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Summer Judaism

Observance has long taken a different shape when the thermometer rises

Jenna Weissman Joselit
July 25, 2019
Photo: Library of Congress
The boat pond and Temple Beth-El, Central Park, New York City, circa 1900Photo: Library of Congress
Photo: Library of Congress
The boat pond and Temple Beth-El, Central Park, New York City, circa 1900Photo: Library of Congress

Rabbis these days have a lot to contend with: the instability of Jewish identity, a restless and questioning flock, American Jews’ rocky relationship with the State of Israel, dwindling cultural literacy. Come June, July, and August, they encounter yet another hurdle as their congregants make for the shore, the lake, or the mountains, challenging the clerical powers-that-be to come up with film screenings, concerts, and classes to keep the lights on.

But take heart, rabbis. This latter-day, seasonal exodus is not new. Dating to the early years of the previous century and given a name—“summer Judaism”—it gave rise to considerable soul searching about the nature of faith and the limits of community.

As much a meteorological phenomenon as a cultural one, summer Judaism was, in part, a creation of the weather. In the dog days before air conditioning, it was just too hot to sit in the sanctuary on a summer morning. The stalwart worshippers who did so were apt to be “listless, inattentive and fully as much concerned with their physical comfort as with the prayers or sermons,” related one Kansas City rabbi. Increasingly, America’s Jews stayed away, prompting urban congregations either to close for the season, or, as one observer put it in 1906, to “drowse along through the summer with short services, perhaps for the mourners.”

Meanwhile, those who could left town. Growing affluence, along with the heightened acceptability of leisure as a social value, enabled thousands of American Jews of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to abandon the city in favor of the countryside or the seashore. Up and down the East Coast and in the Midwest, too—from Kennebunkport, Maine, to Waupaca, Wisconsin—they joined existing communities, formed their own, or frequented a hotel. No matter their destination, a light-hearted, carefree “summer atmosphere” prevailed.

Forsaking responsibility for fun, American Jews threw themselves with glee and relish into the pursuit of pleasure. “The feeding and pampering of the body [is] the only and exclusive concern of these summer resorts,” observed Dr. Max Raisin, in 1916. “There is altogether too much gaudiness in dress among the women and among men and women alike too great an indulgence in rich food and in the giddy social whirl with its dances and picnics.”

Summer’s insistent social whirl didn’t stop for the Jewish day of rest. The “Sabbath at these resorts generally is less Sabbatical than any other day,” Rabbi Alexander Lyons declared after seeing for himself what all the fuss was about. No services were to be had, let alone a synagogue in which to have them. Did anyone mind? Apparently not. “Our brethren at their resorts do not want spiritual nurture,” stated yet another rabbinical observer rather categorically; they can’t even be “induced” to pack a prayer book, added a third.

This “lamentable state of affairs” was especially pronounced within the well-established and highly Americanized circles associated with the Reform movement, but the more observant circles in which recently arrived Eastern European Jews traveled were no better. Anyone familiar with Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, several chapters of which are set in a Catskills hotel in the years prior to World War I, will recall his pointed description of how the space reserved for davening also doubled as a card room, blurring the line between the sacred and profane without so much as a raised eyebrow. No sooner had Shabbos morning services concluded than the ark was whisked away, replaced by tables, chairs, and other trappings of a casino. To add insult to injury, card games drew a capacity crowd; religious services barely mustered a minyan.

Less familiar, though perhaps even more hard-hitting, was writer Esther Jane Ruskay’s account of the goings-on in the seaside community of Arverne, New York, whose residents—newly prosperous, religiously observant Eastern European Jews—ought to have known better. Writing in the American Hebrew in late August 1905, she roundly took her coreligionists to task for throwing off restraint and engaging in all manner of frivolity, especially on the Sabbath day: “garden and lawn parties, bazaars, whist and other forms of gambling … swimming contests, coaching parades, tennis matches, horse shows …”

As Ruskay’s list grew longer and longer, her disapproval swelled as well. Here, she concluded, the Jews are “deporting themselves as though no tie bound them to race or religion. As though life in the open, freedom to breathe the pure air of heaven, bring with them exemption from all obligation.”

Ruskay and her professional colleagues were not just disappointed in their coreligionists; they were shaken to their very core, taken aback by the ease with which people they thought they knew and respected had become something else entirely: vapid, silly, louche. It was almost as if Judaism and summer constituted two competing—and irreconcilable—cultural systems.

Unwilling to countenance what was happening at the grassroots, the clergy chided their congregants as if they were naughty children. Since no one was on hand to listen to their sermons, its members took to the pages of America’s Jewish newspapers to remind everyone that Judaism was a year-round affair; that faith did not take a vacation; that the hallmark of Jewish life was communal worship; and that paying homage to Mother Nature was no substitute for formal salutes to the Almighty.

Besides, what would the Christians say? After all, they took their religion with them when they went on vacation, making sure to construct handsome churches wherever they summered, or, more heartening still, forming religious summer communities such as Ocean Grove on the Jersey shore. Why, oh, why, couldn’t the Jews follow suit? “It is not to our credit that when we go to the summer resort we leave our religion back of us,” the American Israelite editorialized in 1914. Not only did this make the Jews look bad, it also gave substance to and “justifies the charge so frequently made of the lack of the religious spirit among us.”

But scolding went only so far. “Something else must be done to keep alive the flames of the higher life during the summer,” acknowledged the American Hebrew in June 1916. That the summer season “interrupted” the rhythms and rituals of Jewish life was worrisome enough. More troubling still was the prospect that the kinds of frivolous, mindless behaviors cultivated during the summer might take hold all year long. “There is danger that the weeds of gambling and listless indifference to all higher thought may grow during that period and eventually effect all religious endeavor,” cautioned yet another editorial in the American Israelite.

To make sure that didn’t happen, some well-intentioned folks suggested forming a Jewish lecture bureau to dispense “well-known Jewish scholars and Rabbis” to one summer resort after another where they’d hold forth on some high-minded topic. Others encouraged the laity to hold simpler, speedier Sabbath services and to dispense with the sermon, hoping that might prove an incentive. Still others suggested that when rabbis went on vacation, they lend a hand and organize some form of collective worship.

None of these ad hoc measures did the trick; they were far too pie in the sky, too unrealistic, to succeed. What makes you think that any Jew on vacation will take the time to listen to “scholarly lectures by University and College Professors on the ancient history of Israel, on Ecclesiasticus [sic] and the History of the Hebrew liturgy,” wrote one skeptical American Jew in response to the notion of a summertime Jewish lecture bureau, whose excessively erudite offerings missed the boat by a nautical mile. American Jews couldn’t be bothered to attend such proceedings during the dreary winter months, much less when sun and surf beckoned invitingly. As for relying on the initiative of the laity and the goodwill of vacationing rabbis to organize and conduct services, well, those expectations had yet to be met.

Once it became increasingly clear that a concerted, institutional response to the “summer problem” was warranted, the Central Conference of American Rabbis took matters in hand and in 1908 formed the Committee on Divine Services at Summer Resorts, whose mandate was to “do something towards meeting a situation that is so little to our credit.” Toward that lofty end, it worked in tandem with a sister organization—the Department of Synagogue and School Extension of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations—to supply summer communities with a rabbi and, concomitantly, to provide, free of charge, the text of a truncated Sabbath service—a pamphlet in lieu of a prayer book.

Sounding the word, it placed notices in the Jewish press offering to supply relevant materials to interested parties and published an illustrated circular to bring its “missionary” work to the attention of anyone planning a summer vacation: “Don’t Neglect Religious Services During the Summer,” it read.

As time went on, the Reform movement’s corrective measures became increasingly more professionalized, resulting in the creation of a Bureau of Summer Services whose staff worked hard throughout the year to ensure, come the summer, that no community would go without a rabbi and Sabbath services. The bureau’s “strenuous efforts” paid off. By 1915, according to carefully assembled statistics, 45 rabbis and laymen held 176 services in 29 places, nearly triple the number of five years earlier.

These religious gatherings, related Dr. Sigmund Hecht, referring to the ones he conducted in Ocean Park, California, “were dignified and filled a want in the makeup of some of the pleasure seekers at the beach town.” While organizing them prevented me from taking a vacation, he continued, I “greatly enjoyed the weekly pilgrimages I made to the ocean front, and the simple, impressive and devotional services I conducted there,” or so he dutifully informed his Reform colleagues.

Outside the orbit of the Reform movement, things also improved slowly. In the aftermath of World War I, more and more Jewish summer colonies like those in the Catskill villages of Livingston Manor and Loch Sheldrake built modestly scaled houses of worship. Fashioned out of wood, white stucco and clapboard, they attended to the needs of both the summer people and the year-round residents who, as merchants and hotel staff, serviced them. The exteriors of these synagogues may have resembled those of local churches, but inside, services were conducted in accordance with traditional Jewish practice—and, for good measure, run entirely by the laity.

When, in the late 1930s, the Mohegan Park Jewish Center was established in the northern reaches of Westchester County, its lay founders—businessmen, all—took legal steps to ensure the synagogue’s fidelity to Orthodoxy. They drew up and subsequently filed a certificate of incorporation, along with a formal constitution and by-laws whose seven (!) typescript pages affirmed the institution’s commitment to the “doctrines and practices of Orthodox Judaism” as well as to good governance. With a president, a vice president, a recording secretary, a financial secretary, a treasurer, a board of trustees, and several standing committees, including a social and entertainment committee, a law committee, and a finance committee, this summer synagogue took its responsibilities quite seriously.

Meeting at first in a member’s living room where the portable ark was fashioned by a local carpenter, the Mohegan Park Jewish Center later settled into an airy, bungalow-like structure. More than 80 years later, it’s still in use as an Orthodox house of worship.

At the synagogue’s entrance, congregants and their guests are greeted by a framed document that outlines what was once, and in most instances, continues to be, expected of them:

All are required to cooperate by maintaining order and decorum during services.

Those reciting “Kaddish” (memorial prayer) are requested to follow the leader and say it in unison.

Hats or skul [sic] caps should be put on by the men when entering the approach to the Synagogue entrance.

Worshippers are required to be dressed appropriately for the synagogue. Informal summer dress, to suit individual taste, comfort and convenience is, of course, in order; but, obviously, attending services without a coat is not appropriate for men; nor are shorts, slacks and similar dress appropriate for women or young girls in the synagogue.

Reconciling the carefree with the custodial, the looser rhythm of summer with the weight of tradition, was not easy for earlier generations of vacationing American Jews. Some spelled it out, others muddled through and still others didn’t give it much thought.

Sound familiar? The notion that summer should be a “time for deepening rather than weakening religious life” remains as much of a challenge for contemporary American Jews as it did a century or so ago—a constant, like the seasons.


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Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.