The first evidence we have of synagogues comes Egypt after Alexander the Great conquers this ancient country. The general Ptolemy seizes the land as his own kingdom after Alexander’s untimely death and founds a Greek-Egyptian nation whose 2nd Army was also known as the Jewish Army. The descendents of the original army built houses of study in the fertile midlands of Egypt and they called their buildings proseuche and later synagogos. The buildings disappeared centuries ago, if not millennia ago, but some of the dedicatory stones survived. The inscriptions are published in the Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, a three volume work of all the Jewish related stones and papyrus fragments that relate to Jews of the Greek period in Egypt.
While these synagogues were the oldest, Am Echad is the youngest, just coming into being. In some ways Am Echad is the same as these ancient congregations. We speak of God, Torah and Israel, and we study and pray. We break bread together and educate our children and grandchildren. We have a building and we have dues. What we call dues, the ancient Egyptian Jews called “The Jew Tax”, but the intent and use was basically the same, the maintenance of Jewish institutions. One of the surviving papyrus fragments is a listing of the board of a Jewish dining club, by the way. Just how ancient are board meetings?
We will never know with certainty what happened within the walls of the ancient synagogos because the Jerusalem Temple with its sacrifice system existed at the time of their founding. We have no idea what their worship was, but they did pray. From their surviving dedications we know these buildings were the core institutions of Jewish life in a foreign land, but we know little of the life inside of those buildings.