Pennies for Heaven

The History of American Synagogues and Money

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Daniel Judson
Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and LIfe
  • Lebanon, NH: 
    Brandeis University Press
    , June
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Daniel Judson’s Pennies for Heaven is a full length treatment of “how synagogues raised income, financed buildings, and paid clergy” (1). The main revenue transition—from selling seats to a dues system—defined the biggest shift in synagogue financing, adaptation, change, and diversity in fundraising approaches accompanied synagogue life at every turn. A key factor prompting this experimentation was the American context, namely the impact of American market forces and American voluntarism—as Judson summarizes: “the American embrace of free market principles in religion has influenced almost every aspect of synagogue life” (6). In experimenting with synagogue financing, American Jews observed the churches around them, adapting Christian approaches even when they addressed monetary issues differently. Most importantly, American Jews often did not have the same anti-mammon theological baggage as did their Christian neighbors and thus, Jews in America generally did not resort to “divine imperative” to spur fundraising (58). As it often can, money led to tensions, fissures, and departures, but also enabled unity, charity, and expansion. With these themes in play, Judson’s Pennies for Heaven brings economic issues to bear on the study of American Jewish religious life, and Jewish studies more broadly.

Chapter 1, “‘The Foundation Stones Are Now For Sale,’ 1728-1805,” charts the financing of colonial and early republic synagogues. Jews in the American colonies borrowed their funding strategies from the “Dutch Model” operative in London and the West Indies. In this system, every member of the Jewish community paid a tax and synagogue leadership had oversight of communal and religious affairs. However, since synagogue leaders (the parnas) in the American colonies did not have the same control over local Jewish affairs outside the synagogue, adjustments to the Dutch Model were an immediate necessity. Blending this model with the demands of the sociopolitical context, synagogues in the American colonies experimented with funding styles, regularly mirroring local Christian churches in financing and expansion patterns. For instance, during an uptick in church building and capital campaigns, colonial Jews followed suit with their Christian neighbors. 

Seat-selling became the standard source of funding after 1805—as evidenced in chapter 2, “‘So Paltry a Way of Support,’ 1805-1865.” Judson recovers different trends and approaches to selling seats depending on context. He generally finds that “[l]arger and wealthier congregations sold or rented seats in perpetuity while poorer congregations sold or rented annually because of the difficulty in asking members for a large upfront payment” (39). This period saw greater synagogue competition, spurring innovation and tempering seat prices. The wealth of select congregants also increased which played a role in voluntary contributions. As was the case in the 18th century, potential tensions and conundrums persisted during this period of American synagogue life as well. For example, Judson shows how some synagogues wrestled with what would happen to a synagogue seat if, as an inheritable form of property, it passed to a non-Jew.

With the next chapter, “Mushroom Synagogues, Free Synagogues, and the Hazan Craze, 1865-1919,” Judson includes a section on “mushroom synagogues” and Stephen Wise’s Free Synagogue movement. Mushroom synagogues—synagogues existing only for the High Holidays, and outside the purview of established synagogues or rabbinic organizations—fit the desire of immigrant Jews for High Holiday services, though synagogue attendance among immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe was low. Prominent rabbis and rabbinic organizations fought to curtail mushroom synagogues into the 1930s and Judson emphasizes their uniqueness in American religious history. Reflecting the Protestant Social Gospel of the early 20th century, the Free Synagogue movement was unique in American Jewish history. Begun in 1905, Wise’s short-lived Free Synagogue movement sought only voluntary donations. Judson also uses this chapter to indicate broader trends in financing and pay, including how compensation offered to Orthodox rabbis generally lagged behind their Reform counterparts. Judson notes how rabbis sometimes made up the shortfall with other sources of income, though this point could have used further elaboration.

Chapter 4, “‘No Aristocracy and No Snobocracy: In God’s House All Must Be Equal,’ 1919-1945” describes the steady growth of the dues system. With synagogues touting the success of this system, the argument for dues fit the American rhetoric of democracy that abounded during World War I and the interwar period—but economics also played a role. A boom in synagogue construction, most notably synagogue-centers, led leaders to consider new methods for expanding their financing. On a practical level, the money was there. As American Judaism moved into the post-World War I era it was thoroughly rooted in American life. Despite the Great Depression, which reduced membership, brought cuts, and curtailed expansion, most synagogues survived and limped into the prosperous years post-World War II. 

With the postwar American economy booming and synagogue building moving into the suburbs, chapter 5, “‘If It Has to Be Done, It Should at Least Be Done in a Dignified Way,’ 1945-Today,” focuses on the growth in synagogue amenities as well as variations in the dues system as it continued to find mass acceptance. Judson illustrates the impacts of rising dues and the relocation of synagogues to suburban neighborhoods: families could not pay the increasing dues and, despite forms of aid, eventually left for another synagogue. Judson’s most robust and poignant example of tensions in postwar American synagogues was Conservative Judaism’s relationship with bingo night, which threatened to separate elements of this still-growing denomination. Rabbis in the movement vacillated on the propriety of bingo (at one point the denomination expelled sixteen congregations for holding bingo games). While the case study on bingo is fascinating, this chapter feels incomplete without the full impact of other trends in postwar synagogue financing, such as the havurah movement—or anti-establishment counterculture more broadly. Judson ends the book with a conversation regarding the current state of synagogue financing. He notes that present-day problems persist over challenges to rabbinic unions and synagogue space. Judson also offers several recommendations for the future of synagogue financing, especially as trends indicate growing economic and social changes. 

With Judson’s broad scope, one will find things he missed or oversimplified; I highlighted several above. On the other hand, the book is accessible and full of examples from notable—and some smaller and overlooked—synagogues in American history. In fact, almost any of the chapters could stand alone for use in undergraduate Jewish history courses. Ultimately, Pennies for Heaven offers an important economic perspective on Jewish religious life in America, one that scholars of American Jewish history should keep in mind. Most provocatively, for some scholars at least, Judson centralizes economics as a driving force in American Jewish religious life: “While there are particular culture events that would explain some of the Jewish institutional vibrancy ... the American economy is ultimately the underlying determinative factor. The economy is never the sole issue precipitating growth or decline, but to miss the importance of the economy would be to ignore the clear historical pattern” [196]. Moving forward, many scholars will certainly have to wrestle with Judson’s findings. For many of us, it is definitely a welcome and refreshing take on American Jewish religious life.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Brittingham is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion and Emory University and a Fellow at Emory's Tam Institute for Jewish Studies.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Judson is Associate Dean, and Lecturer in Jewish history, at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has written extensively on new trends in contemporary synagogue finances, and his research has been featured in the New York Times, the Boston GlobeHaaretz, and the New York Jewish Week.


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