Whose Name is on the Door – and How Did It Get There?
The first temple, in Jerusalem, was built by King Solomon, after God deemed his father, King David, unworthy of the task. Nonetheless, a dozen member congregations of the Union for Reform Judaism have deemed King David worthy enough to name their temples after him (although none explains on its website the reason for their choice).
But among contemporary URJ temples, only one bears the name Solomon. You could readily surmise that the Jews of that congregation wanted to honor the great builder and wise man who is credited with writing Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. (Daddy only has Psalms to his credit.) But in so surmising, you would be wrong. Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf (Northridge CA) was coaxed into being, according to its online history, as an evolution of the Los Angeles Hebrew Association of the Deaf, and the transition was facilitated by the regional director of the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now URJ), Rabbi Solomon Kleinman. In appreciation for his guidance, the founders named their synagogue in his honor.
So King Solomon may have been noted for his wisdom, but not to the point of actually getting a synagogue named after him. However, three synagogues bear the names of two other Wise men, Isaac Mayer Wise Temple in Cincinnati, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, and Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles. The Cincinnati congregation was founded as Kehilat Kodesh Bnai Jeshurun, was known during Rabbi Wise’s tenure as the Plum Street Temple, and was renamed in his honor after his death. Stephen Wise founded The Free Synagogue, on the principle of freedom of the pulpit, after having accepted a call to Temple Emanuel and then learning that his sermons would be subject to pre-approval by the lay leadership. The congregation continued to be known as The Free Synagogue during his lifetime, and his name was added after his death in 1949. One of Wise’s disciples, Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, influenced the founders of a new synagogue in northwest Los Angeles to name Stephen Wise Temple after his teacher. (Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue in Evanston IL carries on the Wise heritage of freedom of the pulpit in its name, as does Sinai Free Synagogue in Mount Vernon NY.)
The two other rabbis with URJ congregations named after them did not serve in the pulpits of the temples that have memorialized them. However, after Rabbi Leo Baeck spoke at Temple Beth Aaron in Los Angeles, the congregation was so mesmerized that they renamed their synagogue in his honor. I’m sure that the words of Rabbi Hillel are heard frequently in the classrooms and sanctuaries of the five URJ congregations that bear his name; but only one of the five, Beth Hillel of Kenosha WI, evidences his influence, carrying im eyn ani li, mi li (If I am not for myself, who will be for me) on its newsletter masthead.
Had Beth Aaron not changed its name to Leo Baeck, it would have been one of a trio of Union congregations bearing the name of Aaron, Moses’s less celebrated brother. (Congregations named for the eldest sibling, Miriam? Forget it! ) I don’t know how Congregation Aaron in Trinidad CO chose its name, but Beth Aaron in Billings MT awarded naming rights to the biggest giver to its building fund, who named the temple after himself. But Moshe Rabbenu has not only not been a winner in the naming sweepstakes, he hasn’t even been a player. The only one of our congregations that has Moses in its name is Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington IL, which honors the British philanthropist in the congregation’s name because one of the donor’s to the first building campaign made that a condition for his contribution of $100! That was a bargain; the family of Albert Grunsfeld in Albuquerque had to come up with $250 to get naming rights for what is now Congregation Albert.
Two other URJ congregations are also named for famed philanthropists. Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle is named for Baron Maurice De Hirsch, who contributed massive sums to support Jewish emigration and colonization, especially in Argentina and Canada (and who was not gung-ho about Palestine, because he thought the Zionist idea was too far-fetched to be realized). But, as is the norm, the temple website does not tell us why the name was chosen. Touro Synagogue in New Orleans is the product of a merger between two earlier New Orleans congregations, both of which had benefitted from the largesse of local resident Judah Touro.
Speaking of Judah Touro leads us to three congregations whose names incorporate the name Judah, after Jacob’s fourth and most influential son (aside from kid brother Joseph). They are Temple Judah in Cedar Rapids; The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, KS; and B’nai Yehudah Beth Sholom in Homewood IL. None of the three specifies why the name was chosen for the temple, but we can surmise that the founders wanted a term that encompassed the Jewish people and that wasn’t Israel, or the poetic stand-in Jeshurun. B’nai Yehudah (which merged with Beth Sholom in 1998) was founded in 1944 as Hyde Park Liberal Congregation, and was early (1960) into adding a Hebrew name, presumably instigated by a move out of Hyde Park. As for brother Joseph, his name appears at Congregation Adath Joseph in St. Joseph MO, and I suspect that geography had more to do than Torah in that nomenclature choice.
The name of Judah’s and Joseph’s father, Jacob, shows up in the names of six Union congregations. Presumably the third patriarch was being remembered at five of them, but the sixth, Temple Jacob in Hancock MI, tells us that the name was chosen to memorialize the child of one of the big givers. Congregation Beth Jacob in Plymouth MA connects its name with its pride in its historic 1909 building, captioning it on the website Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob.
The second patriarch, Isaac, appears twice in the naming inventory, indirectly at the aforementioned Isaac Mayer Wise Temple, and more directly at Temple Beth Isaac in suburban Detroit. However, it can be inferred from the temple’s website that the name was not chosen to honor the patriarch, but rather the parent of a significant donor.
Seven congregations are named for the first patriarch, Abraham, none offering a specific reason on its website. However, Beth Abraham of Tarrytown is another example of a congregation that changed its name from English to Hebrew. As an Orthodox community, it called itself Hebrew Congregation of Tarrytown and North Tarrytown, and adopted its Biblical name in the same time frame as its move into Reform practice.
Given the importance of the prophetic tradition in the Reform movement, it’s easy to surmise why eleven of our congregations named themselves for prophets, and harder to figure out why it’s only eleven. (Actually, in the case of one of the three congregations named for Micah, we are told that the name was the choice of the donor whose contribution to the building fund earned him naming rights.) There is one Temple Jeremiah, and seven congregations whose names honor Isaiah. Isaiah is of course remembered anonymously in the countless congregations which have carved his words in stone: Mine house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples.. Although all eleven of the “prophetic” congregations have active social action/tikkun olam programs, these are not emphasized at the expense of the other core elements of synagogue life.
As a sidelight on this overview of the some sixty Reform congregations bearing the names of people, we note that nine of the names are unique, the rest have one or more duplicates. I am reminded of a story told to me by a Roman Catholic friend, whose ten year old daughter was a student at Christ the King School in Chicago’s south suburbs. One day, Mary Beth recounted, she was driving her daughter and a classmate on an excursion in the north suburbs, and one of the girls noted that they were passing a church and school also called Christ the King – whereupon one of the girls turned to the other and said, “It must be a franchise.”
 These posthumous re-namings contrast with the informal names of the two Reform congregations in my home town of Cleveland. They were generally called not by their formal names but by the names of their incumbent rabbis: Silver’s Temple after Abba Hillel Silver, and Brickner’s Temple after Barnett Brickner. Frequently the word temple was omitted – I belong to Silver’s or I belong to Brickner’s.
 Although I usually italicize transliterated Hebrew in my posts, I leave tikkun olam in roman, in recollection of the Temple Youth Group member who asked the rabbi what the Hebrew word was for tikkun olam.