Take Aways from Twenty Four Days

On Monday evening, I returned to Pittsburgh after 3.5 weeks of travel. My first stop was in Philadelphia, for the Advanced Summer School in Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania's Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. I joined 25 other graduate students from the U.S., Israel, and Europe to engage with readings and ideas around the topic of "Shaking Foundations." From there I flew on to Venice, Italy, for a summer workshop for early career scholars on "The Ghetto of Venice: The Future of Memory in the Digital Age." With eleven other colleagues from the U.S., Italy, and Israel, I toured the Venice ghetto, read extensively on its history and current attempts to celebrate its legacy, and presented original research. After two weeks of academic, intellectual immersion, I proceeded to vacation for 5 days on the beaches of Croatia. 

Missing Mezuzah, Ghetto Novissimo, Venice, Italy 

Missing Mezuzah, Ghetto Novissimo, Venice, Italy

Ghetto Novissimo, Venice, Italy. Tour by the most excellent Luisella Romeo.


From the Katz Center summer school and the Venice workshop, I came home with three new insights about my work:

1. At the Katz Center, a theme that we often returned to in our discussions was whether there is an essential Jewish identity or essential Jewish Studies. I realized that my dissertation very much argues against essentialist definitions of Judaism and Jewishness, as both personal and communal identities. 

2. In one session at the Katz Center, Dr. Anne Oravetz Albert shared her work on communal authority amongst the Sephardi Jews of 17th century Amsterdam. Her scholarship complicates the notion of a singular Jewish "community," and I realized that my research on the JCC movement similarly demonstrates the contestation, conflict, and power struggles within the American Jewish "community" for who should make the decisions about what that "community" should look like and how it should operate.

3. At our final research presentations in Venice, a respondent to a colleague's paper asked the following question: "How do you make space Jewish outside of Israel?" This is, in essence, the matter that confounded the JCC movement in the postwar period. I have addressed this struggle at length in my dissertation, but this particular way of framing the question made me realize that my discussion has focused more on how leaders in the JCC movement dealt with this as an issue of personal identity--not of spacial identity--and that the characteristics of the built environment and the space of the JCC has been relegated to the background of my narrative. My mission is now to go back and revise in a way that foregrounds the spatial dimension of this struggle.

These two workshops came at just the right moment for me. I was bogged down in the minutiae of my dissertation, and these experiences felt like a hand reaching in to pull me up out of the quicksand so I could see the broader relevance of my work. I'm immensely thankful to all of my colleagues and faculty mentors, whose comments and conversations brought me this clarity and helped me develop this insight.  

Benefits of Conferencing

After last year's AJS Conference, I blogged about my experience and the benefits of participating in a Graduate Student Lightening Round Session. This year, I coordinated and presented on a panel, which I found even more beneficial than presenting in a Lightening Round Session. Unlike a lightening session, which was more of a grab-bag of grad students from different disciplines researching very different topics, a panel session is only three people presenting papers on one topic. This singular focus was valuable for a few reasons. First, I learned what my colleagues' have discovered through their research on Jewish communal surveys. Now I can apply their findings to my own scholarship. Second, the senior scholar who responded to our papers could offer more than just a few comments on each of our individual papers. She also commented on how our papers fit together and how, as a group, we are contributing to a larger historical debate about how Jews understood themselves and their communities. Finally, several scholars with interest and experience in surveying Jewish communities attended our session. They asked very insightful and pointed questions about our research. In addition to identifying some aspects of my paper that could have used more elaboration or emphasis, the questions also helped me realize the value of my project to the broader field of Jewish Studies.

The benefits have continued after the conference. After reflecting on the respondent's comments and some of the points that came up in the Q&A portion of the session, I have refined some elements of my dissertation's argument. I have also extended, through email correspondence, several of the short conversations I had with scholars at the conference. Extending these discussions has given me even more great ideas for how to revise and strengthen my project. Most tangibly, one of the attendees at my session told me that he had an extra copy of the JWB Survey that I could have, and he sent it all the way from California to Pittsburgh. I now have my very own copy of the JWB Survey!

Before this, I've always had to use a library or archival copy of the text. Apparently, the JWB Survey originally featured a dust jacket!

I'm thrilled to have my own copy that can travel with me across the country and through the years. Never again will I have to return to the library and beg for just one more renewal because this one book is the basis of my entire dissertation!

Thank you to Dr. Bruce Phillips, for generously providing this book in addition to decades of wisdom about Jewish communal work, and thank you to everyone else at AJS 2015 who provided helpful feedback and made suggestions to improve my work. I'm already looking forward to AJS 2016 in San Diego!


Although 2015 was my second year attending the Association for Jewish Studies Conference, this was my first year presenting a paper as a member of a panel (last year I participated in a Graduate Student Lightening Round Session). In preparing to write my paper, I did some research about what distinguishes a successful conference presentation. This blog post from the American Historical Association was most helpful, as was advice from several colleagues. In addition, I turned to academia.edu to find conference papers posted by other scholars that I could use as a template.

As it turns out, very few scholars in history or Jewish Studies have uploaded their past conference papers to academia.edu. I was able to find only one example, from a former graduate student in Jewish Studies, and I relied on it as a model for how to approach my own paper. I was nonetheless left wishing that I had other examples against which to compare it. It is difficult to take the narrative and argument from a dissertation or book chapter and reduce it down to a coherent 15-20 minute bite, and I had hoped to see several different strategies for how to do it! In the end, I think I did a fine job considering that it was my first time turning a chapter into a shorter paper--the presentation seemed to go well. With the hope that it may benefit other graduate students or young scholars, I have posted my paper to my own academia.edu profile. 

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." 

Civilization in Decline

Over the course of this year's high holy days, I sat through four sermons by two different rabbis at two different congregations. These sermons left me deeply frustrated. Each one predicated a plea for greater communal participation and affiliation on the premise that Judaism and the American synagogue are in decline and that Jews and Israel are under threat from anti-Semites and the many enemies of the Jewish state. These declensionist arguments reduce demographic and cultural trends in Jewish (and American) life to a binary of better-then and worse-now and obscure historical and contemporary homogeneity in the American Jewish community. While this doom-and-gloom portrayal provides a foreboding backdrop against which to inspire popular engagement, it is an ahistorical interpretation that precludes possibilities by narrowly defining the engaged Jew as religious, affiliated, and Zionist.  

The narrative of Jewish decline, translated to a line graph, maps a trajectory upwards throughout the 20th century until, as one sermon posited, a rise in "skepticism" and secularism correlated with a fall in Jewish identification. As my mother succinctly put it, "I remember hearing that sermon when I was ten years old." That was 1961, in the midst of an era that Jews now point to as the definitive highpoint of synagogue affiliation and participation in Jewish communal life. Decline is a weary argument, one that historians of American Jews spent the last quarter of the 20th century challenging with a narrative of synthesis:

Over and over again for 350 years one finds that Jews in America rose to meet the challenges both internal and external that threatened Jewish continuity—sometimes, paradoxically, by promoting radical disconstinuities. Casting aside old paradigms, they transformed their faith, reinventing American Judaism in an attempt to make it more appealing, more meaningful, more sensitive to the concerns of the day.
— Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism (Yale University Press, 2004), p. xiv

Historians in the 21st century have gone even farther to complicate neat stories of ascent and descent, arguing that the preservation of Judaism and Jewish identity was always an ambivalent and contested undertaking [1]. To argue for decline is to look back into the past and ignore the many varied ways that Jews have historically engaged with their religion and peoplehood; since 1654 American Jews have splintered off the Reform and Conservative movements, imbued socialist politics with a distinctly Yiddish culture, rejected the synagogue in favor of small havurot and lay-led minyans, and revived a distinctly Jewish politics for the 21st century in the form of social justice programs like Jewish Voices for Peace and Repair the World. That many people no longer identify as Jewish does not detract from the strength and vitality of the community that remains.

And yes, it's true that there has been a decline. But is it really so serious, so worthy of alarmist sermons? A Portrait of Jewish Americans, the 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, did indicate a decline in Americans who identify as "Jewish by religion" (as opposed to by birth or a sense of shared peoplehood). This decline was measured, however, as a percentage of the total US population. In terms of raw numbers, there seem to be more Jews by religion now (4.2 million) than there were in 1957 (3.9 million) when the best comparative data was last collected. In the past 20 years, the Jewish share of the adult population of the U.S. has remained fairly stable [2]. I couldn't find good data on synagogue affiliation, but if we can accept that there is a connection between interest in Jewish education and rates of Jewish identification or affiliation, there's also not much bad news when it comes to enrollment in Jewish studies courses in American universities. A 2014 survey of members of the Association for Jewish Studies revealed that almost 50% of university professors who responded indicated that their enrollments have stayed the same over the past three years [3]. Yes, there are still 30% of respondents reporting declining enrollment, and yes, declines outnumbered increases 7% to 4%, but as Historian Jonathan Sarna noted in his Presidential Address to the 2014 AJS Conference, "That is not exactly an indication of imminent catastrophe." [4]

So, we are not where we were in the heyday of the mid-twentieth century--but I think that's a good thing. Yes, an estimated 60% of Jews belonged to a synagogue in the late 1950s [5], but the 1950s were also a time of stultifying conformity, racism, and male chauvinism. It's a difficult decade to romanticize. Instead of looking backwards with nostalgia, I urge anyone trying to write an inspiring high holidays sermon to see the particularities of the present and, when turning to the past, to evoke the enduring beauty and meaningfulness of Jewish practice that has ensured our continuity for 5775+ years. 

Shana tova.

[1] Tony Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Harvard University Press, 2005). 

[2] See Chapter 1: Population Estimates in: Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. October 1, 2013. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey. Accessed September 24, 2015. 

[3] Steven M. Cohen, Profiling the Jewish Studies Profession in North America: Highlights from the Survey of AJS Members. July 15, 2015. http://www.ajsnet.org/surveys/AJS-2014-Full-Survey-Report.pdf. Accessed September 24, 2015. 

[4] Jonathan Sarna, AJS 2014 Presidential Address. December 14, 2014. http://www.ajsnet.org/plenary2014.htm. Accessed September 24, 2015.

[5] Jack Wertheimer, "The American Synagogue: Recent Issues and Trends," American Jewish Year Book (2005), p. 10.