Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money.
Daniel Judson's Pennies for Heaven offers a fresh perspective on an old topic of American Jewish communal life. Broad in geographic and temporal scope, the book follows the changing ways that American synagogues have raised and spent money from the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. A short conclusion reflects on contemporary trends, but throughout the book Judson connects historic parallels to current challenges facing synagogues and their future sustainability.
As the subtitle suggests, this is truly a study of synagogues and money. Capital campaigns, salaries for Jewish clergy, debates over seat sales and models of dues payment--as well as experiments to supplement or sidestep dues altogether, like lotteries, the free synagogue movement, or so-called for-profit "mushroom synagogues"--constitute the major topics. Beyond simply following the money, Judson makes several important arguments by carefully reconstructing synagogue finances over time. One is that revenue-building and expenditures provide a window into the religious lives and values of congregants as much as those who managed the books. Another is that consistent experimentation characterized those efforts, well beyond static reliance on dues or seat sales. Finally, there is also the lens that money offers on understanding American ideals influencing synagogue development. As a result, the book builds on recent trends in Jewish studies broadly, and American Jewish history specifically, to highlight patterns and practices that often go unnoticed in the absence of an economic perspective.
Judson's treatment of American forces influencing synagogues is particularly insightful. In addition to longer shifts toward democracy and egalitarianism, the financial matters that fuel the book highlight several American ideals shaping Jewish communal life and religious priorities as they tied to the purse. Some of these include the ever-growing voluntarism of religion in America, the importance of professionalization in American society, and, of course, the market that enabled synagogue growth or retraction amid prosperity and economic decline. In the colonial period, to give one example, the book focuses on early communal leaders' inability to transplant an internal tax called the Imposta as in other Dutch-Sephardic Atlantic centers. This premise enables a material analysis of Jews' changing social and civic standing in North America, but it also recasts the range of financial tools that early synagogues did have at their disposal to raise funds for communal services while asserting authority. The steady professionalization of the American rabbinate threads similarly throughout the book. Shortages and influxes of immigrant rabbis deeply influenced their salaries. However, so did the cachet of credentials, allowing American Jewish seminaries to boost thresholds in rabbinic pay and maintain those standards well into the twentieth century, even as salaries for Christian clergy did not keep pace. Finally, there is the market. It surfaces around topics like seat sales, temporary for-profit synagogues geared toward High Holiday demand, and innovative use of economic theories like bubbles and manias to analyze the turn-of-the-century cantor craze in the context of grand synagogue construction and towering rabbinic salaries. Although only a sampling, these and other subjects highlight the book's approach to synagogue financing as a means of charting Jewish adaptation to wider American considerations.
There is also a good amount of comparison between Jewish and Christian counterparts. Judson argues convincingly that synagogues often followed Protestant examples in revenue-building strategies, but he highlights important differences in Jewish approaches to money. Ideologically, rabbis and businessmen serving on boards had a far less complicated relationship to American industrial capitalism. In practice, too, Jews were also more pragmatic in financing their congregations, rarely invoking religious or biblical imperatives to encourage giving as did Protestant peers. To demonstrate this most directly, the book's core chapters compare Jewish and Protestant shifts from pew rentals as a main source of income. Although churches successfully transitioned to voluntary contribution models, most synagogues only balanced the move by introducing standardized dues. The free synagogue movement's failure beyond the personality of Stephen Wise is used to further demonstrate the untenability of sustained voluntary giving within a Jewish framework. The comparison offers an interesting premise to build on studies that have already considered the interplay of theology and American capitalism from a Christian perspective, but it also speaks to another of the book's primary aims: to explore how closely synagogue finances did or did not conform to broader Jewish religious ideals. To that end, the book successfully positions congregations and their budgets as a reflection of Jews' internalization of market and financial values shaping the nation, as well as a platform from which Jews, in turn, endorsed and reinforced such values.
For all of its analytic strengths, the book does tend to underrepresent average congregants. This is not to say that Jewish laymen are not considered, but more often than not the money they pledged or the dues they paid stand in for their perspectives on specific topics. Conversely, the voices of synagogue presidents, rabbis, boards of trustees, spokesmen for each denomination's national synagogue and rabbinic arms, and architects and opponents of major synagogue innovations abound. This is, of course, a function of the scope and geography of the study. Were it to focus on one locale or period rather than hundreds of congregations over hundreds of years there would be more ability to dig deeper in institutional records and give more space to average Jewish women and men. The important questions and arguments raised, however, offer a strong point of departure for future projects.
Overall, the book presents an impressive survey of synagogue financing over most of American Jewish history in both major and marginal cities. It not only analyzes the relationship between synagogues and money in the past but also provides a valuable resource for those interested in American synagogues today and their viability as institutions of Jewish life in the future.
Brooklyn College, CUNY
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2019|
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