Commentary Magazine


Park Forest's Community

To the Editor:

As residents of Park Forest and active participants in the program of Congregation Beth Sholom, we have read the interesting and provocative article “Progress of a Suburban Jewish Community” by Herbert J. Gans (February). There are, however, a number of statements and conclusions with which we cannot agree. . . .

The very title of the article prompts us to challenge the techniques and scope of the study: it implies a description of the entire Jewish community of Park Forest, yet practically all of the discussion centers around the Temple. Only passing mention is made of other Jewish organizations such as B’nai B’rith, National Council of Jewish Women, etc., etc., whose contribution to Jewish community life is far from negligible. Hence, an unbalanced view has been presented. . . .

We are somewhat distressed by the freely used quotations of various “leaders” whose statements, given a disproportionate amount of weight, have been utilized almost as if they were statistical deductions derived by the author as a result of having interviewed many people—which he admits he did not do. In particular, we have reference to the misleading quotation about $600 per year being necessary for active Temple membership. The very informality of the survey and lack of objective data make for a want of confidence in Mr. Gans’s generalizations and conclusions.

There are a number of factual inaccuracies. . . . The allegation that the head of the company that built Park Forest exerts a great deal of influence on the policies of the Temple is not true. The gentleman referred to, while exceedingly generous to the Temple, is often absent from Park Forest in pursuit of his duties as president of an international Jewish organization. Furthermore, he has deliberately avoided exerting the very type of influence alluded to in the article.

Another fallacious statement is the one which implies the Temple was built by only fifty families, i.e., a narrow base of participation and interest. As in many congregations, a relatively small group of donors contributed a large proportion of the money required to erect a building for Beth Sholom. But the plaque in the Temple lobby containing the names of several hundred donors to the building fund, from 1952 to 1955, indicates wide participation.

We also take exception to the statement that a small in-group runs the Temple . . . [and] others are deliberately kept out. Those willing to assume responsibility are few, as with many other organizations. Thus, in essence, a relatively small number of individuals are concerned with the actual operation of the organization. But there is nothing exclusive about this group; a willingness to work for the common good is the best ticket of admission.

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Concerning the Temple itself, we find a serious lack of understanding of some of the major issues involved. The assumption is made, for example, that a quasi-adult status has been conferred upon the children of the congregational family. This view was based on an observation of a Saturday morning service—a service which was intentionally geared to the level of the children in the Confirmation Department. The Saturday morning service is in no way a substitute for the main Sabbath service for adults which takes place on Friday night in accordance with the practices of Liberal Judaism.

Certain religious practices of the congregation which may be parallel to those of some Conservative congregations have been misconstrued as a concession to Conservatism. This is patently incorrect. Congregation Beth Sholom follows the current trend of Liberal (Reform) Judaism which stresses the inclusion of meaningful pageantry and ceremonialism in the home, as well as in the synagogue, in order to enhance the folk feeling and to strengthen the religious ties of our people.

In discussing the major difference between the community school and the Temple school Mr. Gans states that the emphasis of the latter is on “Jewishness” while the emphasis of the former is on “Judaism.” We maintain that the feeling of Jewishness which the Temple engenders in no way lessens its concern with teaching Judaism. The social and cultural programs of the Temple develop a feeling of Jewishness, while its religious and educational programs teach the principles and practice of Judaism. These are the “body” and “soul” of Temple activities.

One concept which Mr. Gans strongly emphasizes is that of the “child-oriented” community. This is contrasted with the “adult-oriented” community. The attitude prevailing in the article is that the nature and future of the community is a function of whether it is child-oriented or adult-oriented. We in the Temple do not look upon this as an “either-or” proposition, i.e., either we will be child-oriented or we will be adult-oriented. Our aim is to establish a family-oriented institution with a program of activities established to meet the religious, social, and educational needs of both child and parent.

Though there are a number of additional points of disagreement (the nature and functions of the Sisterhood, the intellectual schism in the community, etc., etc.) . . . there are two areas of the article wherein, for the most part, we concur with Mr. Gans.

First, the treatment accorded the development of the school situation. This, at best, was a somewhat complicated problem beset at times by the emotionalism and conflict with which such situations frequently are confronted. Mr. Gans has managed (from our point of view) to give a rather clear and concise picture of what happened. Second . . . the five factors which Mr. Gans uses to “explain” the community. Although we would have a few reservations, in the main the five-factor synopsis is reasonably adequate.

In conclusion, we feel the article has served a most useful function here in Park Forest in that it has caused a considerable amount of discussion, debate, self-examination, and the like. . . .

Samuel Z. Jaffe (Rabbi)
Morris Feller (President)

Congregation Beth Sholom
Park Forest, Illinois

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Mr. Gans writes:

The objections raised by Rabbi Jaffe and Mr. Feller seem to hinge on differences of interpretation, rather than disagreement with findings. I had tried to analyze the community from the perspective of the outside observer. They reinterpreted my analysis from their perspective—to describe the community and the Temple as they want it to be—but then restated my findings in slightly different words.

For example, I wrote that about 20 per cent of the people contributed some funds toward the building of the Temple, but added “it is said that the contributions of no more than fifty people really built the Temple”; they say: “. . . a relatively small group of donors contributed a large proportion of the money required to erect a building.” I wrote that “the Temple was said to be ‘run’ by the small group that had founded it”; they agree that “in essence, a relatively small number of individuals are concerned with the actual operation of the organization.”

Moreover, the interpretations they criticized were theirs, not mine. I described the Temple’s religious orientation as Reform, but with a quasi-Conservative array of ceremonials, and they agree. Many students have pointed out that the denominations of Judaism are becoming more alike. I tried to show how and why this was happening in Park Forest, but did not and would not view it as a concession on anyone’s part.

Let me comment briefly on the other criticisms. I limited myself to the material I reported to retain the continuity with the previous article, and not to award credit or blame to any organization. The quotations from leaders did not claim to be statistical deductions, but neither were they idiosyncratic comments; I was careful to keep out the latter.

I asked many people about the influence of the person who directed the company building Park Forest, and I said that he supported the small group of founders, several of whom were old friends, co-workers, and employees. I should perhaps have described his influence as indirect. However, since I tried to show throughout the article that the wishes of the residents shaped the essential character of the community and Temple, I was not trying to “expose” the Temple leadership; the interpretation is that of the critics.

Finally, I did not say that the Sabbath service was a substitute for the Friday night one, but showed how giving the children an adult-like role provided the Temple with the larger number of worshippers it needed. Nor did I say that the Temple emphasized Jewishness rather than Judaism, but suggested that this was the image which the parents had, or wanted to have of the Temple. Likewise, it is clear that both the Temple and the community school wanted to be family-oriented, but the residents seemed to have acted toward these institutions so as to encourage their children’s participation in religious matters, but to discourage their own. People tend to see what they want to see, and to use that part of an institution that fits their purpose, but to ignore the rest. This would perhaps be more apparent to an outside observer than to those responsible for an institution’s leadership. I am glad that the report of an outsider has, however, been useful to the community.

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