Synagogues have maintained several types of records, including congregational histories, minutes of meetings, lists of members and donors, and vital records such as birth, death, marriage, bar/bat mitzvah, and confirmation records. Not all synagogues had all types of records and many, if not most, records have been lost or destroyed. However, the records that do exist may provide useful genealogical information, especially if your ancestor was a rabbi or officer of the congregation.
Finding the synagogue your ancestor attended may be difficult. In small towns or cities with only a few synagogues, the local historical or genealogical society may be able to provide a list. In large cities, people often attended nearby synagogues or those associated with the towns or regions from which they emigrated.
The best way to locate your ancestor’s synagogue is to ask older relatives or through documents mentioning the synagogue, such as wedding or bar-mitzvah invitations, receipts, and tickets.
If you know the name of a rabbi of the synagogue, there are several lists of rabbis and their congregations:
For the years 5661 (1900-1901), 5668 (1907-1908), and 5680 (1919-1920), the American Jewish Year Book, published by the American Jewish Committee in Philadelphia, also included a comprehensive Directory of National and Local Organizations in the United States. This directory contains a listing of national and local Jewish organizations by city, including synagogues. In New York City, some congregations are also listed by associated ancestral home town as well as by the name of the congregation. (The complete run of the American Jewish Year Book is also available online.)
City directories (pre-telephone book listings of individuals, businesses, and their addresses) can provide the location of synagogues. Check the index in the directory to see where they may be listed – e.g. “Public Institutions”, “Churches”, etc. Also look under possible synagogue names (“Congregation”, “Temple”, etc.). In some directories, rabbis may also be listed under “Clergymen.” For more information on how to locate city directories, please consult our city directories research guide.
Local Jewish genealogical and historical societies may have lists of old and existing synagogues, as well as Jewish cemeteries, in the area. If you know where relatives were buried, the cemetery plot may have belonged to a synagogue. There is a list of Jewish genealogical societies here.
JewishGen has a Memorial Plaques database with information from synagogue yahrzeit plaques and other memorial records. If your ancestor’s plaque is listed, he/she probably attended the synagogue.
The Center for Jewish History’s partner collections contain many publications on the Jewish communities of various U.S. cities and states. Search the Center for Jewish History’s online catalog by location for publications specific to your area of interest. For example, Allen Meyers’ Southern New Jersey Synagogues (Sewell, NJ: Sir Speedy Printers, 1990) (copies in the American Jewish Historical Society and YIVO collections) has extensive historical information on synagogues in that region.
The Board of Delegates of American Israelites Records contains surveys of member synagogues concerning the histories and sizes of their congregations, 1859-1878. The Board was the first organization to systematically record this type of information in the United States.
The Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute has created the online New York Historical Synagogues Map, based on several synagogue surveys taken from 1900-1939. You may search the map by synagogue name, address, or associated town. Please note that this map is still in progress and will eventually cover all five boroughs.
If you know where relatives were buried, the cemetery plot may have belonged to a synagogue. There is a directory of Jewish cemeteries in the NYC metropolitan area.
The Jewish Communal Register of New York City 1917-1918 (NY: Kehillah of New York City, 1918) lists congregations with their addresses, membership, seats, and affiliated entities (cemeteries, societies, etc.) – almost all Orthodox. It also names the president and gives a brief biography.
The following books contain information on and photographs of many former synagogues. Because of the high synagogue concentration in many parts of the city, location alone may not be decisive, but the search may be narrowed if the ancestral community is also known.
BronxSynagogues.org: This browsable and searchable database includes the address of every registered, tax-exempt synagogue that ever existed in the Bronx with its date of organization and its present usage. In addition, there are 100 photographs of the buildings as they stand today.