Dan Judson Part I: Judaism Unbound Episode 147 - From Selling Pews to Temple Dues


Dan Judson, Dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College, joins Judaism Unbound for the first of two episodes on the story of how synagogues have sustained themselves economically throughout American history and how they will have to adjust to the great changes in Jewish life we are experiencing today. Judson is the author of the recent book Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money. [1] [2]

 Image Credit: The Moth: True Stories Told Live

Image Credit: The Moth: True Stories Told Live

(0:01 - 17:03): To begin the episode, Dan Judson explains that “when you look at religion through the lens of economics, you see things that you weren’t otherwise going to see.” He also talks about how, and whether, language from the realm of business can be helpfully applied to synagogues and Jewish life in general. Then, shuttling back in time to the 1800s, Judson begins to tell the story of the evolution of synagogue funding, [3] starting in a place that may be surprising: the auctioning off of synagogue honors. [4]

(17:04 - 34:34): Judson looks at another way in which synagogues raised money in the 19th century — the selling of seats (the farther forward in the sanctuary, the more expensive the seats). He explores the ways in which synagogue funding in the 19th century looked both similar to, and different from, the funding approaches used by American churches in the same time period. [5] Judson looks at the growth of the Free Church movement in American Christianity, and he investigates why it was that the idea of a God who wants, or obligates, people to give to their places of worship resonated for Christians but not quite as much for Jews.

(34:35 - 45:31): Looking at how the mechanism of selling seats disappeared (mostly) from Jewish life, Judson cites Stephen Wise’s “Free Synagogue” movement. [6] As selling seats faded away, and as World War I (The Great War) created a societal “zeitgeist of democracy,” many pushed for a model that would not allow for economic segregation in synagogues (where the wealthier members purchased better seats, toward the front, and those who had less sat toward the back). Judson also counter-intuitively links the end of purchasing seats to the construction of large “synagogue centers.” To close Part I of this two-part conversation, Judson explores how, in interesting ways, synagogues did both incredibly well and incredibly poorly when the Great Depression hit.

[1] Learn more about Dan Judson by checking out his bio, accessible at this link.

[2] You can purchase Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money by clicking here. Hear more from Dan Judson by listening in to his appearance on The Moth: True Stories Told Live, available here.

[3] In his reflection on 19th century synagogue funding, Judson alludes to a variety of reforms underway by the burgeoning Reform movement. For a fuller telling of the history of Reform Judaism, see another two-part Judaism Unbound special, featuring Daniel Freelander. Episode 87: Reforming Judaism - Daniel Freelander I, Episode 88: Reform or Revolution - Daniel Freelander II

[4] For a fascinating case study of auctioning off synagogue honors, click here.

[5] Learn more about the Second Great Awakening, a fascinating period in American religious history, by reading A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815-1837.

[6] Learn more about Stephen Wise, and his Free Synagogue, here.