Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Jewish Community Studies

Community and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of American Jewry

Preface to Second Edition

Daniel J. Elazar

Since the appearance of the original edition of Community and Polity in 1976, the American Jewish community has crossed the watershed from the post-World War II generation to a new generation whose dimensions became apparent in the 1980s.

Between 1977 and 1979, the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds underwent a reorganization, symbolically manifested in the shortening of its name to the Council of Jewish Federations. This is a sign of the recognition by its leadership of the new role of the federation movement within American Jewish life, a role that is amply described and analyzed herein. Although this reorganization was designed to strengthen the federation movement countrywide, it came -- somewhat ironically -- at a time when one of the major sources of the Federations' power, their fund raising for Israel, had to compete with the task of mobilizing political support for Israel in Congress and the White House, or, at the very least, securing massive United States aid for the Jewish state that goes far beyond the capabilities of voluntary fund raising. It is a task for which the federation movement is not particularly suited and which has focused some attention on other institutions in Jewish life that, however, can only remain secondary to the Federations in the overall scheme of the Jewish polity.

This, in itself, reflects a change in Jewish influence in the political sphere. Israel took its first steps toward peace in signing the treaty with Egypt. American public opinion with regard to the Israel-Arab conflict shifted to a more "even-handed" stance. The events of the 1980s further weakened Israel's position in American eyes. There has even been a concomitant diminution of the intensity of American Jewish concern for Israel, in part because American Jews confronted Israel's blemishes for the first time.

The combination of inflation, assimilation, "peace," and disenchantment seems to have reduced the fund-raising capabilities of the Federations at a time when the costs of providing even existing local services are growing at a very rapid rate, thus leading not only to an immediate dollar squeeze in the Jewish communal budget, but also to a conservatism with regard to new departures. The aggressive, advancing Jewish community of the late 1960s and early 1970s gave way to a far more quiescent one in the late 1970s and 1980s. The colleges were quiet and Jewish students were busy pursuing their individual careers rather than seeking to reform Jewish life. The enhanced individualism of American society particularly associated with the Reagan years generally worked against organizational initiatives.

Moreover, American Jewry entered a period of transition, as one generation of leaders began to give way to another. In their early stages such periods are necessarily marked by a certain quiescence until new figures emerge with new issues and causes to advance. In sum, as for every new generation, this is a "time of new troubles" and as such requires a rethinking of communal concerns.

This edition of Community and Polity explores these and other issues in some depth. Like the first edition, it is designed to serve two purposes: to provide a basic survey of the structure and functions of the American Jewish community and to suggest how that community should be understood as a body politic, a polity that is not a state but is no less real from a political perspective. The organized life of American Jewry is of interest in its own right. All those concerned with the present and future state of the Jewish people cannot help but seek to learn as much as possible about the largest Jewish collectivity in the world today, perhaps of all time. For students of politics, the American Jewish community has the additional interest of being an example of a voluntary political order that functions authoritatively for those who acknowledge their connection with it, but does not seek a monopoly on the loyalties of its members. Federal in its own internal character, it may well be the ultimate federal arrangement, in that it assumes that the world is based upon shared citizenship and is the better for it.

One result of my experiences has been a growing appreciation of the American Jewish polity as one that deserves close attention by everyone concerned with the future of humanity in the postmodern era, for it offers an opportunity to examine the possibilities of governing without sovereignty and the mobilization of collective energy with an absolute minimum of coercion.

This book is a product of four decades of study of the American Jewish community. First conceived in more conventional sociological terms as a result of my experiences teaching in Hebrew schools and adult Jewish education programs in various parts of the United States, it took its present form as a result of a growing realization that a recognition of the importance of the structural and institutional aspects of American Jewish life was sorely lacking. While the commitment of individual Jews and Jewish families to Jewish life is obviously a prerequisite to the life of a Jewish community, the character of Jewish life is ultimately shaped by the institutions that Jews create collectively. Nowhere is this more so than in the United States where the organs of Jewish life of our forefathers is essentially gone. This realization led me to redirect the thrust of this book toward an understanding of communal phenomena in Jewish life.

Community and Polity is part of a larger worldwide study of contemporary Jewish community organization initiated in 1968 under my direction, and since 1970 sponsored by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs/Center for Jewish Community Studies with the assistance of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University. The first edition was the first major product of that study whose first round was completed with the publication in 1989 of People and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of World Jewry. Thus the second edition of Community and Polity marks the beginning of the second round of that continuing study.

Community and Polity is one of a series of books by this author systematically describing the Jewish polity, past and present. The series includes, inter alia, The Jewish Polity (with Stuart A. Cohen), a constitutional history of the Jewish people from earliest times to the present; People and Polity; and Israel: Building a New Society. A complete list of these books is presented in the JCPA Catalog of Publications

I am indebted to many people who have assisted in my education in the ways of the American Jewish community. I wish it were possible to acknowledge all of them here. My parents provided me with my formative experiences in observing communal affairs, in Saint Paul, Chicago, Denver, and Detroit. My aunt and uncle, to whom this book is dedicated, ably seconded them in Minneapolis. Their colleagues and friends, frequent houseguests, added to my education in so many ways. Subsequently I learned about community affairs as an active participant in Detroit, Chicago, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and on the national scene, all of which have contributed to the shaping of the perspective presented in the following pages. Since 1968, I have also been involved in world Jewish affairs, adding another dimension to my education.

Aside from the systematic research done for this study, I have benefitted greatly from extensive contacts with Jewish communities and institutions from Miami to Anchorage, Boston to Honolulu, and uncounted conversations with the leading figures of the American Jewish community, its civil service and rabbinate, under a wide variety of conditions and in many different locales. Those dedicated men and women are the architects of the American Jewish polity as we know it. The second edition is further enriched by the studies and consultations undertaken by my colleagues and me through the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs countrywide and in Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Seattle.

Many people were kind enough to assist me in the preparation of this revised edition. I am particularly grateful to the staff of the Council of Jewish Federations who were so helpful in responding to all my queries, as were the staffs of the Federations of Boston and Philadelphia, with thanks also to the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University for providing me with the facilities to complete the revision. My home base at Bar-Ilan University was most forthcoming as always, especially through my chair, the Senator Norman M. Paterson Chair in Intergovernmental Relations in the Department of Political Studies. My Philadelphia base in the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University did much to facilitate my work in the United States and the H.B. Earhart Foundation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, helped support me during the course of that work so that I would have the free time to pursue it. I am immensely grateful to all of them.

Naomi Towvim provided the research assistance necessary with interest, intelligence, and competence for the revision during my sojourn at Harvard. As always, the JCPA staff was extraordinarily helpful in both our Jerusalem and Philadelphia offices. In its present form, this book is very much the product of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Mark Ami-El, our coordinator of publications, was of great assistance in preparing this book for publication.

Jerusalem and Philadelphia

Elazar Papers Index / JCPA Home Page / Top of Page