Forward, Flashback, or Stuck?

Although I embarked on writing chapter three with a point-based outline, a road map for how I wanted to build my argument, the journey has not quite proceeded as planned. Over two weeks and twenty-something hours of writing, I have generated several pages of content and several pages of "murdered darlings." I don't think it's much of an exaggeration to say that I've deleted a paragraph for every paragraph that remains. Two steps forward, one step back!

Why has it been such a struggle? I can't decide how the chapter should begin and end! Unlike chapter two, which began where chapter one left off and then proceeded quite logically in chronological order from a precipitating event through to the resolution of a controversy, the "open membership" debate that I'm describing in chapter three happened three years after the final major event that I describe in chapter 2, the JWB's 1963 Lakewood Conference. In addition to this chronological gap, I also want to use chapter three to fill in a content gap. The JWB made some important decisions in the years I covered in chapter two, but I left them out because they weren't directly relevant to the controversy at the center of that chapter. This left me with three options:

#1: Start with the 1947 JWB/Janowsky Survey recommendation on open membership and move chronologically forward in time to the 1967-69 JWB Committee on Open Membership in Jewish Community Centers, which reaffirmed that JCCs should accept all applicants for membership regardless of race or religion. 


  1. Easy to write and simple for the reader to follow!
  2. Follows the same pattern as chapter 2: beginning with disagreement over one of the Janowsky Survey's policy recommendations (in this case, over an inclusive membership policy)  and ending with the Committee that, between 1967-69 debated whether the JWB should uphold this  policy.
  3. Clearly demonstrates change over time, particularly the rising influence of the Civil Rights movement on the JCC movement.


  1. Rather than foregrounding the most important event, moving chronologically "buries" the moment of rupture in a longer narrative arc. 

#2: Begin the chapter with the 1966-67 controversy at the New Orleans JCC that precipitated the JWB Committee on Open Membership in Jewish Community Centers, then flash back in time to fill in the content gap, then move forward to discuss the Committee's debate and decision.


  1. By instead beginning the chapter with the controversy at the New Orleans JCC--about whether to accept non-white, not just non-Jewish, members--all of the preceding decisions and events of the 1940s and '50s can be contextualized by how they contributed to the eventual controversy and debate in the late 1960s. It's a helpful way to distinguish what details can be relegated to the background. 


  1. It's more complicated to write and puts a bit more of a burden on the reader to follow the chronology, even if it ultimately clarifies the argument. 
  2. It makes the Southern context of the Civil Rights movement seem more important than the Northern context. Foregrounding how New Orleans, a Southern city, catalyzed the JWB to renew its debate about open membership diminishes how active the Northern Civil Rights movement was in the mid-1960s--and though JCCs were located in cities in both the U.S. North and South, the decision-making "center" of the JCC movement was the JWB headquarters in New York City. 

#3: Try to do both at once.


  1. Experimental! You never know what will work best, so why not try every possible option.


  1. Confusing!
  2. Unproductive.

Always ambitious, I went with option #3. And that is how I ended up stuck in the cycle of writing and deleting.

I have now committed to Option #2, and it seems to be working well. I'm trying to be mindful of the disadvantages, so 1) I'm including plenty of signals to the reader about where the chronology is heading and 2) I'm incorporating evidence of how Civil Rights activism in the North also had an impact on the JWB's open membership debate. I hope that I can now proceed without too much deviation from my point-based outline: two steps forward, no steps back!


When Bad Things Are Good

My father-in-law, who generously does my taxes for me, always says that April 15 is Opposite Day: tax season is the only time of year when bad things are good and good things are bad. Lost money in the past twelve months? Great! You can probably count on getting some cash back from Uncle Sam in June. 

This week, my research presented me with this same perverse logic. The third chapter of my dissertation relates how the JCC movement, at the height of Civil Rights activism in the early 1960s, came to declare their support for an open membership policy that accepted Jews and non-Jews as full Center members. I've been reading through documents from this period all week, and I encountered several studies that the Jewish Welfare Board made during the 1950s to determine the extent of non-Jewish membership in Centers throughout the United States. Two of these studies revealed that several Jewish Centers had determined to maintain a Jews-only membership policy in order to exclude non-white members from using their facilities. These Centers, which were located in both northern and southern cities, carefully hid this racial discrimination behind the justification that Jewish Centers had to uphold their "Jewish purpose." How terrible to uncover such a shameful act! And yet--I confess--what an exciting discovery!

My reaction does not reflect pure callousness, nor am I attempting to shame my grandparents' generation for my own personal aggrandizement. This chapter of my dissertation describes the evolution of a debate, and a debate inherently has two sides--I'm celebrating having found the record of my second interlocutor in this dialogue. It's not particularly thrilling to bear witness to the uncomfortable reality of midcentury racial prejudice, nor is it surprising, but I do believe it's of the utmost importance to share and reflect on this historical reality. So as a researcher, in unearthing these records of racism, a bad thing became good.

Describing this dissonance to a friend, he remarked that it could be turned into a great headline for (satirical newspaper) The Onion: "Local Historian Ecstatic to Announce Discovery of  New Genocide."