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Jewish Community Studies


Reaching Out to the American Jewish Community


Daniel J. Elazar


The Matrix of Organized Jewish Life in the United States

Judaism is recognized by Americans as one of the country's major faiths and many Jews who participate in the public square derive their compass in public positions and activities from the teachings of Judaism as they understand them which generally means filtered through the American Jewish experience. However, because the Jewish community is more than simply a religion in the conventional Christian manner but also has ethnic and communal dimensions that are both part of and stand somewhat separate from Jewish religion, American Jewry articulates itself in a far more complex manner than perhaps any other group in the American mosaic.

American Jewry organizes itself to be active in five spheres:

  1. The religious-congregational sphere
  2. The education-cultural sphere
  3. The community relations-defense sphere
  4. The communal-welfare sphere
  5. The Israel-overseas sphere

1. The Religious-Congregational Sphere is that most closely resembling the American religious sphere as a whole. It consists primarily of synagogues and synagogue movements, the latter essentially countrywide confederations of like-minded congregations. Jewish religion is congregational. Any group of Jews who desire to may organize themselves into a congregation, choose a rabbi to their liking, and maintain a range of Jewish activities centered on religious worship but far from confined to that. This freedom to organize into congregations exists even where there are more firmly established Jewish frameworks beyond the congregational, as in Israel where there is a state-organized and supported chief rabbinate, and state-recognized and supported religious institutions of various kinds. Still, individual congregations in Israel are organized by groups of individual worshippers in the manner that they find most fitting within a very broad framework.

This congregational system, which was borrowed by Christianity 2,000 years ago, has been ideal for the American environment where it fits in with the "free market" of American religious expression. Hence, from the first it became the nuclear form of Jewish life in America. Indeed, between 1654 and 1795 American Jewry consisted of congregational communities; that is to say, each city in which there were a sufficient number of Jews for self-organization they organized one congregation which served all Jews in the area and which provided all services -- religious, ritual, educational, and welfare -- that Jews sought to provide for themselves. It was not until 1795 in Philadelphia that a second congregation was established in the same city and that was not repeated elsewhere until a second congregation was organized in New York some thirty years later.

Today, all but the smallest Jewish communities normally have two or more congregations and the larger communities many, reflecting not only the different branches of Judaism but the nuances within each, and the different worship styles that different groups of Jews choose for themselves. Still, for most Jews, the congregation still remains the nucleus of Jewish religious and communal life.

The vast majority of American Jews who affiliate with synagogues are either Reform or Conservative. The two movements are approximately equal in size and each represents about 40 percent of the affiliated. The major Reform synagogue association is the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the major Conservative is the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Approximately 10 percent are Orthodox, whose congregations are either in the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, in Young Israel, or associated with one or another of the ultra-Orthodox groups that include followers of the Lithuanian yeshivot (academies for Torah study) or one or another of the hassidic movements of which there are perhaps half a dozen that "count." Much smaller are the Reconstructionist movement, the Union for Traditional Judaism, and various "New Age" fellowships. With the exception of the various ultra-Orthodox movements which have significant power lodged in their national (indeed, in some cases international) leadership, in all of the other movements the real repository of authority and power remains in the individual congregations and the national movements are merely confederations of their respective affiliated congregations.

2. The educational-cultural sphere. Because of its character as a text-based religion where to be religiously knowledgeable one must study and know the sacred texts including the Bible, the Talmud, the great Codes, and the religious commentators on all of the above to be considered a truly educated Jew capable of fulfilling the religious commandments properly. The task of doing so is compounded by the fact that these texts should be studied in their original form, and that the originals are written in Hebrew and Aramaic. Hence Jewish education takes up a large proportion of the involvement time of Jews relative to other religions. Traditionally, textual study is considered as important as prayer if not more so. After a period in which the drive for Americanization reduced the amount of textual study that Jews undertook, to the barest minimum, it is once again becoming fashionable for committed Jews of all stripes to engage in such study, whether in Hebrew and Aramaic or in English translation. Indeed, one of the achievements of American Jewry in recent decades has been the translation of much of the vast corpus of a textual tradition that goes back over 3,000 years.

Jewish education in the United States has three principal components:

  1. elementary education for the young,
  2. academic education, and
  3. continuing education

1. Elementary education for children and teenagers, mostly carried out through supplementary schools conducted in each congregation, meeting on Sundays and one or two weekdays after the hours of public school and increasingly in Jewish day schools which provide both general and Jewish studies. Day schools now enroll some 25 percent of students receiving a basic Jewish education, most in six to eight-year elementary frameworks and some in high schools. The major Jewish religious movements maintain day schools and the Jewish community as a whole maintains some community day schools as well. Orthodox Jews have the highest percentage of their membership enrolled in day schools, all of which emphasize textual study in the original. The Reform movement has the lowest percentage of its members enrolled in day schools since it has only recently begun to advocate day school education as a means of providing a more enriched Jewish education than is possible in the supplementary schools.

2. Since the late 1960s, courses in Judaic studies at general colleges and universities have become a major vehicle for the Jewish education of young adult Jews. These courses can be taken while Jewish students are enrolled in programs designed to give them a general education and to prepare them for their careers, and are taught on an academic level. Most Jewish students found taking these courses take only one or two survey courses or courses on such contemporary topics as the Holocaust or women in Judaism and rarely acquire much Jewish textual knowledge. A smaller number pursue majors in Jewish studies at the undergraduate level or prepare for careers in Jewish life at the graduate level and sustain more elaborated programs in Judaic studies which do bring them in contact with a wider segment of the corpus of Jewish civilization.

In addition, there are some colleges and universities under Jewish auspices which offer more substantial programs usually based on a knowledge of Hebrew. These are mostly communal and nondenominational in orientation. For the ultra-Orthodox and those attracted to that way of life there are higher yeshivot which serve as academies for Torah learning. Students in these program often become the leaders and standard-bearers in the Jewish community as a whole and in its several religious sub-communities.

3. Adult continuing education is less formal than either of the first two and includes many home and synagogue study groups and courses that meet weekly to provide Jewish learning in a somewhat social setting. For most American Jews it is in these settings that contact with the core of the tradition is facilitated. While most of these are also devoted to text and language study, they have become the setting where most of the intellectual friends that impact contemporary Jewry reach their best audiences.

There are also Jewish cultural institutions and activities ranging from local Jewish theater in Jewish community centers to major publication programs and serious cultural expressions of all kinds. Most of the latter serve a limited audience within the community and are rarely seen as religious in orientation. Needless to say, these normally reflect the current myths, interests, and leanings of the community or "challenge" them by carrying them even further than their contemporary community consensus.

Capping all of the above are the serious academic and rabbinical study programs of a handful of major institutions mostly under Jewish sponsorship. These institutions have programs that have produced world-class scholars in every field of Jewish study and have given American Jewry a firm place in Jewish intellectual history. Paralleling them in a certain way in the cultural sphere are the various "gurus" who, coming from a religious background, endeavor to teach a spiritual Judaism and Jewish culture to interested Jews of all stripes. These people, especially the more profound thinkers among them, have developed a distinctive American Jewish thought to accompany the increasingly distinctive American Judaism.

3. The Community Relations-Defense Sphere. The long Jewish experience with anti-Semitism and Jewish fears that serious anti-Semitism might develop in the United States led the Jews to develop a number of Jewish community relations organizations beginning at the turn of the century when American (indeed Western) racism was at its height. Among them are the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish War Veterans, local Jewish community councils, and the umbrella organization that to a greater or lesser degree involves them all, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

These organizations cover the ideological spectrum of the Jewish communal consensus which means that all are ideal-oriented. Over the years they have moved from competition with one another to specialization in various community relations tasks based on their strengths and constituencies. These bodies are all secular in character although they may include religious organizations and individuals in their membership. Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that almost all of those active in those organizations are also synagogue members, although their synagogue membership has no direct connection with their community relations activity.

Most of the time these are the organizations called upon to represent the Jewish community in the American public square on issues of religious significance, often in relation to the representatives of Catholicism, Protestantism, and other religious communities who are directly connected with their respective churches or church movements. For many years most of these organizations were staffed by the most secular Jews active in the Jewish community whose basic liberal commitments led them into community relations work, especially as community relations and defense were redefined to mean Jewish organizational cooperation with other groups, religious and secular, of good will in the struggle against discrimination and racism in its various forms. This could have been an embarrassment to the Jewish community and indeed was often presented as such within the community by the community's religious representatives except for the fact that Judaism is so all-encompassing that the same ethical and moral positions expressed in the most socially conscious synagogues were expressed and even featured by these community relations organizations. One need only look at the joint action program issued by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs every other year to represent the consensus of views in these organizations as the community consensus on matters of community relations, defense against anti-Semitism, and social policy. More recently as the secular left has disappeared as a force, more and more of those involved in the professional leadership of these groups are drawn from the more religiously committed, even Orthodox, Jewish population. Still, even our latest surveys show that the leadership of these groups remains further away from Jewish religious concerns or observance than any of the religious movements.

4. The Communal-Welfare Sphere. In the days when there was no more than one congregation per city, all communal and welfare matters were handled within the congregational framework. Those days are long gone, but the traditional Jewish concern for providing support for those within their community who need it and for functioning collectively as a community remains strong. As local Jewish communities grew larger in the United States, they first developed separate charitable societies for various tasks and then at the time of the Civil War began to federate those functional associations into bodies that bore names like United Jewish Charities or United Hebrew Benevolent Association or some equivalent.

After 1880 and the beginning of the mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe, those relatively simple charitable unions needed to be supplemented by more massive efforts to assist the immigrants in their resettlement and integration into the United States and to provide for the other concerns of the Jewish community such as recreation, culture, and education. In response, Jewish communities throughout the country organized what are today the Jewish community federations. In the last one hundred years, what began as federations of charities have evolved into the closest thing that the Jewish community has to a framing institution or common address. As such they have federated all the major service agencies, schools, and community centers of the local community -- in short, organizations in all of the other spheres except the religious-congregational.

The individual synagogues have remained outside of formal linkage with the local federations for historic reasons. They regard themselves as religious institutions and the federations began by regarding themselves as civic or secular institutions designed to handle those functions outside of the purview of the synagogues. That distinction is an artificial one, from the very first the federation leadership were often the same people who played significant roles in their congregations wearing different hats. Over the past twenty years closer connections have developed between federations and synagogues in community after community, with the federations subsidizing educational activities provided by synagogues on an ever-broader basis. The two sets of institutions are developing especially close ties around the issue of "Jewish continuity."

Countrywide, the local federations are confederated through the Council of Jewish Federations, an umbrella organization headquartered in New York City. Each of the major constituent agencies of the federations has its own national league or confederation.

5. The Israel-Overseas Sphere. The federations began their work of relief and rescue of Jews outside of the United States in the days of World War I. At that time the various organizations dealing with rescue, relief, and rehabilitation in the United States organized themselves into the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The federations were involved in that effort at least indirectly from the first. After World War I the JDC continued its work with federation support. At the end of the 1930s, federations forced the integration of JDC with fund-raising for rebuilding Jewish life in what was then Palestine, conducted by what is now the United Israel Appeal (UIA). The two organizations came together and formed the United Jewish Appeal, the main fund-raising arm of the Jewish community for Israel and overseas activity.

The federations actually raise the money locally for transmission to the UJA where it is divided between JDC, UIA, and United HIAS, the countrywide body for absorbing Jewish immigrants to the United States. Today this structure is undergoing reorganization which will bring about a "back room" merger of CJF and UJA; that is to say, a unification of their housekeeping functions. There also promises to be some measure of reorganization of UIA and JDC as yet undetermined.

While UJA is seen as the major fund-raiser for Israel and overseas activities, the truth is that by the 1990s at least an equal amount of money was being raised by other organizations independent of it. They included Zionist organizations such as Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization, a major provider of support for health care and other services in Israel. The other Zionist organizations, a myriad of "Friends" associations whose primary purpose is to raise money for one institution or another in Israel ranging from the various Israeli universities to support for shelters for battered women, severely disabled children, or the Israeli equivalent of the USO. In recent years the JDC has been joined by important Jewish foundations to provide support and activities for rebuilding Jewish life in the former Communist bloc.

In addition to these five spheres a major new set of actors on the American Jewish scene are the Jewish foundations, both great and small, including such major foundations as those endowed by people like Bronfman, Mandell, Milken, and Wexner, but also including many medium-sized and smaller ones, many of which are managed by the federation endowment funds attached to all the major federations. These foundations, which are not formally part of the organized Jewish community but rather are the private initiatives of their founders and funders, play an increasingly important role in the community and its activities, especially since their founders are themselves leaders in the community and have strong views as to how their money should be used.

What is important to note in all of this is that "religion" or religious institutions cannot be segregated from the entire communal corpus. These so-called "secular" organizations and institutions of the community not only speak out on religious matters for the community but view themselves as operating within the spirit, if not the letter, of Judaism in its religious sense. Moreover, while the explicitly religious institutions have, from time to time, tried to challenge this situation, inevitably they have failed. One of the reasons that this is so is that the religious groups are seriously divided ideologically and organizationally while the Jews as a whole want to maintain their collective unit at least to the outer world and it is easier to do so through the present arrangements.


How to Reach Out to the Jewish Community

The Jewish community as a whole is a composite or a mosaic of all the foregoing elements in the American manner which is reinforced by the cultural predilections of the Jews. The community is a non-centralized matrix of institutions and organizations that are propelled and spurred by the voluntary activity and support of those interested in them. There is no single "address" for American Jewry and even a high level of consensus in the community (above 75 percent) means that there is frequently a significant dissenting minority that does not hesitate to press its views and make them public.

This means that a much wider range of actives must be brought in into any effort to reach out to the Jewish community as a whole. This is particularly true in matters of religion in the public arena where, from the earliest days of the United States, Jews have tended to be strongly pro-separation of church and state for obvious reasons of self-interest. This is reflected in the post-emancipationist ideology of modern Jews who view democracy and pluralism as fundamental "goods" achievable only through separation of church and state. Only in recent years has a small but growing minority appeared within the Jewish community that, while strongly committed to the fundamentals of separation, has come to understand that applying the same rules to the relations between religion and state as were developed in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and first half of the twentieth centuries opens the door to the introduction of pagan and non-Western religions into the American public sphere, while excluding the known monotheistic faiths of the West, and that some new accommodation must be made that, on one hand, will not damage the institutional separation of church and state but, on the other hand, will leave place for religion, especially the great monotheistic religions, to inform and influence the public arena.

While this new concern and understanding is attracting more support within the Jewish community, it is far from being the majority position. If anything, it challenges a still very strong consensus around the modern separationist definitions that often lead those individuals and bodies that speak for the community to adopt positions once understandable but that now seem absurd in a new era.


Dealing with Present Jewish Attitudes

It is generally well known that American Jews have been among those most strongly committed to building a wall of separation between church and state. Indeed, that kind of church-state separation has become one of the articles of faith of American Jewry to the point where most cannot even conceive of another relationship. Even the most recent surveys show somewhere between 75 and 95 percent of American Jewry or its various subgroups that have been surveyed standing firm on the matter of church-state separation. The only exception to this is to be found in the Orthodox community where there is a general commitment to wanting to having the principles of monotheistic religion better reflected in the public square and for support to be provided to institutions, particularly the educational institutions that will prepare people to do so.

The ultra-Orthodox have few if any qualms about their desire for governmental involvement in religious affairs, mostly in the sense of getting support for their educational religious institutions. That is at least partly because the ultra-Orthodox see the United States as a Christian country and have no problem with that since they see themselves as a minority even within the Jewish community. They expect a Christian country to promote Christianity and a democratic Christian country to provide support for non-Christian religions, including Judaism, as well.

The modern Orthodox are closer to the overall Jewish community's position on church and state and, indeed, some significant percentage of them endorse that position, but also see the possibility of government providing support for those religious institutions that serve the ends of the overall society without compromising a basically separationist position.

More equivocal is the position of Jewish conservatives and neo-conservatives. On one hand, they are more open to the idea that there is a problem of redefining how the monotheistic religions should be reflected in the public square and that the old formulas are rather shopworn. On the other hand, many of them are pulled by the classic Jewish separationist position because they perceive the strong Jewish interest in keeping government as neutral as possible on matters religious. In the end, they tend to accept government involvement in and even support for a kind of consensus religion while preserving strong walls between government and denominational religion.

The mainstream community leadership constitute one of the networks to be reached. A second is the Orthodox community including the Modern Orthodox leaderships who are considered within the mainstream but who have had a consistent minority positions on the issue of religion and public life for several decades and the ultra-Orthodox to the extent that they can be interested in participation. The third network consists of those Jews, most already very involved in American public life, who take what today is deemed as conservative position on this issue.

It should be apparent that reaching out to the Jewish community means reaching out to at least three groups: religious leaders who have formal status as such, volunteer leadership who occupy many of the major positions in Jewish life, and Jewish academics and intellectuals, at least those who are associated with the community and have influence on it through the institutional and organizational framework, albeit informally.

This, indeed, reflects the historic division of the Jewish community into three groupings (traditionally know as kehunah, malkhut, and Torah) which in the tradition were equally empowered by God in their respective domains. We may describe them as the domain of organized religious activity, the domain of civic activity, and the domain responsible for defining what Judaism and being Jewish mean in any given era. From the first domain we need to bring together representative rabbinic and non-rabbinic religious activists and to survey the populations they serve. From the second domain we need to bring together the major leaders of the federations and their "family" of organizations, locally and nationally, and leaders of the major organizations formally outside of the federation network, particularly the great community relations groups and educational institutions. From the third domain, particularly important in this group are the leading scholars of Judaica at the major rabbinical seminaries -- Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Yeshiva University -- at Brandeis University, and at such Jewish continuing education institutions as CLAL.


How to Address the Right Questions

One possible framework for addressing the issues can be presented the following manner: The issues comprised by "religion and the public square" are fraught with symbolic implications for American Jews. Their deepest convictions and anxieties about America, their yearning for complete security, and their lingering fears about anti-semitism inform their construction of the issues. At stake for Jews are the most fundamental understandings of what America is, and of the place Jews have within it. Religion and the public square is thus a prime site for the exploration of Jewish self-understanding. It is a site where American Jews evoke, contest and negotiate their conflicting visions of America's character and destiny. The spectrum of views that they produce mark profound internal differences in their appraisal of America. The spectrum in toto may also mark a difference between them and non-Jewish Americans as well.

Ascertaining where American Jews stand on religion and the public square involves ascertaining the "fundamental understandings of what America is" current among American Jews. The following questions (which are not suitable for survey research in the present form) attend to those understandings.

Is America fundamentally an Enlightenment culture constituted by ideas that -- whatever their deep background in religion might have been -- are by now quite independent of religion such that these ideas are universal or rational or self-evident and require no support form religion?

If America is fundamentally an Enlightenment culture where religion is peripheral rather than central to the generation and maintenance of moral conviction, then where does moral conviction come from and how is it to be sustained in a socially effective way?

Or, alternatively, is American fundamentally a biblical culture whose basic commitments not only derive from a specifically Jewish and/or Christian ethos, but whose values require constant nourishment from believing citizens rooted in those traditions?

If "biblicism" is chosen over "enlightenment" then to what extent are these biblical values the mutual property of Jews and Christians? That is, to what extent are they subsumed under a putative "Judeo-Christian tradition" in which both Jews and Christians have an equal and original share in the American project?

If American Jews and Christians are equal partners on religious grounds what are the consequences of that for a Jewish understanding of secularism; of other religious groups? That is, how are the boundaries of openness and exclusivity to be defined?

Do all groups have an equal standing such that no culture or religion has any greater affinity with American ideals than any other? (That is, there are no American ideals other than what different American groups empirically hold as ideal. This is the multi-culturalist option.)

Are there American ideals which all groups ought to embrace, albeit in a manner suitable to their own cultural and religious background? (This is the pluralist option.)

Are some groups more capable than others of revisioning themselves as Americans and, if so, should all groups follow their lead and conform to a basic patters of assimilation? (This is the melting-pot option.)

The above questions turn on whether there are distinctively American values, ideas or emphases that constitute (or should constitute) the convictions of an American citizen. Do these in fact exist? Did they ever? Should they? What role (if any) should religion play in articulating and sustaining such values?

To what extent are the marketplace and the state (particularly in the sense of the public schools) providers of value? of disvalue?

What is the appropriate public (albeit non-governmental) role of religious bodies? What activities are inappropriate for them?

What is the appropriate governmental role vis--vis religious bodies? Should government, for example, support religiously sponsored institutions in their role as service providers to the general public? How should provision of services be understood? Should government devolve its own services onto religiously sponsored institutions?

Is Christianity, as a moral, social and political force, fundamentally threatening to Jewish life in America? Or, alternatively, is it supportive (perhaps in an unintended way) of Jewish life? Is it neutral or irrelevant?

Given the perceived crisis in American Jewish "continuity," would a general revival of Christianity in the US have positive consequences for Jews and Judaism?


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