I finally began writing in earnest this week. It's the first section of my first chapter, and it describes the history of the Jewish Center movement before World War II and the Janowsky Survey of 1946-7. Each day, I've alternated between staccato, panicked typing and consulting books so I can fill the holes I left gaping in my argument. On the first day, I tried to relay from memory the argument made by David Kaufman in his amazing book, Shul with a Pool: The "Synagogue-Center" in American Jewish History. I managed to articulate Kaufman's claim that the postwar JCC evolved from the failed synthesis of the synagogue-center, which itself evolved in the 1920s from the synthesis of five earlier (or co-existant) institutions: the Reform Temple, the YMHA, the Settlement, the Talmud Torah, and the Orthodox synagogue. All of these iterations were attempts, Kaufman argues, to balance the religious and social functions of the synagogue.
After I stutteringly wrote that all down--it felt like what I imagine a cat feels when coughing up a hairball--it became clear to me that I needed to go back to the roots of the American synagogue. I needed to explain why rabbis and Jewish lay leaders in the 1920s were searching for a new solution to a problem they'd been facing for 100 years, namely how to attract "secular" or "apathetic" or "Americanized" Jews into Jewish communal institutions without being accused of being "secular" or "Americanized" themselves. I was already thinking about the split of the synagogue-center, and so it seemed logical to begin telling this story at the point of another significant split: the end of the Sephardic "synagogue-communities" in 1820.
Still in writing mode, I wrote the basic outline of that story. The earliest arrivals to colonial America were Sephardic Jews, and following their tradition from Europe they established synagogues in America that governed both the social and religious life of the entire Jewish community. The benefit of this model was its unity, and the disadvantage was the discipline that the parnas--the community leaders--could enforce over congregants who had no alternatives. If you wanted to observe Judaism in a way that differed from the conventions of the synagogue, you could be alienated and denied access to kosher meat, a minyan to pray with, and other resources necessary for living a Jewish life in a majority-Protestant land. So, around the 1820s, younger Jews began breaking away and establishing competing synagogues. I was left wondering how to connect the end of the synagogue-community to the end of the synagogue-center.
To explain the historical events that led from one event to the other, I pulled my well-worn copy of Jonathan Sarna's American Judaism down from the shelf. It's an essential reference; Sarna devotes 400 pages to tell 350 years of American Jewish history. It's comprehensive but not dense or dry. Sarna argues that that American Jews’ response to fears about assimilation and extinction has generated “many creative responses” over the past 300 years. This theme of renewal acts as an organizing structure for the messy story of fracturing religious movements. Like Kaufman, Sarna emphasizes that American Jews and Judaism have constantly evolved, creating new syntheses to suit the times and the culture.
This "synthesis" argument is a popular one in American Jewish historiography because it demonstrates how Jews have prevailed as, in Sarna's words, America’s “most visible non-Christian faith.” Despite their foreignness and despite anti-Semitism, Jews swiftly entered the American middle class. It certainly helped that they were white, but white Irish and Italian Catholics did not experience the same speedy upward mobility. Synthesis--Jews' history of adapting their institutions and practices and culture--is one way to explain this exceptionalism.
The pitfall of the synthesis argument, however, is that it can be triumphalist and focus only on successes. What about the struggles and the failures? American Judaism does not ignore controversy, but because its intent is to provide a broad outline of 350 years of history it does necessarily focus more on achievements and victors. Shul with a Pool also makes a synthesis argument, but concludes that the synagogue-center hybrid was unsuccessful (if influential).
All this to say that I've realized I am left wondering how I will describe the postwar history of JCCs. I certainly know that it's a story of constant struggle and disagreement. The question is, did Jewish Centers continue to evolve? Did they continue trying to strike a balance between viewpoints? Did they keep incorporating functions of other institutions in the same way that the synagogue-center did?
While preparing for my doctoral exams, I remember saying to my advisor that although I understood all the pros and cons of this historiographical debate, I didn't really know where I would fit myself. She reassured me that I wasn't supposed to know yet, that my perspective would emerge as I worked on the dissertation. And now here I am, wondering where I will eventually stand.