Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America

By Rachel Kranson | Go to book overview

THREE
Pathfinders’ Predicament:
Negotiating Middle-Class Judaism

“We at Solel are proudly building a beautiful temple in which to pray,” proclaimed Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, the spiritual leader of Congregation Solel, in his congregational newsletter in 1962. In spite of Wolf’s declaration of pride, however, the ensuing paragraphs of the newsletter revealed a strong sense of ambivalence regarding his congregation’s construction project. “When it is ready … will we have forgotten what we built it for? Or will our Temple, like so many others of our time, be an empty monument, a spectacular frivolity?” Wolf wondered.1

Solel, a Reform Congregation in the suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, represented a somewhat unusual synagogue on the postwar American scene; in the words of Rabbi Wolf, it was “a Temple for people who didn’t like Temples.” Proudly nonconformist and critical of most of the other suburban synagogues of their day, the members of Solel endeavored to free their congregation from what they believed to be the problems endemic to middle-class American Judaism. Decrying their peer institutions as overly large, anonymous, and more concerned with wealth and social status than spiritual concerns, the members of Solel instituted regulations to distinguish themselves from other affluent postwar synagogues. They limited their membership to 425 families to encourage a sense of intimacy among congregants, disallowed social clubs such as sisterhoods and men’s clubs in order to discourage distractions from religious pursuits, expected members to participate in their “experimental” prayer services and rigorous adult education seminars, and banned bar mitzvah celebrations that, members felt, had become ostentatious displays of wealth. Finally, while Solel had been an independent congregation since 1957, its members had initially balked at the prospect of

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