This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Membership Drives*

Even a relatively small Jewish community like that of Calgary offers potential worshippers a formidable variety of options, covering most of the main North American denominations. The ability to choose a synagogue that fits our religious or esthetic sensibilities is something that modern Jews have learned take for granted.

In fact, the coexistence of multiple synagogues in a single community has not always been an accepted norm. In the modern era it is symptomatic of a world-view that regards religious affiliation as a matter of personal choice. Scarcely a century ago, special legislation was needed to allow Samson Raphael Hirsch to withrdaw his Orthodox minority from the predominantly Reform community of Frankfurt am Main; even that decision was reached with great reluctance, and was not followed by most Orthodox Jews in Germany.

Although the Talmud contains occasional references to synagogues that were owned by private individuals, professional guilds or immigrants from other lands, in most cases they were owned and administered by the Jewish municipal councils.

In medieval times the policy was even more pronounced. The local communities were usually insistent that their synagogue be the exclusive place of worship for all residents of the town, a situation that frequently encouraged moderation and compromise from both the rabbinic leadership and their flocks.

Occasionally even during the middle ages there were historical and demographic factors that brought about the toleration of two or more congregations in one town. Such was the case in the cosmopolitan Jewish society of Egypt during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Though historical roots and political circumstances linked them to the Holy Land, the Egyptian communities were situated at the crossroads of a larger international Jewish populace, most of which accepted the authority of the Babylonian academies headed by the "Ge'onim." The upshot was that most of the larger Egyptian cities and towns hosted two synagogues, worshipping respectively according to the Palestinian and Babylonian rites.

Over the years, a competitive spirit came to characterize the relations between the two congregations as each strove to attract worshippers from among the traders and immigrants who immigrated to their communities. Although the modern institution of dues-paying synagogue membership did not exist at the time, there were felt to be important advantages to large numbers, in the size of voluntary pledges that could be expected, and in the prestige that would cling to the synagogue's leadership, that promoted a phenomenon analogous to a modern "membership campaign." Looking back at such bygone rivalries can be both instructive and amusing.

The Babylonians seem to have fired the opening volley in the competition. Invoking the scholarly prestige of the learned "Gaons" who stood at their helm in Baghdad, they offered to bestow honorific titles, certified by the Ga'on himself, upon the new arrivals to their communities.

It did not take long for the Palestinian synagogues to follow suit, invoking the authority of the revered head of the academy of Jerusalem, with all its sacred associations.

The Palestinians had additional tricks up their sleeves. In their possession were some of the most ancient and pedigreed Torah scrolls and Biblical codices in existence, written by the foremost experts on the text of the Hebrew scriptures. Furthermore, they could offer an advantage that always holds an attraction to at least some synagogue-goers: Their services were shorter. This situation was a consequence of their practice of reading the Torah over a cycle that lasted 3 1/2 years rather than in a single year as in the Babylonian custom. The individual readings on each Shabbat were correspondingly much briefer.

To add to their appeal the Palestinian synagogue leaders permitted children to chant the Torah readings. We all know how effective that can be in drawing proud parents and grandparents into the synagogue.

The Babylonians, unable to challenge their rivals' claim to a more compact service, packaged their own lengthier services as an advantage. They directed their appeal to those who preferred an intense, well-crafted worship experience. With this in mind, they advertised that those who attended their synagogues could expect to hear the Torah chanted not by inexperienced youths, but by their most accomplished adult vocalists.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, September 18 1997, pp. 10-11.
  • Bibliography:
    • J. Katz, Tradition and Crisis, New York, 1993.

    • S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, Berkeley, 1967.