Mushroom Synagogues
Tue, 05/24/2011
ANDREA STRONGWATER,  Lvov, The Temple (built 1884-45), 2008, painting.
ANDREA STRONGWATER, Lvov, The Temple (built 1884-45), 2008, painting.

On Aug. 17, 1930 the Jewish Daily Bulletin announced that the rabbis of New York City were declaring war. Their enemy was not anti-Semites, nor assimilation, nor any of the other typical suspects for rabbinic enmity. The object of their campaign was “the mushroom synagogue.”

The term mushroom synagogue refers to the hundreds of worship services that sprang up just for the High Holy Days, which were held in Yiddish theaters, dance halls, movie picture lofts, sweatshops and even saloons. These services were for-profit enterprises and usually led by individuals who professed great talent but had no rabbinic training. Mushroom synagogues elicited such ire amongst all branches of the Jewish religious establishment that they were effectively eliminated in 1934 when the New York State Legislature, under heavy lobbying, passed a law that made running a mushroom synagogue a misdemeanor.

The first report of mushroom synagogues is in 1901, a sign outside Grand Central Palace (a hall on the site of what is now Grand Central Station) announced that famous prayer leaders were going to be conducting High Holy Day services, tickets to be sold. Within the next decade and a half, mushroom synagogues would proliferate like … mushrooms. By 1917, during the High Holy Days there were a reported 343 mushroom synagogues in the New York City area, with a seating capacity for 150,000 people.

The reason for the success of mushrooms in the early decades of the 20th century was simple supply and demand. At the beginning of the century, there were approximately 300 (conventional) synagogues on the Lower East Side. These were small, disconnected shuls that sought to replicate the Russian Jewish religious experience in America. While these synagogues may have reflected the feeling of life back in Russia, attendance reflected the new American reality. Many Jews worked on Saturday morning so were unable to come to synagogue, and many simply left Jewish practice altogether. Only 25 percent of Jewish men on the Lower East Side attended synagogue regularly in 1904.

The one time of year this changed was at the High Holy Days. Each year at Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, a religious spirit would sweep over Jewish New York, and beckon Jews to shul. Jeffrey Gurock, in “Orthodox Jews in America” (Indiana University Press), notes that while synagogues may not have been crowded most of the year, “they were packed to their unsteady rafters on the High Holy Days as a palpable sense of religiosity permeated the ghetto. Then a combination of nostalgia and awe over the days of judgment … brought all those who had not clearly renounced their Judaism to the shul.”

Because the synagogues were typically small, the great demand for High Holy Day services outstripped the seating capacity. Mushroom synagogues stepped in to satisfy demand and turn a profit.

Initially, the New York Kehillah spearheaded the opposition. In 1908, the organization was founded as a massive umbrella organization with a mission to centralize and improve the educational and religious life of the immigrant Jewish community. As part of this work, and inspired by progressive era values, it sought to root out fraud in Jewish institutions. In 1909, a New York Times story, “Warned of Fake Synagogues: Jewish Community Asks Jews to Avoid ‘Mushroom Synagogues,’” reported an appeal that the president of the Kehillah made to the Jewish community: “The holding of holy services in unholy places is a desecration, and it is a desire that this public disgrace be avoided.”

Over the next decade, the Kehillah would attempt a number of ways to weaken mushroom synagogues: it set up free synagogues and bought tickets at existing synagogues to give away to those who could not otherwise afford them, but nothing it did seemed to work.

After the Kehillah went out of existence in 1922, mushroom synagogues existed for years without significant opposition. The 1920s were a period of great synagogue building. Second-generation American Jews sought to expand their institutions to reflect their newfound prosperity, and rabbis of this period articulated a new vision of creating synagogues that served as community centers as well as places of worship. Then, synagogues had more seats and there were enough High Holy Day shul-goers both to satisfy regular synagogues and for mushroom synagogues to still attract folks. The Depression would change this equilibrium.

The High Holy Days, as they are today, were seen in the 1920s as a significant source of revenue for synagogues. Jews would pay for High Holy Day tickets and would hear the synagogue’s fundraising appeals — yes, some practices have not changed much. During the Great Depression, synagogues needed High Holy Day attendance more than ever to help compensate for lost membership revenue and to cover the increased costs associated with new buildings. But mushroom synagogues were pricing their High Holy Day tickets (usually $2-$5 a ticket) at rates below established synagogues and luring worshippers away. From 1928 through 1934 the war against mushroom synagogues was on.

In 1932, for example, 30 Orthodox synagogues came together for the creation of an Orthodox Vaad Ha’Kehillah (confederation of synagogues) in New York City for the express purpose of stopping mushroom synagogues. Their slogan was, “Don’t Substitute the Dance Hall for the Synagogue.” The president of the Vaad was quoted in the Jewish Daily Bulletin saying, “Every year, about the time of the High Holy Days we are faced with the same evil. In the guise of satisfying public demand, mushroom places of worship spring up, urging the public to come to them, and our regular congregations, whose doors are open all year round and who maintain rabbis, cantors and other budgetary requirements, must suffer. We appeal to the public to attend the permanent edifices.”

As the Depression wore on, the challenge to mushroom synagogues appeared to grow even stronger. A coalition of the major Brooklyn congregations in 1934 hyperbolically declared that, “mushroom synagogues have done so much in recent years to undermine the normal and healthy development of our Jewish religion, thought and learning as constitute a dire threat and sacrilege.” For Jews, the appeal of mushroom synagogues seems relatively straightforward: lower prices. Beth Wenger in her book, “New York Jews and the Great Depression,” quotes a letter to the editor sent to the American Hebrew newspaper in 1931: “Why should not those who cannot afford [synagogue’s] fancy prices … seek religion at bargain prices? ... Are not mushroom synagogues therefore rendering a real service?” Presumably, this was not a unique feeling, and the letter writer likely spoke for most Jews who populated the temporary synagogues.

In an American environment that values capitalism, it is not surprising that mushrooms gained legitimacy as providers of an alternative product. American Jews regarded mushrooms in the same way they might welcome a cheaper dry cleaner in the neighborhood as just another alternative business. Wegner’s letter writer also underscores an ongoing theme in American Judaism, one still resonant in Jewish life today: that synagogues are overpriced.

Given that the Jewish establishment could not shame or cajole Jews to forgo mushrooms, it brought out a more significant weapon. In 1934, leaders lobbied the New York State Legislature to pass a law, which was signed by Gov. Herbert Lehmann as, “An Act to Amend the Penal Law in Relation to Frauds on Religious Institutions.” The law made it a misdemeanor to sell tickets to a religious service that fraudulently represents itself as being in “accordance with the precepts of any recognized religious creed” or misrepresents the facilities that the services will be held in or the qualifications of the person leading the services.

The threatened enforcement of this act by the district attorneys of the boroughs of New York effectively ended mushroom synagogues. The contemporary reader might be surprised that the legislature would enter into a religious fray, but the legislature had previously passed laws against fraud in kashrut practices, so fraud in High Holy Day services were a kind of extension of this practice.

While competition among synagogues had been a part of American life for a good part of the 19th century, mushroom synagogues represented a new kind of competition. Synagogues were able to fend off this challenge by utilizing their political muscle, but in so doing they laid bare their own inability to convince a large number of Jews that “religion at bargain prices” was an evil thing. There is a long suspicion in American Jewish life about the cost of religion, most especially the cost of synagogues. In the 1920s there was already discussion of how to keep the religious character of High Holy Day services given the economic necessities of raising money. The message for established synagogues from the mushroom phenomena is either to be more economically nimble in a society that prizes competition, or to make sure you are on the good side of your state legislature.

Rabbi Dan Judson teaches at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He is also a doctoral candidate in Jewish history at Brandeis University, where he studies the history of synagogues and money.