Academic journal article Shofar

Shul with a Pool: The "Synagogue-Center" in American Jewish History

Academic journal article Shofar

Shul with a Pool: The "Synagogue-Center" in American Jewish History

Article excerpt

Shul with a Pool: The "Synagogue-Center" in American Jewish History, by David Kaufman. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England and Brandeis University Press, 1999. 329 pp. $50.00 (c); $24.95 (p).

From "open temples," "peoples' synagogues," and JCCs to the Celibates, a Jewish singles society of the early twentieth century, American Jews over the years have repeatedly tried their hand at rendering Jewishness fresh, appealing, and timeless. Finding just the right balance between the weight of tradition and the pull of modernity has not been easy, especially when, as Rabbi Leo Franklin observed in 1902, "it is the curse of our day that the club and not the synagogue has become the centre of our life."

Some American Jews, seeking to attract the "unsynagogued," believed that shifting the Sabbath to Sunday might do the trick. Placing more of a premium on the sermon than on worship, advocates of the Sunday Sabbath eagerly likened the sanctuary to a university auditorium and the rabbi to an educator. Others sought salvation in the "bowling alleys, athletic grounds, fashionable bathrooms" and gymnasiums of the Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA) where young men - and later still, young women as well - might enjoy the company of their own kind.

By the 1920s, growing numbers of American Jews began to place their faith in a brand new venture: the synagogue-center or, as it was more widely known, the "shul with a pool." As historian David Kaufman writes in his exceedingly detailed account of its origins, the synagogue-center fired the collective imagination of postwar American Jewry. Spearheaded by the laity and sanctioned by its rabbis, shuls with pools spread like wildfire throughout the country, prompting one eyewitness to observe that it had become a "daily occurrence" to read in the Jewish press of yet another synagogue-center in the works. With a young, energetic staff, a dazzling array of programs - lectures, clubs, classes, and dances - and a beautiful complex of architecturally distinguished buildings, the "shul witìi a pool" had a lot going for it. …

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