By Shachar Cohen-Hodos
Professor Reimer’s session on “How the American Jewish Community is Organized” was probably one of the most important sessions that we’ve had this semester. I believe that to be effective educators, leaders, advisors, clergy, and Jewish community members it is vital that we have a strong understanding of the history of the American Jewish institutional landscape.
Professor Reimer taught us about the first large Jewish immigration from central Europe in 1845. With this immigration came the complexity of living a Jewish lifestyle in a place that was not suitable for Shabbat or an observant lifestyle. He explained that local synagogues were places where Jews congregated and that these communities would import rabbis to lead these congregations. However, he explained that there were severe cultural and lingual barriers because these rabbis were not acquainted with the American-Jewish lifestyle these Jews were creating.
Ultimately there was an agreement that there was a need for American-Jewish rabbis and therefore Hebrew Union College was founded in the 1870s. The American nature of the title of this school is a representation of the novelty of this movement. Hebrew instead of Jewish was used because it was acceptable in America especially since Protestants also studied Hebrew. The word Union was used because of its resonance with the American Union. In the 1880s with the mass migration of Eastern European Jews there was the effect of denominations. With more people came more room for disagreement and sects. The Jewish Theological Seminary followed suit and created the hub of the Conservative movement. Because there was an already established Jewish community this immigrant community was significantly less wealthy and philanthropic organizations were established to help these new immigrants. This was the beginnings of Federations. In the early 20th century there was a change from the volunteer structure of Jewish communities to a structure in which they began hiring professionals to distribute the Federation’s funds. Thus, they started training professionals to work for these communities including Rabbis and teachers.
By having a command of this knowledge, we as future leaders can better understand the roles that individual organizations played in the development of the Jewish world.
It’s essential that we know the influence of the Christian world on our institutions, for example, the influence of YMCAs on our JCCs. We all need to be aware of the roles these institutions play in our lives—the degree to which the Federation played a role in my Jewish upbringing was only made aware to me as a high schooler. With an understanding of the financial support of the Federations one can better understand the way that Camps, Day Schools, hospitals and other social services function. This session was also helpful in thinking about the ways that I want the future of the Jewish landscape to look like. I care about creating new and innovative Jewish spaces for the future and understanding the history of core Jewish institutions is an important way to start.