for Jewish cultural programs, of which education is the foremost.
The economic crisis has served to accentuate and emphasize an evolution which for the past decade has been taking place. As a result, Jewish educational organizations find it difficult to solicit funds on their own account and must depend upon the arbitrary dispensation granted them from community fund drives.
During the past ten years, the synagogues and the pulpit have gone through a similar development. From 1924 to 1930 they had to make worship attractive, prayer fashionable, and God appealing or they were in danger of having their congregants succumb to the lures of their daily money-making and the shallow pleasures connected therewith. In the first flush of prosperity, and in order to build synagogues that would provide sufficient space for the weekly dances of the young peoples’ auxiliaries, huge building projects were started, often-times financed by heavy mortgages. The economic crisis has not only rendered it impossible to continue such a program, but has made the superficial appeal which inspired it a mockery. The synagogue in 1934 has become a much more realistic place. This, of course, at the cost of unemployment even for the dwindling output of our rabbinic seminaries and at the price of decreased and uncertain salaries for present incumbents.
The growth of “conservatism” in the synagogue, a compromise between orthodoxy and reformism is perhaps the most significant religious development of the past decade. It is part of a general and new orientation in Jewish religious thought which has been crystallized in recent years: the attempt to establish a synthesis between the needs and values of life in the modern world and a religious tradition that will disregard cumbersome and meaningless baggage while retaining the essential spirit of Judaism.
The American Jewish community was coming of age in these five years. And its adolescence was made possible by the relative paucity of anti-Jewish manifestations during that period. To be sure, there were isolated and well-known cases. The Ku Klux Klan had gained most of its support as a result of the post-war hysteria. When that psychosis began to disappear, and when the society itself was discredited by disclosures of corruption and selfish politics, the Klan passed out of the picture. But, there were other dangers which had to be overcome. Ford retracted his anti-Semitic statements and repudiated The Dearborn Independent; a state trooper in Rochester, New York, who, in investigating the abduction of a young girl revived the myth of ritual murder, was dismissed from his position. These incidents, however, were rare. It was primarily a period when great efforts were made to ensure religious harmony and understanding. The National Conference of Jews and Christians and the Federal Council of Churches of Christ co-operated in special programs to this end. By 1931, it was reported that the school boards of twenty-eight cities had decided to remove the study of “The Merchant of Venice” from elementary school curricula as a gesture of good will.
There remained, of course, certain discriminations (unwritten in most instances) against Jews in the universities, especially medical schools. This condition tended to grow worse as the number of applicants to these institutions increased with the tide of economic prosperity.
When toward the end of 1929, the effects of the economic readjustment came to be felt there was hardly an aspect of Jewish life, communal or individual, which was not touched. From 1924 to 1929 the Jewish community in the United States had lived on philanthropy, had been organized about and centered on philanthropy. Our stature in the eyes of our coreligionists throughout the world was built upon it. The form if not the content of our institutionsâ€”even our synagoguesâ€”had been molded by it.
Suddenly, philanthropy in any general or popular sense became impossible. The Jewish middle class, which had been the backbone of fund-raising campaigns, had built the temples, the schools, and the welfare institutions found itself crushed. Jews turned back once more. Those who had not made a golden calf of prosperity could find comfort in the human work of the synagogue, in communion with their friends and neighbors whom heretofore they had treated only as business associates.
But, the continuance of those economic difficulties has had even a more profound influence upon Jewish life and thought. The conclusion came to be seen that perhaps the world was entering upon a new era, not necessarily an ideal one, but certainly a changed one. Men were predicting the possibility that the economic process would be transformed into a more rigidly controlled affair. Why should this development concern the Jews? Because, as many realized, the Jew had gained his political emancipation as a result of and at the same time as the Christian world won its economic freedom. If the sort of economic pattern to which the Jews had adjusted, with its premium on individual initiative and equality of opportunity, were to be fundamentally changed, the Jews would have to face the issue squarely. What would be the future of the middle-class? In the industrial struggles of these transitional days would an embattled group, a class facing defeat, resort to the shibboleth, the war-cry, of anti-Semitism to distract the attention of the masses and gain the support of the middle-class?
NEED FOR NEW BASES
These questions became all the more perplexing as the tragedy of Germany assumed permanent proportions, and filled the minds and hearts of American Jewry as a crisis dangerously close to their own lives and futures. The first reaction was, of course, one of horror which expressed itself in fervent protestation, an economic boycott which enlisted the support of every Jew, and a generous response to appeals for financial assistance. But then, as the condition remained, the realization grew that in this crisis philanthropy was not enough, that the causes of this oppression were somehow part of the fabric of society, and that its remedies and implications were the concern of mankind at large.
This may not yet have become a popular realization. But, look at the records of the Conference of Jewish Social Service last May where our leading social analysts discussed the questions facing Israel. In order to come to grips with the facts of the Jewish situation, Dr. Isador Lubin had to speak on the effects of the NRA, Mr. Charney Vladeck on Section 7a and the evolution of Jewish trade unionism, Prof. Selig Perlman on the general economic future of the middle class. Prof. Morris Cohen had to remind us never to capitulate by giving up the democratic right to enter professions and commerce as we chose. Mr. Ben Selekman even spoke of the Darrow report and the monopolistic tendencies of the New Deal.
It was found impossible even to discuss such seemingly unrelated issues as family welfare, child care, delinquency, public health, or the care of the aged, without speaking and thinking of the great problems of industrial mal-adjustment, class antagonisms, and new political alignments which face the contemporary world. In no single instance was the Jewish problem mentioned as such without reference to the general state of society. It could hardly be. Even such esoteric parts of our corporate program as education, the synagogue, the pulpit, were found to have their present and future dependent on the issues and evolution of the wider social scene.
And as the menace of Hitlerism, and Fascism, became more real and spread from country to country, the Jews of America began to see more clearly that their existence depended upon the retention of certain fundamental social values by the world at large. Their Christian neighbors, too, began to realize that this new spirit of intolerance and hatred was directed as well against them and their religious and moral principles. The history of the years 1930-1934 for the Jews of the United States is the history of the new and nascent idea that their problems, as Jews and as individuals exercising social functions, are part and parcel of the general crisis facing mankind.
The direction in which society is moving, the conclusion to which we shall reach, are not at all unanimously agreed upon. The Jewish community represents all shades of opinion, all separations of interest, all differences of outlook. But, one thing is clear: that as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus reminded us to observe, we cannot bathe twice in the same waters of the flowing stream. The era of 1924 has passed; let us cast the stone upon its grave and look closely at the living day of 1934. To be sure, from one point of view, the history of the past decade has been a tragedy, for our people have greatly suffered and despaired. But the dead years should be buried, and we should retain only their message and warning. By understanding the meaning of 1934 we will not only as a people gain a new insight into our existence. More than that. As men, we shall bring to the world that which will be our imperishable ideals.