The Post-Yeshiva Synagogue

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Guest post by R. Yonatan Kaganoff

Rabbi Yonatan Kaganoff served for many years as a Rabbinic Coordinator in the OU’s Kashruth Division and was the founding Online Editor of the journal Tradition. He has semikhah from RIETS, studied Jewish philosophy at the Bernard Revel Graduate School and serves on the Board of Advisors of K’hal Adath Jeshurun in Washington Heights.


In his classic study of American Yeshivot, The World of the Yeshiva,[1. The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry, New York: Free Press ; London : Collier Macmillan Pub., 1982. Augmented edition, Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Pub. House, 2000.] Willian Helmreich reports on the results of his surveys of Yeshiva alumni. He asks the alumni, among other topics, questions about their religious life: what is the nature of their Judaism, and in what type of synagogue do they choose to pray.

Thirty years later, we can again address these questions. There are a number of synagogues in which the majority of whose members spent many years studying in Yeshiva. There are even cities and communities where these synagogues compose the major institutional presence or the religious norm.[2. I am referring almost exclusively to Ashkenazi Jews and “Nusach Ashkenaz”. A discussion of the Edot Hamizrach in America would take us too far afield.]

What is the nature of a synagogue built and designed for Yeshiva alumni? What is distinctive about a synagogue, creating a prayer experience and space for those whose foundational religious experiences was studying in Yeshiva?

As important as the years spent studying in Yeshiva, and the knowledge and skills acquired during those years, for most Yeshiva graduates, their years spent studying in Yeshiva framed their formative religious experiences. Their religious identities are founded upon years when they spent all day or the majority of the day studying religious texts and living, semi-monastically, focused primarily or singularly on the service of God. How does a Judaism forged in the crucible of such institutions and experiences translate into a middle class lifestyle with wife and children, when the bulk of their waking hours are consumed with work? How does an ethos of ve-hegita bo yomam va-layla, when all time should be spent studying Torah,[3. Cf. Talmud Yerushalmi, Pe’ah 1:1] express itself for those for whom Torah study is neither their primary nor secondary occupations?

In this essay I will examine the synagogue of the post-Yeshiva Orthodox Jews and focus on several distinct characteristics of these Houses of Worship. I will then suggest what they might indicate about its membership and how the synagogues are used to fashion and negotiate the Jewish identity of their attendees.

The Post-Yeshiva Synagogue

While every synagogue has its own unique internal dynamic and features, I would like to propose four distinctive characteristics for the post-Yeshiva synagogue. I further suggest that these characteristics represent an attempt to redefine their synagogue as a Bais Ha-Medrash; a house of study, and its member and participants, therefore, as people who are associated with a Bais Ha-Medrash rather than a synagogue; a house of worship.

These four characteristics are:

  1. The use of chairs and tables instead of benches or stadium seating.
  2. The Rabbi’s speech is moved from before Mussaf to before Kerias ha-Torah.
  3. Kiddush is not recited on Friday night.
  4. The elimination of Anim Zemiros from services on Shabbat morning.

While the primary purpose of the Bais Ha-Medrash is to learn and the central purpose of the Synagogue is to pray, since late antiquity they, respectfully, have been used for both purposes.[4. Babylonian Talmud, Berachos 9a; Megillah 29a; Tur, Orach Chaim 124 and Beis Yosef, ad loc.] Nonetheless throughout history, through modern times, they have maintained their distinct roles and identities. The purpose of the innovations under discussion is to blur these roles and identities, so that participants can complicate their own identities.

No Stadium Seating

The most significant feature of these synagogues is the change in architecture; in place of fixed benches or rows with slots for siddurim and chumashim, there are tables and chairs. This is the traditional typical seating arrangement for a Bais Ha-Medrash rather than for an American synagogue sanctuary. While the type and layout of seats, at first glance, might seem inconsequential to the larger purpose of the building and room, the change from benches to tables is most noteworthy. One might think that the sanctuary’s architecture is trivial compared to the actual prayers recited.

However, this change signifies the blurring of the distinction between the synagogue and the Bais Ha-Medrash. In replacing rows or benches with tables and stands, the implicit message is that one needs a table for ones’ books. In a normal synagogue, even on a Sabbath morning, one only needs two books, a siddur and a chumash. Therefore, having a table would be unnecessary and would only serve to occupy valuable space in the sanctuary. By replacing row or benches with tables and chairs, the implication is that one needs a table for one’s books. If one uses an area for study, for Talmud Torah, whether it be for individual study or study with a chavrusah, a study partner, then one will need a table to keep any number of seforim that one would use or consult during the course of a seder, study session, often several volumes at once. Conspicuously, one generally does not need tables to listen to for a shiur, or public lecture. At most, in such contexts, one only needs to hold a paper handout. In fact, ‘traditional’ synagogues main sanctuaries are often used for lectures or shiurim. But there is something qualitatively different from passively listening to a shiur and actively learning. One of the most significant aspects of the Yeshiva experience is the empowering nature of the study. One’s day is primarily devoted to personal study. Even, if within the context of the Yeshiva schedule, if one attends a shiur or a chaburah, most of the day is spent studying with a partner. As men progress in the Yeshiva system, fewer attend shiur. Converting the seating in the sanctuary from benches or stadium seating to tables and chairs sends a message that the synagogue is primarily a place of learning and not of praying.

There is a fundamentally passive aspect in twentieth century synagogue life, especially in synagogues with Rabbis and cantors. The central roles within the synagogue experience were played by the paid official religious functionary. One listened and watched, but did not actively participate. For many, the synagogue is still associated with a passive Judaism. In contrast to the active role of Jewish life of learning in Yeshiva, the synagogue is associated with a passive Judaism. Additionally, the role that the laity played in a synagogue can be viewed as religiously superficial. While a strong laity is essential for creating and maintain any synagogue, they often performed supporting (financially, organizationally or otherwise) roles at best. From the perspective of someone immersed in Yeshiva life, organizing the annual synagogue softball game or sisterhood luncheon is less religiously meaningful than a deep engagement with Jewish texts.

Conspicuously, in the post-Yeshiva synagogue even when men’s section has tables, the women’s section will still have stadium seating.

There are a number of practical ramifications to this change. Having tables and chairs normally means that there was room for fewer people in synagogue. It is also generally a less elegant and aesthetically pleasing arrangement than rows. However, this may be a deliberate rejection of the aesthetic of the traditional American synagogue, with its focus on decorum and order. Interestingly, an oft-repeated critique of Eastern European Orthodox Jews, was that they were coarse and uncouth. Large ornate synagogues were meant to counteract this criticism. By rejecting the ornate, these synagogues may be returning to the original Eastern European aesthetic. We should note that benches are not necessarily any more comfortable than chairs and tables. Additionally, this arrangement means that the synagogue does not have any fixed furniture.

Having tables encourage men to study Torah in shul before, after and during services. While learning during services may be detrimental to the prayer experience and legally problematic,[5. Cf. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 124 and 90] this arrangement also effectively subordinate the primacy of prayer to study.

The Un-Sermon

Commonly, in these synagogues there is no sermon. But, if the Rabbi talks, it is not in the traditional place, preceeding Mussaf, but rather either before or after the Torah reading. The traditional place for the sermon in American synagogues is before Mussaf, whether that synagogue is Orthodox, Reform or Conservative.

For decades, the sermon was the center of the synagogue service. This was especially true where the sermon was in the vernacular and most attendees did not understand Hebrew as this was the one part of the service that they could understand. It was the key place for the Rabbi to shine before all attendees.

Historically, the sermon was modeled after the Protestant service where the sermon is theologically central to the service, as an act of spreading the gospel. It served to create a synagogue that was modeled after the other Western Houses of Worship. A weekly or monthly sermon was not part of the traditional Jewish prayer service.

For many, has become a symbol for American Modern Orthodox Synagogues. By moving the sermon and changing its nature it becomes either a mussar schmooze (ethical talk) or a dvar torah, part of the framework of the Yeshiva. A Rabbi could always choose to have an unconventional sermon or choose to use the language, syntax or diction of the Yeshiva jargon in his sermon. However, that does not change the fact that they are giving a sermon and that they are replicating the synagogue service of the American Jew. By relocating the sermon to before the reading of the Torah, the implicit message is that this is not a traditional American synagogue. The Rabbi is creating a disjunction between other American Orthodox synagogues and the one that he leads.

Additionally, women tend to come later than men to Shabbat prayers. The later in the service the sermon, the more likely women are to hear the sermon. By moving the sermon earlier in the service, women are implicitly excluded from the sermon. Similar to having stadium seating while the men have tables and benches, the synagogue sanctuary is converted into a Bais Ha-Medrash where women are spectators to the service.

No Anim Zemiros

The twelfth century mystical poem Anim Zemiros is not recited at the conclusion of Saturday morning prayers in these synagogues. Though the decision to remove Anim Zemiros from services can be understood as based upon a legal ruling, attributed to the Vilna Gaon, to limit the recitation to either Yom Tov or Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur,[6. Nesiv Binah Vol. 2, pp. 260-273] in practice it was and is a widespread custom to say Anim Zemiros in synagogues across America.[7. Anim Zemiros is not part of the liturgy for many of the Edot HaMizrach. However, as I mentioned in an earlier footnote, I am focusing solely on America Ashkenazi Jewry in this essay. This also applies to the recitation of Kiddush Friday night.] The custom not to recite Anim Zemiros in this context originates, rather, from the prayers recited and not recited in a Yeshiva. The unspoken message in the decision to remove Anim Zemiros is that these synagogues follow the Nusach, liturgical tradition, and are therefore part of the culture, of the Yeshiva. Subtle, unspoken small actions create patterns of continuity and discontinuity and these patterns help individuals define who they are and who they are not. In skipping Anim Zemiros, the synagogue is creating a new nusach, Nusach Ha-Yeshiva, creating a break from the traditional American synagogues.

Anim Zemiros also serves a function in American Orthodox synagogue life as a ritual that children under the age of thirteen could perform, by either opening the curtain or leading the recitation of the prayer. This reinforces the “Jewish Center” model of the synagogue as a place for the entire family, men women and children, to gather. By omitting Anim Zemiros, the synagogue is reestablished as the place for men to pray and study and not as a place for children.

No Kiddush Friday Night

These synagogues do not say Kiddush on Friday night. Although the recitation of Kiddush on Friday night in synagogue has been a problematic practice from its beginnings [8. Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 101a; Tur, Orach Chaim 270 and Beis Yosef; Shulchan Aruch, ad locum] in late antiquity, in practice, Kiddush was recited Friday night in most synagogues across Europe for hundreds of years and the practice was brought over to most American (if not Israeli) synagogues. It was also beneficial in the era when Orthodox Synagogues were filled with non-Orthodox Jews, when people attended Orthodox synagogue, but did not celebrate Shabbos afterwards. Having Kiddush in synagogue allowed those people, to hear Kiddush weekly.[9. Cf. Shu”t Seridei Eish 2:157]

Additionally, Kiddush is a non-prayer practice. It serves to make the service more child-friendly, as the children drink the Kiddush wine. By removing Kiddush and any other extraneous practices, the synagogue re-focuses the purpose of the service as prayer alone, rather than a social or cultural Jewish Center, even if the building serves as a place of study.

This is not a contradiction to my earlier points about the changes making the sanctuary focus on study rather than on prayer. The prayer service is about prayer and fulfilling one’s obligation to pray. However, this service takes places within a Bais Ha-Medrash.

Identity & Identity Construction

These changes became more significant when we consider that, for most of the 20th century, the synagogue served as more than just the center of American Jewish religious life. A synagogue was also central to the religious identity of the members and attendees of the synagogue. This was true for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews. And, as the synagogue life of Orthodox Jews tended to be more intense than that of other Jews, so too was their religious identities.

However, in the last few decades, the focus of the religious identities of American Jews, across the denominational spectrum, has shifted to alternative centers of identity. One of the primary directions has been to education institutions. Ones that they attended, where they send their children or which they support. How do you create a synagogue in light of the experience of those who spend years in Yeshivot and view the Yeshiva as the pinnacle of the religious lifestyle and experience and upon which they formulate their identities?

The changes described earlier answer that question.

Children learn their parents’ patterns of behavior and lifestyle. Barring any disruptive influences, they will tend to recreate the lifestyle of their parents. However, at the same time, every generation grows up under different circumstances and under different influences. If a generations charges or rejects specific or general aspects of the lifestyle in which they were raised, we must ask why this is so. In the case under discussion, children are, by and large, adopting the consumerist middle-class lifestyle of their parents, which is reflected by the centrality of the synagogue. However, the locus of American orthodoxy has shifted from the synagogue to educational institutions. In keeping with this change, synagogues were refashioned to reflect Yeshivot.

In a liberal democracy all choices are made freely. This is not limited to the innumerable major and minor choices that individuals make in their daily life, but also all identity is chosen and constructed. However, even as identity is constructed there is also a need for that identity to feel authentic. And yet, to feel authentic the identity needs to conform, minimally in the mind of the individual and conforming to their understanding of reality.

In the case at hand, each individual chooses to be Jewish and what type of Jew they would like to be. For reasons that we will not dwell upon here, people choose to identify with the American Yeshivish (or Hareidi) communities. In such communities men who fulfill their communal expectations are expected to study in a Yeshiva from when they finish high school until they can no longer do so.

People make choices to create and affirm their identity. For men who spent years studying in Yeshiva their identification of the ideal Jewish environment is the Yeshiva and the ideal Jew is the one who learns.

Practically, it is not feasible for most men to learn Torah all day beyond a few years. Either because of family responsibilities (such as the need to pay bills), or because most men people are not cut out to spend their life studying or teaching Torah, because of a lack of intellectual abilities, personality or temperament. Despite the fact that the years spent studying in Yeshiva will be few, nonetheless it remains the religious ideal.

Consequently, synagogues are not seen as the ideal framework for expressing one’s Jewishness. The epitome is the Yeshiva.

However, practically, for alumni of Yeshiva, the main location for practicing and expressing their Jewish identity is the synagogue. They have to daven in a synagogue three times a day. They have to attend long services on Friday night and Sabbath morning. Therefore, realistically, it makes more sense to build their religious life around a synagogue than upon a Yeshiva.

Nonetheless, in their identity, the synagogue is actually looked down upon. It is often associated with the uneducated. The jewishly ignorant Modern Orthodox, in the 20th century invested in building synagogues and day schools. A synagogue is, by definition, non-elite, anyone can show up and daven. There are minimal requirements for joining and participating. Even leading the services does not require much education or investment.

Additionally, historically, synagogues was perceived as a source of opposition to the Yeshiva; the pulpit Rabbi played off against the Rosh Yeshiva.

These new synagogues resolve the tension between the ideal of their lifestyle and the necessity of their lives of its members; bridging the ideal model of the life of the Yeshiva and the practical centrality of the synagogue in their lives.

So they create an anti-synagogue: A distinctly untraditional Orthodox synagogue, without many of the main features of the synagogue, including the stadium seating and the sermon which was the center of the service.

By affiliating and praying at an anti-synagogue, Yeshiva alumni are able to create a Jewish lifestyle similar in practice to the traditional American suburban Orthodox while simultaneously reframing it upon the model of the Yeshiva. It is a way of formulating a Jewish identity which uses the Yeshiva as the ideal. Jewish practice is utilized to fashion this identity.

In this way, the Yeshiva is no longer only an insular place of learning. It is now an idea upon which an identity can be fashioned.

The Yeshiva was always meant to be an elite institution. Even with the rise of mass attendance at Yeshiva, most ultra Orthodox and Chassidic Jews do not spend their entire lives studying full time. Rather they leave when they are “forced” by family responsibilities. Often newly married men study for a year or two before going off to work. It cannot serve as a mass model for Jewish communities. By definition is it not built for men who work full time and have family and householder responsibilities. But these synagogues allow one to create the identity without the actual practice of sitting all day studying. The synagogue allows its members to define themselves as part of the Yeshiva world, even they are living a middle class lifestyle. They can retain their identification from before they were married and working.


The rise of the new lifestyle where a significant and formative part of one’s life and religious identity is based upon the austere and intense life of the Yeshiva has created a need for Synagogues which create and reinforce a religious identity based upon years in the Yeshiva. I have described four ways in these identities are formulated and negotiated through the modification of the synagogues and its prayer service to create a locus for a post-Yeshiva identity. This identity is modeled after the life of the Yeshiva while living a non-Yeshiva lifestyle. In this way, the alumni of the Yeshiva can successfully fashion an identity combining different periods of their life. We can see how Yeshiva is as much about identity as practice and that we need to look at the numerous and subtle ways that Orthodox Jews fashion an identity around, through and beyond halakhic practice.

About Yonatan Kaganoff

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter