Undergraduates at Syracuse, and elsewhere I supposed, gravitate to Abraham Geiger and Reform Judaism when we pull up to the modern period in my introduction to Judaism. They like the individualistic voluntarism that they associate with liberalism and which they think they see in Geiger, even if, truth be told, Geiger was more committed to the Idea than to the individual. About the notion that ethical monotheism is the essence of Judaism, I put up on the doc-cam this article here from the Syracuse University student paper, the Daily Orange, about the news that Temple Society of Concord, an old Reform congregation, was selling off to real estate developers its Greek revival synagogue, one of the oldest synagogues in the United States.
You don’t see this often; the students in class were genuinely shocked. Kudos to Gabe Stern, the student journalist, for excellent religion writing; the headline and article put the focus on “home,” finding “new home,” “loss,” “resistance,” and “change.” The University area is where the Syracuse Jewish community first set up shop. What affected the student was loss and maybe revulsion at the idea that a synagogue might become private real estate for students. A donor I met with once described all the delis that once helped define the neighborhood back in the 1950s when he was an undergraduate here. In class we discussed the demographic and economic variables in play that speak to the difficulty maintaining liberal religious community in areas of historical first settlement. $9,000,000 is a lot of money up here.
What we learn from this story is what? That in its instantiation as a form of material culture, maybe the essence of Judaism is architecture.