Commentary Magazine

New York Jews and the Quest for Community, by Arthur A. Goren


New York Jews and the Quest for Community: The Kehillah Experiment, 1908-1922.
by Arthur A. Goren,
Columbia University Press. 361 pp. $10.00.

Earlier in the century, spanning the years 1908 to 1922, a curious and rather highminded experiment in local community organization was carried out in New York under the initiative of some of the city’s most prominent Jewish residents. Known as the Kehillah, it was an attempt at recreating, in American terms, some of the aspects and functions of the body of the same name that, in an earlier age, had enjoyed widespread prominence among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. There it had been a phenomenon of medieval corporatism, a system of self-government—centered mainly around the synagogue—which drew its impetus as much from the fact of enforced Jewish separateness from the society at large as from the desirability of presenting a united front to the sovereign power. Under despotic and anti-Semitic regimes, the Kehillah became the sole means of political expression available to the Jewish communities. Speaking of the Kehillah in its heyday, that is, in the century preceding the Chmelnicki assaults of 1648, the noted historian of East European Jewry, S. M. Dubnow, has written as follows:

This firmly-knit organization of communal self-government could not but foster among the Jews of Poland a spirit of discipline and obedience to the law. It had an educational effect on the Jewish populace, which was left by the government to itself, and had no share in the common life of the country. It provided the stateless nation with a substitute for national and political self-expression, keeping public spirit and civic virtue alive in it, and upholding and unfolding its genuine culture.

Such a body would hardly seem in keeping with the atmosphere of American liberal democracy, although one can readily see its appeal to a certain spirit of philanthropic paternalism, as had begun to assert itself among the ranks of wealthy Jewish New Yorkers at the turn of the century.

In particular, the vision which the old Kehillah held out for these patricians was that of an idyllic communal harmony that had somehow been lost. For by 1908, Jewish community life in New York was perhaps even more rent by factional strife than at any time since. The mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe that had begun in the 1870’s and was still going on had transformed much of the Lower East Side of Manhattan into a New World “ghetto,” as some liked to call it. The new immigrants constituted an enormous and often troubling counterpoise to the circles that had hitherto dominated the city’s Jewish community—mainly the German Jews and their descendants, whose entry into American society had been so successful that some of them were now living in millionaire’s mansions on upper Fifth Avenue.



The gap that separated the “uptown” from the “downtown” Jews was not merely a function of the difference between wealth and poverty. Of even greater significance were the differences in manners, folkways, ancestral languages—and even religion, as it were; together, these formed the elements of a constantly seething Kulturkampf. To the downtown immigrants, the Reform Judaism and the conscientiously non-ethnic comportment of the German-American Jews uptown seemed pallid and intolerably goyish. To the uptown Jews, on the other hand, the “unruliness” of the new arrivals from Eastern Europe, not only in manner and appearance but also in political and social behavior, seemed especially threatening-which accounted, in large part, for their abundant downtown philanthropies.

It was specifically over a manifestation of downtown unruliness— the alarming incidence of crime in the “ghetto”-that the movement to found the New York Kehillah began, as we learn from the lucid account in Arthur A. Goren’s New York Jews and the Quest for Community. The immediate spur was an article by the then police commissioner of New York, Theodore A. Bingham, in the September 1908 issue of the North American Review, in which he maintained that “perhaps half” of the criminals in the city were “Hebrews.” At first, the storm of protest that this charge provoked among the Jews of New York seemed about to turn into yet another conflict between the two Jewish communities. Whereas the downtown Yiddish press cried “lies” and “outrage,” the uptown Anglo-Jewish journals chided their immigrant counterparts for the “excessive sensitiveness” of their reaction and spoke in tones implying a certain fear that the Commissioner’s accusation might have been true. The old communal antagonism seemed for a moment to have found a new battleground; but this time something quite unprecedented took place.

Out of the welter of recrimination and counter-recrimination came the realization, on the part of all segments of the community, that New York Jewry must at last begin to act as a united force, not only so as to be able to reply effectively to scurrilous allegations, but also for the purpose of dealing with such unpleasant matters as Jewish criminals—whose existence was indeed a fact, even if Commissioner Bingham’s estimate of their numbers had been exaggerated (he later issued a retraction).

To be sure, a certain traditional highmindedness manifest among the notables of both communities was appalled at the notion that anyone should even think that there was such a thing as “Jewish crime.” Not that this was the only view that could be taken of the matter. The secularist and social-democratic Jewish Daily Forward, at the time emerging as the most powerful organ of the Yiddish-speaking masses of New York, argued that the very use of the term “Jewish crime” was misguided, since crime was the product of the evils of society in general and not confined to any one group.

But leaders of Orthodox opinion downtown-certain rabbis, along with the two religious Yiddish newspapers, the Tageblatt and the Morgen Zhurnal, who together were engaged in a struggle to reestablish some of the old-line theocratic power that had been lost in the passage to America-approached the matter in a spirit of ruffled ethnocentric pride that brought them into unlikely accord with uptown philanthropists of the traditional German-Jewish defense-organization variety. It was a meeting of two types of paternalism. These strange bedfellows—among them Orthodox and Reform rabbis who only a short time before were the most implacable of antagonists—created the New York Kehillah, an organization which would, it was hoped, be the voice of New York Jewry as a whole. It is no wonder that the Forward, which conscientiously ignored the entire project, looked upon it from the outset, according to Mr. Goren, “as a plot by clerics and philanthropists to dominate Jewish communal life.”

It is also no surprise to read that the Kehillah approached the crime issue with a zeal that was excessive at times. First the Execuive Committee passed the following resolution: “As citizens of the city and as Jews, we view with profound indignation the profanation of the Jewish name brought about by these events, and the implication of Jews in practices of vices which have, up to very recent years, been proverbially unknown among our people.” Then a Bureau of Social Morals was created. Initially conceived as an investigative body, it soon turned into a semi-official Jewish vice-squad for the police department. As Mr. Goren writes:

The heart of the Kehillah’s anti-crime apparatus was its excellent intelligence network. Kehillah agents supplied the detailed information that led to gambling raids, revocation of licenses, and the arraignment of individual criminals.

The Kehillah’s chief investigator, Abe Shoenfeld, served as secretary to one of New York’s deputy police commissioners for a time; “the deputy police commissioner ordered and led raids and his secretary, Shoenfeld, commanded one of . . . two roving ‘strong arm’ squads.” After a while, both City Hall and some of the Kehillah’s financial supporters grew embarrassed by all this police activity, and the Bureau of Social Morals was discontinued.

It would be wrong, however, to portray the Kehillah strictly in terms of its crusading zeal. Certain of its programs-above all, the educational one, which established criteria for the modern study of Jewish culture and history, and which has proved of lasting influence in American-Jewish life—were of great importance. Furthermore, the organization provided New York Jewry for a few years with a spokesman of outstanding qualities. Indeed, the Kehillah’s very raison d’être through most of its existence was that it gave a position of influence and of some power to Judah L. Magnes, one of the most gifted personalities produced by American Jewry. (Born in California of mixed German-and Polish-Jewish parentage, Magnes, who later went on to become the chancellor of the Hebrew University, devoted much of his energies as chairman of the Kehillah to seeking a reconciliation between the two communities that were joined in his own ancestry. Weaned in the philosophic and cultural liberalism of Hebrew Union College, from which he was graduated as a Reform rabbi, he combined the catholicity of outlook that this background gave him with an ardent Jewish cultural nationalism of a sort that was anathema to his Reform colleagues.)



In sum, Arthur Goren’s examination of the Kehillah episode is a splendid work of research scholarship. Indeed, some its chapters, based on hitherto unknown material from archives in New York and Jerusalem, constitute something like a revelation about forgotten aspects of American-Jewish history, particularly those dealing with crime. Although the presence of Jewish names among “big-time” criminals has long been known and widely commented on, it has generally been too little recognized that petty crime was also widespread in the Jewish immigrant quarter of New York. Mr. Goren’s book corrects this oversight, and should therefore, among other things, prove helpful in fostering a better understanding of the universality of certain urban ghetto problems.

But there are other aspects of his subject on which Mr. Goren is less satisfactory. One could have hoped for a fuller examination of the roots of the Kehillah idea—for example, a more thorough account of the conditions that had created the institution in the Old World, and of the significant variations in the New World circumstances that were likely to effect the outcome of a Kehillah project. In reading Mr. Goren’s book, one has a strong impression-although it is not explicitly confirmed by anything the author says—that the conditions of American life virtually doomed the project from the outset. Yet he tends to treat its eventual failure as though that were merely fortuitous.

It may be that this somewhat ambiguous effect in Goren’s treatment of the problem is the result of the peculiarities of American graduate-thesis writing, out of which this book was produced. In that atmosphere, speculation is discouraged, and any foray into related but different disciplines—in this case, sociology would have been the required companion-field to history—is a step taken only with the heaviest heart. The result is that the book shows shortcomings in the areas that would have required, for the most successful results, bold imaginative and intellectual leaps away from the strict use of archival material. There is, however, sufficient evidence to indicate that in future efforts Mr. Goren should be able to transcend the hazards of the academy. Meanwhile, on the subject of the New York Kehillah, he has provided a first-rate and solid factual base; anyone interested in further speculation on the matter will have first to reckon with this book.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.