That Was Then; This Is Now


" … Synagogues struggled under heavy financial burdens and mortgage debts, watched their memberships shrink, and were often forced to curtail programs and dismiss personnel. … [The crisis] threatened both the economic health and substantive role of synagogues."

University of Pennsylvania historian Beth S. Wenger was writing about another large city and another financial crisis in her 1996 book, New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise. But rabbis, congregation presidents and executive directors in the Philadelphia area circa 2009 can surely relate.

"Of course, the situations are very different in a sense that there are safeguards in place for individuals and institutions that came in with the New Deal, and were not in place before then," said Wenger, associate professor of history and director of Penn's Jewish Studies Program.

"What we do have in common is the fact that, in the 1930s, you had a time of great contractions, when synagogues could not pay their rabbis, their staffs. This followed a period of great expansion in the 1920s," said Wenger, even as the current financial downturn follows an era of relative prosperity.

The scholar, whose book The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America, forms the companion piece to the recent PBS miniseries of the same name, said today's Jews can draw comfort from their ancestors of seven decades ago.

"The truth is, in the Depression, people hung on," said Wenger. "A lot of staff went unpaid, or had greatly reduced salaries. I don't know if that would happen today. I don't know how heavily mortgaged some of these synagogues are, or whether in places the situation is so dire that mortgages can't be met."

Synagogue mergers are not out of the question, she observed, but thus far, she's not seeing any signs that would lead her to believe they're happening here.

"There's no question something will change, that people will have to do more with less. But periods of contraction are not necessarily dire.

"They can mean retrenchment," she explained, "which is not necessarily a bad thing. They can give you a greater sense of direction."

Sometimes, she added, smaller can even be better.

Said Wenger: "Less staff, less overhead, might mean a sparking of independent chavurot, instead of the expansion of large, large synagogues."


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