The Synagogue in America

A Short History

259 pages

12 illustrations

April, 2011

ISBN: 9780814775820



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Marc Lee Raphael is Gumenick Professor of Judaic Studies, Professor of Religious Studies, and Director of the Program in Judaic Studies at The College of William and Mary. His recent books include The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America; Diary of a Los Angeles Jew, 1947-1972: Autobiography as Autofiction; and Judaism in America,


All books by Marc Lee Raphael

Read the Jewish Idea Daily's review here.

In 1789, when George Washington was elected the first president of the United States, laymen from all six Jewish congregations in the new nation sent him congratulatory letters. He replied to all six. Thus, after more than a century of Jewish life in colonial America the small communities of Jews present at the birth of the nation proudly announced their religious institutions to the country and were recognized by its new leader. By this time, the synagogue had become the most significant institution of American Jewish life, a dominance that was not challenged until the twentieth century, when other institutions such as Jewish community centers or Jewish philanthropic organizations claimed to be the hearts of their Jewish communities.

Concise yet comprehensive, The Synagogue in America is the first history of this all-important structure, illuminating its changing role within the American Jewish community over the course of three centuries. From Atlanta and Des Moines to Los Angeles and New Orleans, Marc Lee Raphael moves beyond the New York metropolitan area to examine Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstuctionist synagogue life everywhere. Using the records of approximately 125 Jewish congregations, he traces the emergence of the synagogue in the United States from its first instances in the colonial period, when each of the half dozen initial Jewish communities had just one synagogue each, to its proliferation as the nation and the American Jewish community grew and diversified.

Encompassing architecture, forms of worship, rabbinic life, fundraising, creative liturgies, and feminism, The Synagogue in America is the go-to history for understanding the synagogue’s significance in American Jewish life.


  • “A virtuoso in several genres of American Jewish history, but a specialist in the evolution of American Judaism, Marc Lee Raphael has produced the culminating work of his career. This synoptic account of the institution of the American synagogue—and in effect of the rabbinate as well—is punctuated with wonderful insights and assured generalizations. The author wears his learning lightly. A fascinating scholarly overview, The Synagogue in America also happens to be a pleasure to read.”

    —Stephen J. Whitfield, Brandeis University

  • “Thanks to years of relentless toiling through synagogue archives coast to coast, and by virtue of his close examination of prayer books and rabbis' sermons, Marc Lee Raphael has provided readers with intriguing vistas and insights into the contours of Jewish religious life from the founding of the earliest communities in America to the present day. Written in clear prose by a master teacher, this volume will be welcomed both within university classrooms and in congregational study groups.”

    —Jeffrey S. Gurock, Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History, Yeshiva University

  • “No one knows more about the American synagogue than Marc Lee Raphael, whose compact yet comprehensive study reveals the astonishing diversity of Jewish congregational life over the last three centuries. Leaving dry institutional history in the dust, Raphael vividly conveys how the synagogue reflected the concerns, needs, and tastes of American Jews, as well as the contradictions that so often characterized their religious identities..”

    —Eric L. Goldstein, author of The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity

  • “A useful and concise scholarly treatise, which neatly interweaves the facts of the evolution of the American synagogue.”

    Library Journal

  • "In the first ever study to look at American Jewish history through its synagogues, Raphael looks at the changing role of the synagogue from colonial days whe it was the central address of the community to the present, when other institutions also dominate. Reporting on synagogues in cities and suburbs around the country, he writes about prayer, rabbinic leadership, architecture, fund-raising, feminism and social life."

    —Sandee Brawarsky, New York Jewish Week

  • " . . . a brilliant new interpretation of American synagogue history"

    —Lawrence Grossman, The Jewish Daily Forward

  • "Raphael . . . has produced a short, highly readable and wholly illuminating study that will delight anyone who has ever sat in shul and told himself the beloved old Jewish joke that ends with the punch line: 'To that one, I never go."

    —Jonathan Kirsch,

  • "Raphael...has produced a short, highly readable and wholly illuminating study that will delight anyone who has ever seat in shul and told himself the beloved old Jewish joke that ends with the punch line: 'To that one, I never go." The book is a solid work of scholarship..."

    The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

  • "Raphael offers an insightful, scholarly, and comprehensive overview of the evolution and changing role of the American synagogue"

    —D.B. Levy, Choice

  • "Raphael, one of the foremost scholars on American Judaism and American Jewish history, has written a first rate account of a fundamental institution in American Jewish life. . . He offers precise portraits of individual synagogues but also shows how those institutions, in the aggregate, reveal larger patterns of affiliation, worship, leadership, and design. . . It is a rare treat to read a historical review this compact and full of personality."

    —Emily Katz, H-Net Reviews

  • "Raphael has a storyteller’s talent and a scholar’s mastery of the subject. His vivid portraits of synagogue life and its many permutations and his respect for all aspects of Jewish congregational life make this book appealing to all readers who relish reading Jewish and American history."

    Jewish Book Council

  • "Raphael's book is finely written and provides an accessible overview of the major historical, demographic, and liturgical changes in the synaogogue's long and ever-adapting history...[it is] an engaging portrait of the emergence of Jewish congregations during the Colonial and early-Republican periods."

    —Allan Nadler, Jewish Ideas Daily

  • "This 'short history' of the synagogue in America is concise, fairly comprehensive, and the first of its kind."

    —Riv-Ellen Prell, Jewish Review of Books