The Corporate Mode
Community and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of American Jewry.
by Daniel J. Elazar.
Jewish Publication Society. 421 pp. $12.50.
Since 1945 a corporate revolution has transformed the character of American Jewry. A communal structure that once bore the features of ideological pluralism and institutional autonomy is now marked by ideological consensus and bureaucratic centralism. A number of organizations and agencies have been weakened or have simply disappeared in the process, and those that have survived have been altered in a number of ways—in their funding and personnel, in their constituency, programs, and ideological underpinnings.
The emergence of the corporate community is in part the result of the acculturation and homogenization of American Jewry—a process of enfranchisement within the American experience that has pretty well decimated the ethnic and ideological infrastructure developed by waves of Eastern European immigrants and their children in the closing decades of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The process has also been hastened and reinforced by overseas events—or rather, by the financial burdens assumed by American Jewry in response to these events, primary among them the Nazi Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel. But whatever the causes behind the new corporate mode, there can be do doubting that this mode has come to dominate the conduct of the Jewish community’s day-to-day activities both at home and with regard to Jewish communities overseas.
In Community and Polity: The Organizational Dynamics of American Jewry, Daniel J. Elazar provides a framework for understanding the historical sources of today’s corporate community. For almost two hundred years, from the mid-17nth century to the mid-19th century, American Jews, whatever their sub-ethnic origins, fulfilled their responsibilities as Jews through their congregations. The temple or synagogue provided the setting in which the religious requirements of the Jewish calendar, the rites of passage from the cradle to the grave, and the social and educational—and, on occasion, economic—needs of Jews were met. This role of the synagogue as the focal point of Jewish community organization came to an end as waves of immigration from Central and later from Eastern Europe, combined with the growth of urban centers in the United States, created complexities that could only be dealt with by specialized institutions outside the congregational framework. By the end of the 19th century, a large number of “secular” community services—benevolent societies, free-loan associations, libraries, orphan asylums, and vereins of various sorts—had been set up. While synagogues and temples were to remain an important element of the religious and educational experience of the American Jew—and today the only major institutions with some degree of autonomy within the corporate structure—the organization of the community and of community services was henceforth in the hands of agencies having no financial or ideological relationship to the religious institutions of Jewish life.
In a chapter on “The ‘state’ of American Jewry,” Elazar traces the two-stage process by which these secular philanthropic agencies came to be consolidated: first through the united-charities movement of the 1860’s and then through the establishment of welfare federations after the turn of the century. “The former,” Elazar observes, “were indeed unions and represented the unification of diverse groups under a single governing body.” The latter provided “an additional dimension of governance without eliminating or changing the governing bodies of their constituents.” Thus, for example, the federation organized in Cleveland in 1903 developed a single fund-raising campaign on an annual basis for eight agencies. Many of these services and institutions, almost exclusively controlled by the German-Jewish element of the community, paralleled those established by the Eastern European Jews for themselves. By the eve of World War II, however, and with the exception of metropolitan centers of the size of New York and Chicago, religious, sub-ethnic, and immigrational differences among Jews had significantly receded. Existing agencies merged into welfare funds and federations serving an increasingly homogenized, middle-class community.
Brief and unsuccessful challenges to the dominating role of the federations and welfare funds came shortly before and after World War II from three directions: from community councils, from what Elazar calls the “general-purpose, mass-based organizations” (the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith), and from the Zionists. The councils, established in a number of metropolitan centers, were an attempt to provide a structure that would combine the authority of the Eastern European kehillah with the democracy of a New England town meeting. Elazar describes the failure of that dream: in city after city these councils were absorbed by the more powerful fund-raising federations or became simply community-relations agencies. As for the national organizations, despite the attractiveness and relevance of their programs, they simply lacked a power base in each locality to withstand the emerging strength of the centralized federations; though they are still very much in existence, they cannot be said to play the role in American Jewish life that was once envisioned for them. And finally, the Zionists were defeated in their challenge to the federations both by a decline in ideological commitment and membership strength following the establishment of the state of Israel, and by David Ben-Gurion’s pragmatic preference for dealing with fund-raisers and philanthropists.
Community and Polity is a virtual compendium of information on Jewish community organization in the United States. Elazar has gathered up a wealth of data on the history, geography, and demography of American Jewry, on the varieties of Jewish organizational patterns throughout the country, and on the diverse social-service, religious, community-relations, and “roof” organizations created by Jewish communities to serve the needs of their constituents. The volume includes several appendices and a large number of tables. Appendix A, a detailed account of American Jewry’s response to the Yom Kippur War, is a valuable and fascinating document. Tables within the text include a listing of the sub-ethnic origins of the first Jewish settler in each of the fifty states and the sub-ethnic character of the first synagogue in each of these states; the regional distribution of the offices of the national Jewish organizations; a listing of extra-congregational bodies in New York City between 1786 and 1860; the committee structure of the Jewish Welfare Federation of Philadelphia; and assorted tabulations of the annual receipts and allocations of the welfare federations in the early 1970’s. In no other single volume can one find the sheer range and variety of information presented here.
And yet, there is something curiously unsatisfying about Community and Polity. For all the material Elazar has assembled and the analytical force he has marshaled to explain that material, the reader is left in the end without the understanding of “the organizational dynamics of American Jewry” which the subtitle promises. The problem, I would hold, is a conceptual one.
Elazar’s analytic “model” draws on two related concepts, federalism and noncentralization; it is these, he believes, that help explain the “dynamics” of Jewish community organization. The trouble with both of them, however, is that they stand in contradiction to the clear trends of present-day American Jewish life, as a good deal of the evidence in Elazar’s own book shows.
By federalism Elazar apparently does not mean a system with a strong central authority but rather, to quote a secondary definition of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary, that form of government “in which two or more states constitute a political unity while remaining more or less independent with regard to their internal affairs.” This sort of federalism, Elazar contends, is an ancient concept in Jewish history, traceable to the era of the biblical Twelve Tribes. While that may or may not be so, it is hard to reconcile this notion of federalism with what Elazar himself sees as the most significant trend in Jewish community organization today: the drift away from institutional autonomy and toward communal “integration.” In the end, the concept of federalism comes only to mean that a variety of “roof” organizations has been created on both the local and national level of Jewish life, with diverse purposes, structures, functions, and powers.
As with federalism, so with non-centralization, which Elazar sees as a significant component of American experience in general and the American Jewish experience in particular. “Noncentralization,” he writes, “is institutionalized in American society, in government, religion, education, and most of the other arenas of American life (perhaps least in the economy), all of which serve to reinforce what is not only a basic social pattern but one that is culturally and ideologically accepted as the correct one.” Elazar concludes that “this institutionalized noncentralization carries over to influence Jewish life as well. . . .”
Yet whatever lip service the American people and their political leaders pay to the autonomy of local institutions, the independence of those institutions has been severely undermined by the nationalization of virtually all facets of American life since the end of the Civil War. And as for American Jews, Elazar offers ample evidence to show that the concept of noncentralization has been rendered obsolete by the emerging corporate community—on both the local and national level. Thus, in reviewing the organizational consequences of the Yom Kippur War, Elazar writes:
What is most noticeable is its impact on . . . the growing centralization of organized American Jewish life. . . . The thrust of the 20th century has been to integrate what was once separate. . . . Now for the first time negotiations must be conducted within established countrywide limits . . . limits based upon a written agreement negotiated by representatives of the most powerful elements in the Jewish people as a whole.
As Elazar himself implicitly admits, then, it is no longer illuminating to describe Jewish community organization in terms of either federalism or noncentralization.
Since World War II there has been a steady erosion in the differences among American Jews that are based on country of origin, ideological commitment, religious affiliation, or generational mode of life. With the decline or elimination of such differences, community organization has become the principal medium through which a collective Jewish will is expressed. For the student of American Jewish life, a strong focus on the corporate community—its methods of raising funds and allocating resources, its decision-making procedures, its sense of priorities and of where the main issues for the Jewish community lie—is very much needed. Elazar’s Community and Polity is a start, but only a start, in the right direction.