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Distributed for Brandeis University Press

Pennies for Heaven

The History of American Synagogues and Money

Distributed for Brandeis University Press

Pennies for Heaven

The History of American Synagogues and Money

In the annals of American Jewish history, synagogue financial records have been largely overlooked. But as Daniel Judson shows in his examination of synagogue ledgers from 1728 to the present, these records provide an array of new insights into the development of American synagogues and the values of the Jews who worshipped in them. Looking at the history of American synagogues through an economic lens, Judson examines how synagogues raised funds, financed buildings, and paid clergy. By “following the money,” he reveals the priorities of the Jewish community at a given time. Throughout the book, Judson traces the history of capital campaigns and expenditures for buildings. He also explores synagogue competition and debates over previously sold seats, what to do about wealthy widows, the breaking down of gender norms, the hazan “bubble” (which saw dozens of overpaid cantors come to the United States from Europe), the successful move to outlaw “mushroom synagogues,” and the nascent synagogue-sharing economy of the twenty-first century. Judson shows as well the ongoing relationship of synagogue and church financing as well as the ways in which the American embrace of the free market in all things meant that the basic rules of supply and demand ultimately prevailed in the religious as well as the commercial realm.

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“With Judson’s broad scope, one will find things he missed or oversimplified; I highlighted several above. On the other hand, the book is accessible and full of examples from notable—and some smaller and overlooked—synagogues in American history. Ultimately, Pennies for Heaven offers an important economic perspective on Jewish religious life in America, one that scholars of American Jewish history should keep in mind.”

Reading Religion

“In addition to being a valuable addition to American Jewish history, this book takes an honest look at the various models of synagogue funding, past and present, particularly the dues system model.”

Jewish Herald-Voice

“Judson reveals a rich history that brims with stunning insights, making this book a must-read for anyone who cares about shaping a vibrant Jewish future.”


Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of Union for Reform Judaism

Pennies for Heaven will capture the attention of Jewish and other American religious leaders and laypeople searching for guidance in their quests to support religious institutions today. This is a book to be savored and discussed!”


Rabbi David Ellenson, President, Hebrew Union College

"Daniel Judson’s well-researched, marvelously original, and surprisingly entertaining study of how American synagogue finance evolved from colonial times to the present is a must-read for anyone concerned with funding synagogues."

American Jewish Archives Journal

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments • Introduction • “The Foundation Stones Are Now for Sale”: 1728–1805 • “So Paltry a Way of Support”: 1805–1865 • Mushroom Synagogues, Free Synagogues, and the Hazan Craze: 1865–1919 • “No Aristocracy and No Snobocracy: In God’s House All Must Be Equal”: 1919–1945 • “If It Has to Be Done, It Should at Least Be Done in a Dignified Way”: 1945–Today • Conclusion: Today–Tomorrow • Notes • Bibliography • Index

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