In those disquieting statistical surveys of the depth of the economic depression, the years 1924-26 are almost invariably taken as the average, the “normal,” from which high pinnacle a sombre and dolorous black line drops precipitously to the lean and low years of 1930-34. So, for the Jews of the United States, 1924 becomes now a symbol not of a median or a norm (for the history of our people has rarely known normalcy) but of almost an idyllic period of peace.
The history of the past ten years begins in the calm of communal up-building and ends in the fevered pace of the latter-day crisis. Without undue romantic indulgence, it may yet be said that in no decade of our history have events, moved with such rapidity, or problems shaped themselves with such certainty, or alternatives been defined so clearly.
The record and meaning of those years can best be understood by a realization and understanding of the problems which, at any given moment of that decade, were of primary concern to the Jewish community. The impalpable, but nevertheless real, difference between 1924 and 1934 is the key to the history of those intervening years. And that difference and its meaning can only be calculated in terms of the issues that tried mens’ souls, the causes that won their hearts and inspired their efforts, at these several moments in our history.
THE PERIODS CONTESTED
Put in its simplest terms, Jewish life and the common concerns of the Jewish people in 1924 revolved about single problems and single solutions; by 1934 we have reached a stage in our communal history where we face general problems and must seek general solutions. 1924 was the day of philanthropy; 1934 is the hour of what in its broadest sense may be called politics. In 1924 we knew anti-Jewish manifestations; now we must recognize an anti-Jewish movement. Today we have one universal and fundamental challenge which is the organic matriarch of all our lesser and subordinate woes. Then, we treated separate, diffuse, and individuated questions.
The great question of the day which then agitated the pulpit and provided discussion in the parlors was assimilation, inter-marriage, the youngsters who were breaking away. We collected funds, for this cause and that. We treated this case or that case of anti-Jewish feeling or prejudice. A Louis Marshall with the literary persuasiveness and the ardent logic of his noble pen could then send a Henry Ford scurrying to an apologetic retreat.
And today? Of what avail one man, one pen and one mind, when the millions stand clamoring at the gates? That was the method of 1924. A Henry Ford, and his journalistic anti-Jewishness, was typically the major concern of uch a day. We had other problems, too; the observance of the #abbath; the campaigns for separate welfare funds, for a thou### causes, reconstruction and ### for the Jews of Eastern Eu### and Russia, and the amelioration of certain harsh immigration regulations.
ONE DOMINANT ISSUE
Now, we cannot but see that our several concerns todayâ€”the German tragedy, the crisis in the synagogue and religion, and the economic future of our peopleâ€”are facets of one single and dominant issue; the spread, meaning and future of intolerance, hatred, and misunderstanding of the Jew. The issue, in turn, has its roots deep in the fabric of society in general. So that today we cannot speak of Jewish problems without a consideration of the general social questions raised by a brutal and widespread attack on democracy, the poverty of the masses, the social unrest and injustice, the clash of national imperialismsâ€”all the vari – colored panorama of 1934. And this is new. In 1924 we could feel somehow that the problems we faced were sui generis, peculiar anomalies which broke out in isolated cases to remind us of a House of Bondage we were wont to forget. The clouds of that memory trailed us; but the devil (we thought) was always behind us.
From the optimism of 1924 to the stern, almost desperate realism of 1934. What changes in our life, what tendencies of our history, brought forth this revised outlook and this new psychology?
By 1924, the Jewish community in the United States had almost finished its work of repairing the effects of the war period. At the time, it turned from the work of relief to the task of reconstructionâ€”adjustment to a new world that arose from the ruins. Philanthropy had to be continued, but the appeal was changed from the negative one of the alleviation of suffering, to the positive one of permanent communal welfare. In 1924, for example, the Joint Distribution Committee ended its warrelief activities and began to join with similar organizations in a Joint Reconstruction Foundation for permanent and general efforts.
Also on April 1, 1925, the Hebrew University, the finest flower of Jewish idealism, was opened to the world. Lord Balfour, Sir Herbert Samuel, Dr. Weizmann and leading educators and statesmen bared their heads on Mount Scopus and solemnly greeted the cultural re-birth that event symbolized. Throughout the United States Jews gave increasingly of their money and helped with their interest in order to rebuild a homeland in Palestine.
Meanwhile, the domestic problems of Jewish education, the establishment and maintenance of welfare institutions, began to assume primary importance. Special efforts were begun, in 1924, by the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Jewish Education Association to increase the enrollment of Sunday and Hebrew Schools. President Coolidge, himself, wrote in encouragement of this drive: “The learning and wisdom which has been a sustaining influence to the Jewish race through all the centuries must be preserved for the benefit of mankind….The youth of your people can associate themselves for no more patriotic purpose.”
Then, too, those sturdy years from 1924 to 1929 saw the beginning of scientific and self-conscious studies of the Jewish community in the United States, its intrinsic nature and more especially its social relations with the general community. By 1925, immigration to this country had virtually stopped, and in the relative stability that resulted such analyses could be made. Until then, the immediate and pressing problems of adjustment had taxed the energies and resources of the community. Various monographs and statistical surveys appeared, inspired perhaps by the projected governmental census of religious bodies. At first these studies were but incomplete and narrow in scope; the computation of the number of synagogues, movements of the Jewish population; cases and rate of death, and the extent of criminality. These were the small beginnings of a scientific study of Jewish life in the United States which has continued and grown to the present, a development which culminated in May, 1934, in the joint meeting of the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, the Jewish Welfare Board, and the Jewish Center Executives. It has resulted in one of the most important projects in our history: the conference called by Prof. Morris Cohen this year of Jewish specialists in the social sciences and the professions to prepare factual studies of the distribution of Jews in certain occupations and their specific social problems.
What of Jewish education? In June, 1927, the National Council of Jewish Education reported that only thirty per cent of the 800,000 Jewish children of school age in the United States were receiving religious education in Sunday or Hebrew schools. But it is significant of the new orientation of the present day that the major problem which Jewish educators face, the difficulty of which they complain, is no longer the lack of attendance, even though that lack has at best remained unremedied. It is rather the economic difficulty of continuing the operation of those institutions which already exist. Increasingly, as assimilation into the national culture has advanced, Jewish philanthropists have been less attracted to appeals