Throughout the course of American Jewish history, the synagogueSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ... has been the central institution of the community. Today, a typical synagogue contains seating for the gathered community and a platform called a bimahThe bimah is the raised area at the front of an Ashkenazi synagogue where the desk for reading the Torah is located., with a desk or podium for the reading of the TorahThe Old Testament is the term Christians often use for the body of writings that comprise the Hebrew Bible which Jews call Tanakh. scrolls. The bimahA tevah is the platform from which the Torah is read in Sephardic synagogues. It is equivalent to a “bimah” in the Ashkenazic tradition.’s most striking feature is the arkThe ark, or Aron ha-Kodesh (the Holy Ark) in Hebrew, is the holy chest or cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept in a synagogue on the wall facing Jerusalem., a shrine containing the TorahTorah, meaning teaching or instruction, refers in its most specific sense to the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch or books of Moses, and to the scrolls on which these teachings are written. More broadly, Torah refers to the whole of the Hebre... scrolls which is located along the eastern wall, or on a wall oriented toward JerusalemJerusalem, the ancient capital of Israel from the time of King David (c. 1000 BCE), was the ritual and spiritual center of the Jewish people for 1,000 years until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. For Jews, Jerusalem is still the geographical.... The ark is usually beautifully ornamented, its doors sometimes covered with a curtain. In modern synagoguesSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ..., the ark is often the most spectacular architectural feature.
Synagogues were first developed in the ancient DiasporaA Greek word first used in the Hellenistic period, Diaspora refers to the “dispersion” of Jewish communities living in countries other than Israel. Today, the term Diaspora is also used to describe other religious communities, living apart from their ... to replace the TempleA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... of Jerusalem. By the Middle Ages, the synagogue had developed into an institution embodying Judaism’sJudaism is the worldview, the way of life, and the religious practice of the Jewish people, living in covenant with God and in response to Torah, the laws and ethics which guide the pattern of Jewish life. Jews today interpret their three thousand year ol... key elements: it is simultaneously a house of GodGod is a term used to refer to the Divine, the Supreme being, Transcendent deity, or Ultimate reality., Torah, and IsraelLiterally “Wrestler with God”, Israel is the name given to the Jewish patriarch Jacob and came to refer to the entire nation, bound in an eternal covenant to God. Historically, Jews have continued to regard themselves as the continuation of the ancien... that served as a place of prayerPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not., study, and community gathering. Both the HebrewHebrew is the ancient language of the Israelites in which the Bible and most of Jewish liturgy is written. bet knesset and the Greek synagogue refer to a place of assembly. As such, the synagogue is undeniably the Jewish community institution par excellence.
In America, the early synagogue had a central role in the development of American Jewish life. During the colonial and early federal periods in America, synagogues were the only Jewish institution and came to be synonymous with the Jewish community. Fulfilling both religious and social needs of its membership, it represented the Jewish community to the extent that historians speak of the institution as the “synagogue-community.” Throughout the history of JudaismJudaism is the worldview, the way of life, and the religious practice of the Jewish people, living in covenant with God and in response to Torah, the laws and ethics which guide the pattern of Jewish life. Jews today interpret their three thousand year ol... in America, the synagogue has undergone a number of changes: the modern synagogue is as much the product of its American history as of its Jewish past.
In the early and mid-nineteenth century, Jews settled in America in greater numbers. They soon established multiple synagogues, and the single synagogue-community became a diverse community of synagogues. During the nineteenth century, Jews also created other significant community structures, such as philanthropic agencies that functioned quite apart from the synagogues. The spheres of synagogue and community were thus separated and began to compete with one another for the time, commitment, and resources of America’s Jews. The subsequent history of the American synagogue may be read as its attempt to regain its location at the center of the Jewish community.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, new synagogue movements were created to serve the needs of their Jewish communities. The first was the Reform movement and its characteristic synagogue, the Reform temple. The second was the Conservative movement and its characteristic synagogue, the synagogue-center. These two movements succeeded in capturing the loyalty of the majority of American Jews of their time. The synagogue-center especially, an institutional mix of religious and social functions, became the prototype of all subsequent American synagogues. The most recent synagogue type—the small, informal, non-hierarchical, do-it-yourself havurahA havurah is a Jewish community in which roles, leadership, and responsibility for worship and study are shared among members as opposed to hiring a rabbi, hazzan, or other trained leaders. of the Jewish RenewalJewish Renewal refers to a wide variety of contemporary Jewish movements that emphasize Jewish mystical spirituality, Jewish visionary reform, Jewish social conscience, and Jewish participation in tikkun olam, the “repair of the world.” movement—may be understood as yet another version of the social-religious synthesis of the American synagogue-center.
Today, the synagogue is re-aligning itself with the powerful world of Jewish federations and philanthropies. In an unprecedented turn of events, synagogues have begun accepting federation funding and sharing with federations the community’s responsibility for Jewish education. Many synagogues have also begun to emphasize the community-building aspects of their own programs, through social work and political activism. American Jews regularly turn to their synagogues not only for religious services, but for all manner of Jewish events, including HolocaustHolocaust (from Greek, entire burnt offering) refers in modern times to the Nazi German campaign to exterminate the Jewish people during the 1930s and 1940s with death camps and gas chambers. Six million Jews died in this Holocaust. In Hebrew, the Holocau... commemorations and speeches by Israeli politicians.
But more than anything else, the modern synagogue remains a religious institution, a place for the Jewish encounter with the Divine. As spirituality has become more important to American society, the synagogue has become a center of Jewish renewal. Like many churchesThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ..., many synagogues today are experimenting with new liturgical texts, music and choreographies. In new synagogue construction and renovation, the community often adopts new spatial arrangements in an attempt to reinvigorate the prayer service. One of the principal innovations is the creation of a moveable bimah. In older synagogues, where the bimah is a fixed, raised platform at the front of the sanctuary, the service tended to become decorous; the congregation a passive audience. By moving the bimah to the center of the sanctuary, synagogues are attempting to create space conducive to greater congregationalThe congregational form of Protestant Christianity has traditionally affirmed the autonomy and authority of the local congregation in calling and ordaining its ministers and organizing its affairs. In the 17th century, the English Puritans introduced cong... participation and a deeper experience of community prayer. The synagogue today is reviving its legacy of Jewish centrality in both spirit and form.