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“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.””
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