Birth of a Jewish Community
To the Editor:
. . . As one who was intimately involved in the events described, I take sharp exception to Herbert Gans’s article, “Park Forest: Birth of a Jewish Community,” in the April COMMENTARY. . . . In the description of the events which led to the creation of a Sunday School, no attempt was made to probe beneath the surface and Mr. Gans missed entirely the major issue involved. It was not a question of secular versus religious education at all, nor was it a question of “adult versus child orientation.” Practically all elements in the community favored religious education but there was considerable confusion in the minds of many as to the nature of the religious education. Such terms as “secular,” “non-sectarian,” and “comparative religion” were tossed about freely without there being basic common understanding as to the precise meanings intended. . . . When finally resolved, it became apparent that the majority of parents favored the same thing—that is, Jewish religious education in its broadest sense rather than narrow religious indoctrination along particular denominational lines.
Furthermore, the majority did not reject personal involvement in Jewish community life and were not averse to the practice of tradition in the home. How else explain the rapid simultaneous development of additional adult Jewish community institutions and the expansion of the Jewish educational system in Park Forest? In a relatively short time after Mr. Gans’s “study” there have been organized a congregation, a Hadassah chapter, a B’nai B’rith women’s group, and a Jewish Welfare Fund—in addition to the already existing B’nai B’rith lodge, the Council of Jewish Women, and the Board of Jewish Education. In response to community demand, the Board of Jewish Education has expanded its scope to include a two-day per week Hebrew school. Over go per cent of the eligible children in the community attend Sunday school, 55 per cent of these children also attend the Hebrew school, approximately 32 per cent of the Jewish families hold congregation membership in Park Forest or Chicago Heights. . . . The accepted curriculum in the Sunday and Hebrew schools is the basic “Curriculum for Religious Schools” published by the Board of Jewish Education of Chicago.
The author lacks objectivity in his interpretation of the Chanukah program presented by the National Council of Jewish Women. The theme was not “Techniques of Chanukah Celebration,” and his personal interpretation of it—“that is, techniques of competing with Christmas”—is entirely gratuitous. On that occasion, the Council, spurred by a genuine desire of its membership to learn more about the historic and traditional aspects of the holiday, in order to observe it intelligently in the home with the children, invited a qualified speaker who discussed the history and significance of the holiday and the traditional forms of its celebration. As might be expected, the perennial issue of Chanukah versus Christmas was raised in the question period. . . . It is interesting to reveal that as a direct result of this meeting Jewish women in Park Forest purchased Jewish books, Chanukah menorahs, and candles worth over $300. . . .
When Mr. Gans states that the Jews of Park Forest reject traditional practice, he fails to remember the early part of his article where he indicates the youth of the parents and the very young children in the family. Should he not relate this to the fact that two grandparents are still living? And that by custom and tradition and perhaps even habit, the grandchildren, along with their parents, celebrate and observe the important holidays with the grandparents? . . . There was (and is) no rejection but rather an inability to cope with situations for which the parents were not prepared, and, what is more revealing, a genuine desire on their part to equip themselves. The author reports only 42 per cent ever attend High Holy Day services and yet when such services were offered in Park Forest practically the entire adult community attended. (An estimated 90 per cent of the residents attended services in Park Forest and Chicago Heights.). . . .
Let us turn to the text:
(1) . . . “Many Jewish Park Foresters had known each other previously . . . or bore introductions. . . . In this respect, the Jews differ sharply. . . .”
Not true. Some Jews and non-Jews alike came to Park Forest with letters of introduction. The Argonne Laboratory, the Sinclair Oil Company, the Eastman Kodak Company, and other large employers, friends, and fellow employees, were instrumental in assisting newly arrived workers, coming from all parts of the country, to find housing in Park Forest by referring them directly to the developers or to people already resident in the community.
(2) “‘they [Council of Jewish Women] don’t care for Jewish values, but they recognize that they are Jewish and they need a Sunday school because the kids ask for it . . . they want a non-sectarian school. . . .’”
This quotation, attributed to a B’nai B’rith man, is offered as a reason for the Council’s objection to the formation of a congregation. The statement is misleading. The Council as well as the majority of the residents did not consider the organization of a Sunday school to the exclusion of a congregation. The basic issue was economic. At the time, a Sunday school was within the community’s financial means—a congregation, not.
(3) “Why, we even teach them the customs of the Negro Jews. . . .” The passing reference to the “Negro Jews” is presented out of its context of a discussion on the curriculum which lasted more than an hour. The author reports the insignificant and omits entirely any reference to the real “basis of reconciliation,” which was a clarification of the “Curriculum for Religious Schools” published by the Board of Jewish Education of Chicago. . . .
(4) “The conflict over the Sunday school was between those who wanted . . . an adultoriented community and those who wanted a child-oriented one. . . . Thus, the women wanted a school for the children . . . not one that would involve the adults in Jewish community life. . . .”
The growth and development of seven religious, cultural, and educational institutions, and the wide participation on both adult and child levels, reveals that there is much desire for involvement in Jewish community life.
(5) “Some of these people did not hesitate long before joining a wealthy congregation in Chicago Heights—especially those whose own income and social position were . . . equal . . . to the Heights community. . . .”
Why assume that “wealth and social position” were the motivating factors? What evidence is there other than the author’s mere assertion?
(6) “‘I have a friend who is not Jewish who told me how fortunate I was in being Jewish. . . . Most of the Jews . . . have more culture and better education; strictly from the social and cultural standpoint a man is lucky to be born a Jew.’ . . . These feelings have a basis in Park Forest reality. . . .”
I imagine that a pretty exhaustive study would have to be made to substantiate this statement. Does putting the words in the mouth of a non-Jew make it more acceptable?
(7) “The two Christian groups . . . developed much more quickly than the Jewish one—largely because there was much less internal disagreement . . . and both were . . . already engaged in building programs. . . .”
Simply not a true statement for the first part. Substantial financial assistance for the building program came from central religious institutions. Were there a central Jewish religious institution ready to supply funds, a congregation probably would have been organized and a synagogue building begun within days after the arrival of the tenth Jewish family.
(8) “In its first year, the Jewish community was very sensitive to the problem of anti-Semitism. . . .”
There are some in the community who suspect that Mr. Gans’s questions on anti-Semitism started the ball rolling. With stimulation many of us could find instances of suspected anti-Semitism. Actually, as Mr. Gans states, there has been very little or no anti-Semitism in Park Forest and there was no widespread sensitivity to the problem either. . . .
Park Forest, Illinois