Ground Zero

This post begins a three-part series describing my dissertation project. Today I will lay out the study as originally proposed. Tomorrow I will discuss the research I have accomplished so far. On Friday, I will post some reflections on how the project has evolved and changed since its inception. Change over time being, of course, an historian's primary interest, both in the distant past and the immediate, personal present.

I recently re-read the abstract I wrote before I defended my dissertation prospectus. My department requires that the abstract be circulated to faculty and graduate students in the email announcing the defense. I distinctly recall finishing one of the last drafts of the prospectus and absolutely dreading the task of writing the abstract. I also remember that, once I sucked it up and forced myself to sit back down at the computer, writing it was a loathsome, tedious experience that yielded an unsatisfactory product. 

The best part about the whole "ordeal" was that it did not matter; no one cares about the abstract for a document that by its very nature is prospective. Five months later, however, when I read this overstuffed paragraph I do find it instructive. It's a testament to the ambition of the project. I really wanted--hell, I still want--to tell a thoughtful story with contemporary relevance, national scope, and valuable implications for urban leadership. It's also evidence of my determination; I stubbornly jammed in every element and angle that I determined was important. The abstract talks about Jewish identity, professionalization theory, spatial politics, demographic transition, intra-religious tension, and ethnic conflict over three decades in three cities, and maps all of this onto the history of one institution!

Here's the basic premise: Jewish communities in large urban neighborhoods began to change after WWII, for a variety of structural reasons. Demographic changes pushed Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) in these neighborhoods to reevaluate their membership policies. Executives, Boards of Directors, and Federations of Jewish Philanthropy debated the options for membership intake policy. Would they accept non-Jews, eschewing their sectarian mission? Or should they double down on their sectarian commitment, and work to strengthen their membership's Jewish identity?

I argue that the gradual shift towards more inclusive membership policies in postwar urban Jewish Community Centers derived from the universalistic social work training of movement leadership and local Center executives; that this universalistic commitment was guided by the imperative to maintain professional prestige and legitimize their expertise among fellow (non-sectarian) social work colleagues and to distinguish their expertise from religious leadership; that this distinct professional identity required constant validation because the unique expertise of Jewish social workers justified the existence of separate sectarian institutions like JCCs; and finally, that universalism won out over particularism during the urban crisis, as local demographic changes affected Center memberships and forced a reevaluation of these institutions’ sectarian missions.

I proposed to do case studies of three urban JCCs in order to support this argument: the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood in northern Manhattan, the Soto-Michigan Community Center in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, and the Miami Y.  Throughout the chapters, I would move from telling the history of the JCC movement more broadly to an specific, emblematic episode in the history of one of these Centers. This close study would demonstrate how broader national or regional trends played out at the local level. For example, after describing how autonomous JCCs often came into conflict with their Federations--metropolitan fundraising bodies--over agency priorities, I would zoom in to describe a fundraising campaign undertaken by the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood in the early 1950s. The Y was struggling to pay for the construction of a new building, and they wanted help from Federation to meet their fundraising total. The episode not only illuminates the complex financial relationship between the New York Federation and individual Centers, but also how these entities disagreed on the degree of responsibility Board members, Center staff, and local members had to subsidize and contribute to their own services and spaces.

To boil it down even further, here are the assumptions and questions that are central to my project. 


Beginning in the 1940s, American cities rapidly deindustrialized. Economic prosperity and changing social values prompted white Americans to decamp for the suburbs. Many formerly- Jewish neighborhoods transitioned to predominantly black or Latino. JCCs that were built in these neighborhoods to serve Jewish members had to decide whether or not to move, close, or start serving what they referred to as the "total community."


How did American urban Jewish Community Centers evolve between 1945 and 1980 in response to changing American society and values? How did community building occur in increasingly multicultural urban neighborhoods? How did JCCs define the extent of the Centers’ community? Would it include non-Jews? If so, would the Center relinquish its sectarian commitment and become a secular agency? How would this stance likewise facilitate cooperation with non-Jewish membership, particularly Latino Catholics, or underscore differences? Finally, did these changes affect the social service and communal welfare infrastructure of urban areas?

Any questions? Yeah, I bet you do! I'm not sure that I've done a better job explaining it here than I did in the abstract.