmanshaftn synagogues. Dramatic shifts in patterns of worship were reshaping the very concept of the synagogue, especially for congregations outside the Lower East Side. Whereas, those who stayed in the predominantly Jewish Lower East Side continued to view the synagogue as the center of interpersonal relationships, the physical space in which they met was of little significance. For the upwardly mobile transplants to more diverse parts of New York, the physical space became important symbols of their Jewish identity, even though a personal commitment to engage in the synagogue’s activities – other than the High Holy Days - was no longer so important. In spite of these palpable rifts, in 1918, 94% of the city’s congregations still identified as Orthodox and 90% continued to offer sermons in Yiddish (Margoshes, table opposite 122).
The 1920’s and 1930’s were marked by the rise of the second generation of American Jews, that is, the mostly U.S.-born children of immigrants. It was this generation that truly began to explore alternatives to the landsmanshaftn synagogue model. Orthodoxy had been challenged before, as the Reform movement had established its first congregation in New York, Temple Emanuel, in 1845, and had developed into a sizable minority by 1918 (“History”). The emergence of the Reform movement was associated with the older, assimilated German-Jewish population, who had emigrated to New York in the first half of the 19th century. For many Eastern European Jews, the changes ushered in by Reform congregations - especially mixed-sex seating and the use of the Union Prayer Book, which significantly altered the traditional liturgy - were seen as too radical.
The Conservative movement, which had its roots in the founding of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1886, gained traction in the 1920’s and 1930’s, as it offered a middle path between traditionalism and modernity that the second generation was seeking. In this period, Conservative synagogues retained the Orthodox liturgy and separation of sexes, but they introduced English-language sermons, some English-language prayers, a cantor who faced the congregation, and American-trained rabbis. In addition, in contrast to the landsmanshaftn synagogues, where it was commonplace to talk, move around, spit tobacco, and the like during services, the more Americanized Conservative synagogues stringently enforced rules of decorum.
In a separate effort to appeal to the younger constituency, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, initially working within the Orthodox movement, developed the concept of the “synagogue center,” which offered a range of recreational activities in addition to its religious activities. Rabbi Kaplan founded the first of these, the Jewish Center on the Upper West Side, in 1917 (Moore et al. 3:55). In the next two decades, synagogue centers flourished, particularly in the newer Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn, uptown Manhattan, and the Bronx (Moore 135). While these secular programs did help bring more of the second generation into the synagogue, they did not necessarily induce them to become more religiously observant. Indeed, a 1928 survey of national trends in synagogue attendance revealed that engagement with synagogue centers had a negative or, at most, only slightly positive correlation with attendance of religious services (Moore et al. 3:55-56). Nevertheless, by 1940, as the Jewish population of New York had become more and more outwardly focused, synagogues of all affiliations widened their scopes to accommodate the evolving social, cultural, and spiritual needs of their constituents.
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