The American Synagogue

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk




is the number of synagogues in the United States. The word “syn” or “sun” is Greek and means together. “Agein” means to lead. Therefore synagogue means “an assembly”. We use the words demagogue, as well as symphony or symposium. They all share the same Greek root.

Although less than 10% of all American Jews are Orthodox, forty percent of synagogues are Orthodox. This is necessary because the orthodox do not drive on Shabbat or on most Holy Days. Of all synagogues, 26 percent are Reform and 25 percent are Conservative. The other nine percent are Reconstructionist, Gay-Lesbian, Humanist, Traditional etc.

Eighty two percent, or 3,075 American synagogues, are located in fifty metropolitan areas with the largest concentration of Jewish people. Fifty-eight percent of all synagogues are located in seven cities, i.e. New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami and San Francisco.

Buffalo is among those cities with the highest density of synagogues as a ratio of the number of synagogues per one thousand in the population. We have 19 synagogues or places of religious exercises or ceremonies. By contrast, such Jewish communities as West Palm Beach have low synagogue density, meaning large numbers attend the religious service or are otherwise identified with a synagogue.

Although there are synagogue organizations such as The United Synagogue, 36 percent of the Orthodox congregations are not affiliated with any organization.

Many Orthodox synagogues are small rooms with only 20-30 members while Conservative and Reform synagogues average 200-300 members.

It appears that in every American community there are more synagogues than are needed if we consider only the size of the population. However, synagogues have more than one function. One of these is to segregate the believers from the unbelievers, or vice versa. Another is to constitute an alternative status system. This means that for us Americans status-role is very important. We “run” for office to improve our status. We title ourselves Dr. or Professor or Esquire. We exhibit our finances by conspicuous consumption, a phrase coined by Thorsten Veblen in his great book The Theory of the Leisure Class (Read it - you’ll like it. It is in every library).

Therefore it is not surprising that we also use synagogues as a means of improving our status by holding such offices as board member or chairman; president, vice president, treasurer, secretary etc. Now the greater the number of synagogues the greater the number of office holders. This alone is good reason to split up and have numerous Beth Hatefillin (House of Prayer).

There are also differences in styles of prayer and differences in seating arrangements, such as having a partition which segregates men from women during prayer services. There are some synagogues that, as in Shaarey Zedek, conduct a three hour service on Saturday morning. Yet, Temple Beth El, also a conservative synagogue, holds services each Shabbat for only two hours, while Reform congregations usually meet for only one hour.

Some synagogues have two services every day. This is true of Shaarey Zedek, where a “minyan” or quorum meets every morning and every evening. There are other synagogues which have no weekday services at all and that have hardly any attendance on the Sabbath.

Synagogues have many functions other than prayer. They are “social” events where friends and relatives meet and exchange the weekly gossip. Since a majority of American Jews attend “shul” only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they are confined to listening to a whole year’s worth of gossip.

Most synagogues have scholarly events such as the annual speaker’s series at Temple Beth El. There are also Talmud and Hebrew classes in almost all synagogues. Numerous committees allow many members a chance to do something with their spare time other than “bang” on the computer, stare at TV or play cards. For many Jews the synagogue is a second home allowing them to meet others, brag about “my son the doctor”, my daughter the judge, and all of my grandchildren who were of course accepted at Harvard. We can also exchange recipes, tell jokes, make business connections, and, most important, criticize the rabbi and the cantor and everyone else and, at the same time, collect “brownie points” in heaven.

Like all voluntary organizations, synagogues allow us to leave out “some steam”. We can argue and fight among each other. We can walk out and start yet another “shul” where The Truth prevails. We can discuss synagogue politics and worry about Israel. We can claim that religion shouldn’t cost anything and tell the ancient joke about the man who entered on Yom Kippur to find a doctor and was told he better not pray because he doesn’t have a ticket. Some of us attend only to be a Bar Mitzvah guest or “make” our child Bar Mitzvah. There are even those who contribute nothing to the synagogue but demand it better be there when they have a wedding or Bar Mitzvah or funeral in the family.

Now a New Year is coming. Once more most of us will play the “revolving door Jew” who comes in on Rosh Hashanah and leaves on Yom Kippur. Why not continue to come the rest of the year?  Do something for yourself. You deserve it. Enjoy life and come to “shul”. Attend the denomination of your choice. Argue with the rabbi. Resent this and that. Join committees. Collect money for Israel and above all give yourself a rest on Shabbat from all the stress of the week. Make it your New Year’s resolution and have a wonderful year.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2003).

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