Where Have All Of The Reform Synagogues Gone?
It was like entering my own personal Holy of Holies.
That was how I felt this past weekend, as I visited the URJ Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The occasion: the wedding of the son of beloved friends, who themselves have become like family.
But, on a deeper level, it was an act of return for me — to a place that has been part of my family’s Jewish story for almost fifty years. I was a camper at Eisner, a staff member (doing almost every conceivable job, from waiter to dish washer to counselor to song leader to unit head). My own sons would go on to attend camp there, and to become staff members.
When I entered the living room of Eisner’s fabled Manor House, one of the great mansions of the Berkshires, something seized my soul. This was the place where, at the age of sixteen years old, I first decided that I wanted to be a rabbi.
In the Manor House lobby, there is a plaque — adorned with the names of the original benefactors of the camp, from 1958 — as well as a list of the New York area Reform synagogues that had donated money to the camp’s founding.
That list of synagogues was a narrative of American Jewish history and sociology. For, just as the original donors are no longer among the living, so, too, many of those synagogues have faded into history — or, at the very least, look and feel very different today.
• Free Synagogue of Westchester, in Mount Vernon, NY — which has been, for decades, merged with Sinai Temple, also in Mount Vernon.
• Temple Sharey Tefilo, East Orange, NJ — which has been, for decades, merged with Temple Israel in South Orange, NJ.
• Temple Sinai, Forest Hills, NY — which has been, for decades, merged with Temple Isaiah, under the name Reform Temple of Forest Hills.
• Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Newark, NJ — which has been, for about fifty years, located in Short Hills, NJ.
• Temple Israel, Jamaica, NY — where my parents were married in 1951, and which merged with Temple Emanuel in New Hyde Park, NY, over the Nassau-Queens border.
• Tremont Temple, Bronx, NY — gone; merged for decades with Scarsdale Synagogue, which also merged with Temple Emanuel in Yonkers.
• Temple Ahavath Sholom, Brooklyn, NY — which was located in Sheepshead Bay; now part of Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom, located in Borough Park.
• Temple B’nai Israel, Elmont, NY — after seventy years at that site, recently sold to a Baptist church.
• Temple Emanuel, Lynbrook, NY — which first merged with Nassau Community Temple in West Hempstead, and then with Temple Sinai in Lawrence, and is now Am Echad.
• Beth Sholom People’s Temple, Brooklyn, NY — now part of Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom.
• Temple Beth El, Spring Valley, NY — closed in 2016; now part of the Reform Temple of Rockland in Nyack, NY.
It is quite simple, even if it is painfully simple. In the past sixty years, many communities that were once bastions of Reform Judaism have gone through massive demographic and ethnic shifts. It is about fewer Jews and fewer Reform Jews.
Fewer Jews live in Mount Vernon, East Orange, the Grand Concourse of the Bronx, and Elmont. In at least one case (Newark), riots prompted Jewish flight. Some neighborhoods are now African-American, Asian (with representation from every country), and Indian. Fewer Reform Jews live in Forest Hills, Jamaica, Sheepshead Bay, Lynbrook, and Spring Valley. Depending on the location, the influxes are from Israelis, Sephardim, Orthodox Jews and Hareidim.
Looking at the names of those synagogues took me into journeys of memory — back to youth group events, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in many of those synagogues — which were then bustling, filled with young people — and today, shadows of their former communal selves. A sad illustration: in Nassau County alone, over the past thirty years, approximately ten Reform synagogues have merged out of their independent existences. In some cases, synagogues gave up too soon — by just a few years. As recently as thirty years ago, there was a functioning Reform synagogue on West 79th Street, four blocks away from Rodeph Shalom. Fifty years ago, there was a Reform synagogue on Riverside Drive in the low nineties. A sad irony: those synagogues folded some years before the Upper West Side would become the new Vilna. The god of real estate is a capricious god and as inscrutable in His or Her ways as God at the end of the book of Job.
To be sure: there are synagogues on that plaque that have held their own; others are larger than they once were; still others have undergone a renaissance. In 1958, some of the suburban communities on that plaque were just beginning to experience an influx of Jews; for others, the boom was about to end. In 1958, we were approaching the end of the decade that had seen the fastest growth spurt of synagogues (and churches). In the Eisenhower era, to be an American was to worship “at the church of your choice.”
But, what is not visible to the casual reader of that plaque is what the late, lamented Philip Roth knew, and gave voice to in “Goodbye, Columbus” — that much of suburban Judaism was vacuous, that, in the words of Heschel, synagogues suffered from a severe cold. What is also not visible to the casual reader of that plaque is that not every synagogue fades and fails for demographic reasons. For whatever reasons, people simply stopped affiliating. Despite the existence of local success stories, I know of no national trend that indicates that non-Orthodox synagogue membership is growing.
That is the sobering news.
But, now, the good news. The names of the donors that adorn that plaque could not have known that they were the progenitors of one of American Judaism’s proudest experiments.
Thanks to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Jewish summer camps is a growth industry. There are more Jewish camps in the United States than ever before, including special interest camps such as sports camps, tech camps, arts camps. More Jewish kids and young adults are being touched by informal, joyous Judaism than ever before.
At the wedding, an Episcopalian friend marveled at the Eisner facilities. “If only we [mainstream Protestants] had something like this!” I told her that, decades ago, the Dalai Lama sent emissaries to Jewish summer camps — to see how informal religious and cultural education could really work, and how it could nourish a Diaspora community.
Perhaps this is the inevitable ebb and flow of Jewish life that would become even more apparent if we chose to view Jewish history through the lenses not of the decades, but of the centuries. As Zeev Chafetz once said: there are fewer Jews in Alexandria, Louisiana — and there are almost no Jews in Alexandria, Egypt.
But, this I do know: all the bold experiments in synagogue re-organization, re-imagination, re-branding, as well as the tremendous, unpredicted success of Jewish summer camps, across the denominational spectrum, only point to one basic truth. Jews have to gather together. The ways that they do it might change, might evolve, might be challenged — but ours is a stubbornly communal existence.