One of the biggest challenges that the Jewish Community Center has historically faced is explaining how, exactly, it is a "Jewish" agency. In the first chapter of my dissertation, I wrote about how Oscar Janowsky used the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) Survey of 1946-48 to convince JCC workers that they could not just run "centers for Jews"--they needed to have an affirmative Jewish purpose, otherwise they were segregating Jews from non-Jews without any good reason. Adding "Jewish" programs meant that they were contributing some value to the community, which justified having a separate institution just for Jews. Although JCC workers finally accepted Janowsky's recommendation, they never really identified what exactly having "Jewish content" or "Jewish programs" meant on a day-to-day basis.
My second chapter examines another big controversy, this time between rabbis and JCCs in the early 1960s. Rabbis accused Jewish Centers of "secularizing" American Jews, and argued that the synagogue was where Jews should spend their free time. The JWB--the organization that represented and served American JCCs--had to defend the JCC, but they struggled because they also recognized that most JCC members came to the Center for basketball or nursery school and not to celebrate their Jewish heritage. For years, the JWB had argued that the JCC helped their members feel a strong sense of Jewish identity, but when the rabbis pressed them on how their program was "Jewish" they could not point to many specific programs. Part of the problem was the the rabbis defined "Jewish" as religious (the practices and traditions of Judaism) while the JCC workers believed in a more cultural or ethnic sense of Judaism. To them, hosting Jewish folk dancing or a Yiddish conversation circle was enough to identify the JCC as "Jewish."
Yesterday, while reading through some documents about this controversy, I came across one of the first really strong statements from a JCC worker about what knowledge made an individual Jewish--and, by implication, what a Center needed to teach to foster Jewish identification among its members.
What makes this statement so exciting to me is how SPECIFIC it is! Batshaw's list covers mostly cultural knowledge and not liturgical, ritual, or biblical knowledge, but it provides a very clear checklist of what the JCC could teach to its members to help them feel a stronger sense of connection to the Jewish group. In one sense, this represents a change from the past because never before have I seen such a clear explanation of what the Center should do, but in another sense it's a continuation of the more secular and "civilizational" approach to Jewishness that the Center historically adopted. It's definitely more substantial, though, than being "Jewish" because you're in the same building with other Jews!
I'm not entirely sure how this will make it into my dissertation, but it actually helps me answer a very personal question that I've faced throughout this project: what do I personally think makes me (or anyone) Jewish? If I argue in the dissertation that JCCs fostered "Jewish identity," how do I define that identity? And how is my own experience as a Jew influencing my definition? Manny Batshaw has given me a nice list to work with, so that my starting point does not have to be as basic as "I'm Jewish because I eat bagels and lox and think Seinfeld is funny."