Community Organization to Meet Jewish Problems Engages Central Conference of American Rabbis
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Community Organization to Meet Jewish Problems Engages Central Conference of American Rabbis

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An interesting discussion on the relation of the synagogue to Jewish communal life was held here this evening at the Sinton Hotel where the Central Conference of American Rabbis is meeting in its forty-third convocation.

Leaders in the discussion were Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan of New York, head of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, and Rabbi Sydney E. Goldstein, of the Free Synagogue, New York.

The discussion revolved around the plan for the organization of the Jewish communities suggested by Judge Horace Stern of Philadelphia before the last meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and referred to the conference for further discussion.

Judge Stern’s plan called for the organization of the members of each synagogue into a unit with the express purpose of integrating them into a scheme of communal affairs. Under the Stern plan, the synagogue would become the center of Jewish communal life. Each unit would be divided into a number of committees, to one of which every member should be required to belong.

Rabbi Kaplan, in a lengthy paper, discussed the Stern plan and his own views on it. He found the Stern plan workable; lauded its author for stimulating the Jewish community from its stagnancy, but believes that more careful thought to all its implications should be given.

Dr. Kaplan stated that he does not believe that the synagogue can or should occupy the position of centrality and primacy. “All we can do is to have the synagogue operate on a basis of equality with all other types of Jewish association within the community.”

The task which confronts rabbis and laymen alike is to restore the totality of Jewish life, to build a framework that would encompass the entire heterogeneity of Jewish life, Dr. Kaplan said.

“We would be derelict in our duty,” Rabbi Kaplan declared, “if in our eagerness to revive the synagogue we were to adopt the plan he suggests without thinking it through in terms of its implications and consequences. As rabbis we dare not be interested in the success merely of the synagogue any more than Jewish laymen have the right to be satisfied with the success of their particular philanthropic hobbies. Our task is to foster the integrity and wholeness of Jewish life. We must, however, be realistically-minded enough to accept and reckon with the heterogeneous character which Jewish life has assumed and which it is bound to retain. This means that it is sheer quixotism to try to restore the wholeness of Jewish life by demanding for the synagogue the position of centrality and primacy. All we can do is to have the synagogue operate on a basis of equality with all other types of Jewish association within the community.


“The basic social unity of American Jewish life should not be the congregation or union of congregations, the lodge or fraternal order, the social club or organization of clubs. The unit should be the community which should consist of all the Jewish institutions and organizations within a given area, federated for the avowed purpose of fostering the normal manifestation of the Jewish spirit as well as helping those who are in need of relief. It should collect funds and make allotments, not only for the local needs and institutions, but also for those of super-local scope. Membership in that community should be a prerequisite to affiliation with the synagogue, the Jewish club, the cultural group or the fraternal organization. In recognition of such membership, the community should give to the synagogue and to the other social bodies, representation in its councils. The synagogue as such should cherish the ambition to bring to bear upon all communal effort the vision of the wholeness in Jewish life and imbue all collective Jewish endeavor with Jewish consciousness and soul. If the synagogue will dedicate itself to this mission, it will win the place it deserves in the hearts of all Jews. Even those who at present stand aloof from it will ultimately come to recognize its creative influence,” Dr. Kaplan said.

He holds that in order to have religion in common, people must have other interests in common besides religion. The fallacy of the Stern plan, as he sees it, is that it fails to measure up to the proper understanding of what must today constitute the main raison d’etre of the synagogue.

The synagogue, says Rabbi Kaplan, cannot give religious sanction to communal undertakings nor could the synagogue through communal undertakings satisfy the desire of idealistic youth to see religion expressed in actual deeds.


The synagogue can, however, create “a standard, or criterion for determining the aims and perspectives of communal undertakings.

“The synagogue should come to the Jew with the kind of imperative that would enable him to realize the true nature of his obligations to participate in Jewish communal undertakings.

“Only awareness of being part of Jewish life in its totality can give to those engaged in the maintenance of various causes and institutions a sense of proportion in the proper co-ordination of communal work, which is even more essential than the money-saving consciousness. The outstanding defect of present day communal activities is the complete absence of a criterion for determining the order of priority in communal needs. An order of priority presupposes not merely an organized community, but an organic communal consciousness which would dictate the ordering of activities from the standpoint of the integrity, perpetuation and progress of the community as a whole. The main purpose of the community would then be recognized as expressed in those activities which minister directly to the greatest number of its members, and over the longest period of time.


“A community functions not for emergency for such normal and everyday purposes as cannot be adequately attained by the members of that community individually.

“Taking care of the poor is as essential as putting out conflagrations; yet it is nothing more than an emergency measure. But a community spirit does not thrive on emergencies. How far American Jewry is from assenting to this elementary principle of communal life is apparent from the small percentage of Federation funds that is appropriated for Jewish educational activities and the strong opposition which even that small appropriation is encountering.


“The plan suggested by Judge Stern is unquestionably worthy of being tried. But why not enlarge its scope? Despite its apparent modesty, it does call for what is tantamount to a revolutionary change in the conception which most people have of the synagogue. Once we dare to depart from the conventional attitude, why not go one step further and carry the plan suggested to a point where the success, if attained, would more than compensate for all the effort exerted? To assure a continuous and intensive interest in communal activities on the part of the various groups into which the synagogue membership would be divided, participation in the welfare fund or membership in the local federation should be made a prerequisite to membership in a congregation. This suggestion applies only to those whose conception of religion is neither that of the secularist nor that of the theurgist and who assume that the worth of religious beliefs and practices is measured by the influence they exert upon making us more sensitive to our social duties and responsibilities.

“I say advisedly federation or welfare funds, because the prerequisite to Jewish religious fellowship should be membership in the Jewish community, and not merely association with some specific philanthropic or educational undertaking. The fear that this requirement will deprive those who can not afford to belong to the local federation, or who cannot contribute to the welfare fund, of the religious benefits which are contingent upon congregational affiliation is unwarranted. The same community which provides the poor with food and shelter, and their children with a religious education could also provide—and in a measure does so even now—centers where the poor could establish congregations where they would be exempt from the requirement suggested.


“No method of bringing about closer co-operation between the congregation and the various communal organizations can succeed so long as it will remain one-sided. The main weakness in the Stern plan is its failure to make provision for an element of reciprocity. Congregations cannot be expected to play very long the role of milch cows, to be milked for various communal enterprises. If the congregations are to become a powerful factor in the raising of funds and in the stimulation of interests in the activities of the community, provision must be made for giving them proper representation in the control of communal funds.

“This, however, cannot be carried out unless the entire problem of co-ordinating communal activities be approached with the avowed aim of achieving the new type of Jewish communal organization required by and compatible with the civic status of the Jew. A Jewish community conceived in that spirit would have to embrace the entire Jewish heterogeneity. It cannot possibly be confined to congregations. Those who urge that the community be organized around the congregation forget that a large number of Jews, who, without sharing the hope of the assimilationists to see the Jews become entirely absorbed by the general population find it possible to express themselves as Jews through other media than congregations. It would be a serious mistake to omit them from the reckoning in any attempt to build up an integrated Jewish community.

“If Federation or Jewish welfare fund is to win support from the broad masses of Jewry, it must devise a way of giving to all their contributors an opportunity to be represented on their councils. Any Jewish society of a religious, cultural, social or fraternal character that would make affiliation with the local federation or the support of the local welfare fund, a prerequisite to membership, should constitute a cell or unit of contributors with power of representation. Instead of having, as at present, the representation confined to the institutions which are the beneficiaries of the local federation or welfare fund, it would be necessary to

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