UN Votes for Palestinian State(s)

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Today, November 29th, is the 64th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly's decision to partition the British Mandate of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, laying the groundwork for the declaration of the State of Israel the following year.

Six and a half decades later, with the American Jewish community still of multiple minds about the ifs, whys, hows, wheres and whens of a Palestinian state, it is worth looking back at the concerns of the same community before and after the historic vote for partition that took place on this day in 1947.

In this special installment of the J-Vault: the Practicalities of Statehood.

Both of the publications below were printed in the Jewish Social Service Quarterly, a predecessor to the Journal of Jewish Communal Service.

Partition of Palestine and Its Consequences. In March 1938, nearly a decade before partition became reality, Maurice J. Karpf spoke before a Jewish communal gathering in Minneapolis. Karpf was President of the Faculty at the Graduate School for Jewish Social Work in New York, and a Non-Zionist Member of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Palestine (as it was then called).

"It is the customary and gracious thing," he began, "to say, when a speaker begins his address, that he is very glad to be here. I trust I shall not be considered ungracious when I tell you... that I am not very glad to be here now." He explained:

 ...the subject of Palestine is in the emotional realm. People are unwilling to reason about it. They feel about it, and you~can't reason with them. They approach every subject relating to Palestine with a bias-either in favor, or against. If the speaker agrees with them, or happens to express what is in their own minds and hearts, he has done well-they agree with him. If he does not, if he happens to speak on the other side of the fence, regardless of what he may say, and how well reasoned and how well substantiated his argument may be, there is neither logic, nor force, nor truth in what he says...

...It will be my aim to present to you the situation facing Palestine, and facing the Jews of the world, as a result of the proposed partition, as I know it. I shall not argue either for, or against partition. I shall try, in the time allotted me, to give you the arguments for and against both sides.

Karpf went on to describe in fascinating detail the positions and machinations of Arabs, pro-partition Zionists, anti-partition Zionists, and non-Zionist Jews. Click here for more.

Overseas Relief Needs in Light of United Nations Decision on Palestine. "[W]hat could one expect from the UN?" asked Nathan Reich, an economics professor, in September 1948. "Spelled backwards, it reads NU. Well, NU, NU, what of the decision?"

The decision was perhaps not of the kind anticipated by some of the nations of the world; it was not anticipated by some Jews. It is reported in the unofficial chronicles of the UN Assembly that a wise, pious Jew, after observing the futile debates and procedures of the UN in its dealing with the Palestine problem, remarked rather sadly: The Jews will get Palestine in one of the two ways possible; through a miracle--if Great Britain should hand over Palestine to the Jews, or through the natural way--Meshiach vet kumen. Well, the decision took neither form.

Reich summarized the state of Jewish relief needs, especially in Europe, concluding:

The establishment of Israel will not for some time to come reduce the scope of relief needs. It will, however, introduce clarity, direction and purposiveness in the operation of relief programs. Like a flash of lightning, the act of May 15 illuminated the Jewish scene and opened new vistas and new horizons. This is Israel's significance to the problems of Jewish overseas relief needs.

Click here for more.

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Sex Classes: 1926, 2011

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Yesterday, in the New York Times Magazine, Laurie Abraham profiled the graphic, frank and nonjudgmental Sexuality and Society class offered at Philadelphia's Friends' Central School. Abraham noted that "this sex-ed class may well be the only one of its kind in the United States."

Yet a look back at sex ed in earlier generations shows that some progress has occurred.

This week, from the J-Vault: The Status of Sex Education for Children (1926)

"In early days," explains Rachelle J. Yarros, "many of the ancient peopje worshipped sex as they did other mysterious forces which they did not understand."

In the more modern Christian world, the same fear has led to asceticism, the basis of which is a feeling that the sex impulse is essentially evil and must be suppressed.

Let us be honest with ourselves and frankly ask this question: How many of us received from our mothers or fathers intelligent explanations of sex or reproduction ? You all know what falsehoods we were told and what chaotic ignorance existed in our minds...

...The more intelligent are beginning to realize the danger of complete ignorance and to feel the need of giving sex information to the child sometime, somewhere, somehow, but they fear that this knowledge, if given not "exactly in the right way" may awaken excessive sex curiosity and lead to disastrous experimentation... I wonder whether this is not simply another manifestation of our own sex taboo...

...The real problem of sex behavior among human beings arises primarily from the fact that they are ready to mate and may have the impulse to do so long before they are psychologically and socially fit. With animals no such problem arises, because they mate strictly according to impulse and pay the penalty, nobody registering the consequences. The human animal has evolved so far from this stage that the primary impulse of sex is not a satisfactory guide to behavior...

...As to the institution of marriage, which has more or less fostered certain ideals of sex relationship and greater protection and care for progeny, it, too, becomes a very important matter for the consideration of those who are interested in all phases of social hygiene. Some radicals claim that the institution of marriage is a failure or that it has outlived its usefulness. I am a radical myself and admit that all is not well in marriage, but am inclined to believe that the institution is not wholly to blame for the problems that now confront us.

Click here for more.

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From the J-Vault: Sunday Laws

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This week, from the J-Vault: The Status of Jews in the American Sunday Laws (1934)

"Altho the Federal Constitution provides against legislation infringing the religious liberty or conscience of any group, or of preferring one religion as against another," wrote Jacob Ben Lightman in the Jewish Social Service Quarterly (predecessor to the JJCS), "there have, nevertheless, been statutory enactments from time to time, providing for the observance of the Christian Sabbath, Sunday." (Spelling geeks take note: "Altho" above is not a typo -- it's spelled that way in the journal.)

There is no Federal Sunday law. But the policy of Anglo-American law has been to retain the status quo of any and all existing laws of any state at the time of its entrance into the Union and to permit such state to formulate what laws it will, provided they are not in conflict with the Federal Constitution. Under such Anglo-American policy, the Sunday laws were permitted in the various states, practically unchallenged, until found obnoxious by certain religious minority groups ; namely, Christian Sabbatarians and Jews.

It was the latter who brot the issue to the fore. To observant Jews the Sunday laws were obnoxious because of their religious conviction that Sunday was not the Sabbath, and because they felt such laws to be economic discriminatory measures. This, because they were virtually forced to refrain from persuing their trade or business two days a week; that is, Saturday and Sunday. Yet the Constitution of the United States provides against the undue deprivation of one's property.

If, then, the Sunday laws were to be reconciled with the Constitution, it became necessary, from the point of view of judicial opinion, to clarify the position of the Jews with regard to the Sunday laws. This was attempted in a number of cases that were argued before the American Courts.

Lightman goes on to review the history of Christian sabbath law from Constantine to the American colonies.

Read the whole publication here.

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Who Will Rest, and Who Will Wander: The Jewish Transient & Yom Kippur

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On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time...

During this week leading up to Yom Kippur, many Jews will ponder the words of the High Holiday prayer Unetanneh Tokef, which promises that the unique mitzvah of giving tzedakah can improve one's prospects for the coming year.

...Who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning....

As the weather turns colder here in New York, our thoughts may turn to those who have no homes to keep out the cold.

...Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

This week, a special holiday J-Vault: The Jewish Transient (1932)

"Throughout our history," said Emma S. Schreiber at the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, "responsibility for the stranger has been one of the finest examples of the manifest actions of our social conscience." But Schreiber did not intend to flatter the Jewish community; instead, she painted a bleak picture of a terrible problem:

Jewish communities themselves, believe that [Jewish] transients turn to Jewish resources almost entirely. Seven of the 85 communities [in a nationwide study] reported free use of non-Jewish facilities, while the others felt that Jewish transients use them to a limited extent or not at all...

...Discussions with shelter caretakers, representatives of shelter groups, and individuals in the community clearly show that these groups despise the transient, even while they consider it essential to extend him shelter service. The condition of the shelters is the best proof that this spirit exists. In a general way, the Jewish transient is certain of a minimum amount of care in the elementary necessities of food and shelter. In individual cases, the provision is generous. Usually, transients can expect from one to three nights' care and two or three meals a day, although practices vary greatly from place to place. But beyond these elementary provisions, the administration, in terms of sanitation, is below any acceptable community standard...

...All age groups are represented in the transient population, but the Jewish transient is more likely to be in the age group 20 to 30 and less likely to fall into the ages 60 and over... Seventy-nine and three tenths per cent were single men and only 9.5% reported no kinship ties. Almost half of the transients who claimed relatives reported parents as the nearest tie. The Jewish transient is not close to the immigrant period. Fifty-seven and six-tenths per cent were native born and even the foreign born had been in the country long enough to become citizens. Eighty-seven and five-tenths per cent were citizens and 8.4% had their first papers.

Interested? Download the entire publication.

But repentance (teshuvah), and prayer (tefillah), and charity (tzedakah) avert the severity of the decree!

Please consider a donation to one of the many organizations working to end homelessness. The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty provides housing for the homeless, and of course there are many fine non-sectarian agencies, such as Pathways to Housing and Project Renewal. (Know of more? Please share them in the comments section.)

Gemar chatimah tovah.

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Fun in a Financial Funk

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Worldwide stocks tumbling... A showdown at the UN over a Middle East conflict that appears ever more impossible to solve... Heavy stuff. How about a little fun?

This week, from the J-Vault: Leisure Time Activity in the Depression Period (1932)

"Leisure," writes Samuel J. Rodman, "has been defined as 'the time-surplus remaining after the practical necessities of life have been attended to'":

One's leisure time are those periods in which one is free to do as he wishes or as his interests dictate, it is a period in which one plays. With the above definition as our guide it is quite obvious that it is entirely wrong to call the time liberated by unemployment as leisure time. Picture, if you will, the leisure time of the "true gentleman of leisure" on board the Europa on his way for an extended holiday to the Riviera, as compared to the supposed leisure time of the worker who by 3 P. M . has given up his futile attempt in search for a job—and you have two distinct varieties of leisure time.

The unemployed have special emotional needs which ideal leisure activities should address, Rodman notes. He quotes a report from the Welfare Council of New York City:

"As a result of the economic conditions of the past two years," the report continues, "the family affection has been sorely tried, conjugal and parental ties have been weakened, family groups have disintegrated, the source of income has shifted from the husband and father to the wife and children or to public, paternal authority has lost force, home discipline has suffered, personality difficulties and family problems have been precipitated, instability and insecurity have increased."

I present these excerpts in an attempt to picture the clients for whom leisure time activities are to be planned so that "he may drown his sorrows and divert his mind from his condition."

One of my colleagues in the Jewish center field recently referred to himself in discussing his work as "running a human repair shop." What busy mechanics we should be at this time in repairing the wreck by which we are confronted...

...To keep the Roman unemployed happy and amused, history records that the government presented free circuses and public displays of butchery.

(An aside: I can just see a new kind of government stimulus package: Roman-style gladiatorial games. It has the added advantage of killing off those who lose the games, so... fewer mouths to feed, with no need for a death panel, or a Texas prison, or a Ron Paul health care plan. But back to Rodman:)

Let us boast of a higher civilization, provide civilized outlets for our unemployed by offering public courses in economics, labor history, sociology and other social sciences...

Through tactful guidance and encouragement and influence on our part, we may actually turn this enforced idleness into a golden opportunity for an adult education program which will prepare for the leisure which is bound to come when our economic house is ultimately set in order...

...In Europe, adult education, cultural pursuits and even political study and activity are considered recreational use of leisure. A cultural program, therefore, for our working group, definitely falls within the realm of our program of activity. I am definitely of the opinion that our community centers ought to play an important role in the reconstruction of society. Will we fulfill our responsibility to our community in this national emergency?

So... all you unemployed folks out there: feel like sitting in a Jewish community center and learning socioeconomic theory all afternoon for no money or college credit?

Actually, if I were unemployed myself, I would be happy to spend some time taking social science courses for the sheer fun of it. But I am an inveterate nerd, so let's not make policy based on me.

Interested in the excerpts above? Download the entire publication.

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From the J-Vault: Jewish Education a Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

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As the 2011-2012 school year is begins, there's no better time to think about Jewish education. (Reminder: we're celebrating the publication of the International Handbook of Jewish Education with a symposium on September 19th.)

This week, from the J-Vault: The Study of Jewish Education in the United States (1960)

Summarizing a national study of Jewish education conducted in the late 1950s, the author applies a metaphor borrowed from Mark Twain: "a river that is a mile wide and an inch deep."

The article discusses access (the study found that 80% of Jewish children had Jewish schooling of some kind), teaching quality (poor job security and career prospects led to an ineffective pool of teachers), and curriculum (an ambitious range of topics crammed into not nearly enough time). The author also argues that denominational differences should not be a barrier to joint (cross-denominational) education programs, to maximize efficient use of education funds.

Download this publication.

 

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From the J-Vault: Is "Federation" a Dirty Word?

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This week, from the J-Vault: Miscellanea: Should Social Lending Agencies Affiliate With Federations? (1928)

In this exchange of letters, published in the Jewish Social Service Quarterly (predecessor to the Journal of Jewish Communal Service), the director of a Federation-affiliated independent agency in Philadelphia (in this case, a social service microfinance agency) complains to the research director of Cleveland's Jewish Federation that the Federation brand makes Jews reluctant to take advantage of the agency's services.

"There is a definite place for a social lending agency in the community structure," writes William Hirsch. However:

[I]t is best that the lending agency should not be a part of the case working agency... The Federated Loan Association is only nominally a Federation agency. We receive no funds from the Federation. We are organized under a separate charter, incorporated in this State, and have entirely independent funds...

...We are not associated with the Federation, but since our name, "The Federated Loan Association," smatters very strongly of federation, our growth has been materially hindered. We have had any number of complaints about the name, from our clients and prospective clients, and invariably the inquiry over the telephone indicates a confusion in the mind of the inquirer as to our connection with the Federation. In fact, it is so serious that we will be compelled shortly to change our title. We know definitely of a large number of prospective clients who would not come here because "Federated" appears in the name... It is only after we have interviewed our clients and they learn definitely that we are not a part of the Federation, certainly not associated with the Jewish Welfare Society, that we are able to get co-operation.

John Slawson responds -- perhaps understandably a tad coldly -- questioning whether this association between Jewish Federations and charity (or, the taboo of being "a charity case") holds true in every community:

I should like to suggest that the attitude is conditioned in a very large measure by the type of federation and the type of case work agency in any given community.

If a federation is avowedly a centralized social instrument designed specifically for the care of the miserable and needy—the pauper, the sick, the maimed—then, of course, there is ample justification for the feeling of dependency upon an association with an instrument of this nature.

However, if a federation interprets its mission as that of serving the entire Jewish community, in all of its communal needs, regardless of the economic status of the group served... not limiting its activities to cure, nor even to prevention, but functioning with the object of positive enrichment of the social life of the entire community—then affiliation with the federation simply implies a joining with a central instrument for the purpose of rendering the most effective mutual service in the community.

Hirsch takes up his pen once more:

Dear Dr. Slawson:
After reading your letter twice I cannot quite seem to agree with you...

...The federation is "avowedly a centralized social instrument designed specifically for the care of the miserable and needy." In addition, however, federation would like to be a preventive instrument and would like to serve those whom it can aid through guidance, advice and information. True, federation does try to serve the entire community, but just so long as the entire community, or that part of it that can afford it, supports federation with a view to helping those who are in need, you may rest assured that it will not be appealed to by persons financially independent. After all, the financially independent, in the main, are the supporters of the federation. They are the ones who talk federation, who take part in the campaigns and who have to support it by word of mouth against attack. You cannot say that the federation is primarily for the help of those who support it.... Certainly, were we to eliminate the helpless, the sick, the maimed, the cripple, the mentally deficient, and the pauper, there would be no need for maintaining any sort of a federation. If it were to be purely a public service organization to help at a nominal charge or free of charge, without the pauper problem, you could not very well organize or maintain such an instrument in the community.

It would seem to me that the federation you have in mind would embrace also the work of public school guidance and civic aid. The work that you have in mind is not purely Jewish work and as such should be done by the city's various bureaus...

...[T]he Federated Loan Association is hampered by its name and is injured by its very remote association with Federation to the extent of being unable to reach those who today are being bled by the usurer and the commercial lenders.

If Slawson responded again, his response was not published in this article. It appears, however, that Slawson's vision of comprehensive Jewish Federations as incorporating far more than social services, has long since won the day.

Download the complete article.

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From the J-Vault: Sharing the World with "the Mongolian, the Negro and the Hindoo"

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On May 15, 1923, Dr. Alexander A. Goldenweiser a (presumably Jewish) professor of sociology and anthropology, gave a lengthy  lecture on race and culture to the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, and took questions from the audience. The speech, and the Q&A session, were transcribed and presented in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service. In addition to discussing race generally, he discusses the racial identity of Jews in particular.

This week, from the J-Vault: Race and Culture in the Modern World (1923)

"Race," says Goldenweiser, "is a state of mind. It is an attitude. We are replete with it... [T]he problem of race and culture refers to all of us." The professor strikes a tone that must have been progressive at the time. But his treatment of racial origins and development are bound to strike 2011 ears with significant dissonance. Goldenweiser criticizes biased tests which found African-Americans ("Negroes") to be less intelligent than whites. These tests "measure many things, but they do not in any real sense measure intelligence," he notes. Yet he does not object to the principle of testing for inherent racial difference -- only the execution of this idea:

I do not say that there are no psychological differences between the races (and please understand me with reference to this point), I do not say that the races are all psychologically identical. I think, in fact, that it would be very strange if this proved to be the case. We s aw that from the physical standpoint the races have become greatly differentiated after their dispersion over the surface of the globe, and that these differentiations were deep-rooted. To assume that no psychological changes accompanied these physical changes would be, to say the least, unreasonable. I think, therefore, that we are on the safe side when we assume that when we shall know more about racial psychology, when we shall have improved the methods of investigating brains, we shall find that in psychological dispositions of one sort or another—this is as closely as we can put it today—there are differences between the separate racial groups. But this belongs to the future. The particular racial differences in psychological disposition often assumed today, on the other hand, usually prove to be illusions, upon critical examination.

Prejudice isn't wrong in principle, he implies. Rather, we simply don't have advanced enough knowledge to be accurate in our prejudice. Meanwhile, "We might as well be prepared to share the world in the future with the Mongolian, the Negro and the Hindoo."

From the Q&A, an answer on the nature of being Jewish:

[T]he Jew is a race but there isn't much in race, meaning by this that the Jew is no more of a pure race than other races, and that in relation to the other races—we speak, of course, here of sub-racial types in Europe—the Jew is more conspicuously mixed...

There is a great deal more in this document. Read the entire piece for an amazing glimpse into the history of American (and Jewish) thinking about race.

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Church and State and Social Services

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Controversy continues to unfold regarding the US Department of Health and Human Service's announcement that new guidelines will require employers who offer health coverage to cover a number of women's health services, including contraception -- with religious exemptions. Some argue that the exemption denies vital services to women who work for religious employers, while others maintain that the exemption does not go far enough.

As long as private religious groups have been involved in the provision of services, whether as agencies (directly) or as employers (indirectly, as in the current controversy), questions of freedom, regulation, accomodation and coercion have appeared difficult to resolve, with religious freedom and full provision of services to individuals locked in seemingly insoluble conflict. This week's J-Vault pick, written by a distinguished New York family court judge, explores some of these questions as they relate to adoption.

This week, from the J-Vault: State, Religion and Child Welfare (1956)

The Hon. Justine Wise Polier was born into a prominent Jewish family, the daughter of the celebrated Rabbi Stephen Wise. She made her own name, however, when Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her to a family court judgeship, making her the youngest municipal justice in the country, and the first woman in New York State to hold a judicial post above magistrate.

In her address to the 1956 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service (later published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service) Judge Polier argued that the state frequently intruded into private religious affairs, and frequently neglected vital needs of clients for religious purposes. Ironically, she explained, these abuses originate in a desire that the state precisely not engage in religious coercion:

There was the deep concern that the state, through its representatives, should not misuse the power to provide care for children outside their own homes in order to change their religion or engage in proselytizing. There was also the strong feeling on the part of many religious groups that they should provide for the needy children of their own faith.

The problem, said Judge Polier, was that such religious matching was being placed above quality and type of care being provided:

The state has a basic responsibility to see that every child who needs placement outside his own home shall receive the type of care which the child needs. It may under the laws of many states delegate its responsibility for providing such care to voluntary agencies, sectarian or non-sectarian. It does not have the right, in my opinion, to turn a child over to any kind of care, so long as the child is placed with an agency of its own faith, or to keep a child in cold storage till a sectarian agency has a vacancy...

...Over and over again, we find that though the social study may clearly indicate that a baby needs a foster or adoptive home, if none is available within his own religious group, rather than refer him to an agency of another faith or a non-sectarian agency, such an infant or child will be kept for weeks, months, and even years, in a hospital or shelter. We find that even when a diagnostic study shows the need of psychotherapy and individual care, if none is available within his sectarian group, the child is frequently sent off to a custodial institution in violation of all we know as to his needs...

...There are other areas where the question of the role of religion in child care must be examined. While there is little question that religion can be a significant moral and ethical force in the life of a child, it would certainly seem contrary to the American principle of religious freedom to impose and demand religious adherence and observance of children or parents without at least the consent of the parents. Yet, in recent years, in more and more children's courts, we find judges, as representatives of the state, requiring the performance of religious obligations as a condition of probation. We hear the rationale that if a child is found neglected or delinquent the parent has failed, and the judge has a right to require religious training as part of a program of rehabilitation...

...In New York City we have also been faced by the development of a policy by the Presiding Justice of the Domestic Relations Court that raises yet another question concerning religion and child care. He has decided that probation officers shall be appointed on the basis of a religious quota roughly following the religious affiliation of the children brought before the Court. This means that although the Jewish population of New York City is slightly under 30 per cent, since the percentage of delinquent and neglected Jewish children brought before the Court is roughly 5 per cent, he has decided that only 5 per cent of the probation officers may be Jewish. As a result, even though a qualified Jewish young man or woman has passed his Civil Service Examination, he will be passed over in favor of a less qualified non-Jew...

The Judge did not argue for ignoring religion in adoption:

To the extent that children can be placed in homes of the same faith, as that of their parents, this should be done, except in those cases where the parent or parents freely choose to have their children placed in a home of another faith. Americans have the right to choose and to change their faiths and those of their children. That a parent decides to surrender his or her child for adoption does not abrogate this right or transfer it to any other person, official, institution or the State.

However:

When no adoptive home of the child's faith is available for a child, it is the duty of the State and indeed of voluntary agencies to see that, in the interests of the child's welfare, he shall be placed in the best adoptive home available. No person, no religious institution, no public department, and no State has the right to say to a defenseless child, "You have no home. But because of your race or religion, you shall stay in an institution until you are 16 or 17 and then be turned out into a world in which you have no one to whom you belong." This is happening today in too many areas. It is our duty to see that such injuries to children shall not continue.

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From the J-Vault: When Government Cuts Social Services Funding

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"What price will we pay for state aids to religiously sponsored institutions and agencies?" asked Philip Jacobson:

What effect are these aids likely to have on our voluntary institutions? Is there a danger here for the American Jewish community...?

...Will federation boards come to take for granted the continued availability of tax dollars, and devote funds to other purposes?... What will happen if and when these tax dollars are no longer forthcoming?

This week, from the J-Vault: Community Relations Implications in the Use of Public Funds by Jewish Services (1960)

Today, Congress attempts to cut federal spending drastically. In 1960, writing in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Jacobson warned that for religious institutions, accepting public funding for social services was a dangerous game. Most of his argument leans on a strict interpretation of the First Amendment; he worries that Jewish and other religious social service agencies will either be complicit in eroding the separation of church and state or in eroding their own sectarian missions in order not to do so. But Jacobson also worries that in accepting  public funds, Jewish (and other sectarian) agencies will set themselves up for a hard fall if those funds were to be cut off.

However, "I am not an advocate of abrupt withdrawal," he writes. "[T]he patient has been addicted to heavy injections for some time and the cold turkey
treatment does not seem to be warranted."

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From the J-Vault: Diversity in Democracy (or, Jewish Difference and the Common Good)

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"[T]here are some among us," said Isaac B. Berkson, during an address in honor of a Columbia professor, "who hold that the retention of Jewish cultural characteristics is not consistent with the processes of democracy. These believe that only such differences as maybe termed religious should be retained by the Jews. It appears to me that such a view rests on an unfortunate misunderstanding of the nature of the democratic process."

This week, from the J-Vault: Education in a Democracy: Democracy and Jewish Culture (1937)

Do Jewish particularism and a commitment to Jewish culture detract from universalism and a commitment to the common good? To the contrary, said Isaac B. Berkson:

Far from running counter to democracy, the maintenance of such cultural elements is a mark of democracy. Among other things, this may act as one of the important barriers against mental regimentation... [A]djustment to American life does not mean utter conformity.

Sub-cultures, religions, and other sources of genuine difference and diversity make the whole society stronger for being different, Berkson argues, and even where they introduce conflicts of opinion, this enhances democracy:

[D]iversity of opinion is a fundamental characteristic of democratic society—really more than that, is a necessary attribute of democracy. Tolerance of divergent opinion is in itself a great advance in the history of thought, but the democratic habit of mind goes much further than benevolent toleration of differences. It has faith in the value of diverse opinion as a positive factor in government and civilization. It uses the dissenting opinion as a means of arriving at the truth, of properly emphasizing aspects of the situation otherwise neglected, of correcting weaknesses in dominant, current view.

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From the J-Vault: The Modern Bet Din

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Yesterday we noted Presidential candidate Herman Cain's objection to the practice of Islam in America because Shari'a is a system of laws -- just like Halakhah. Today, a closer look at a publication that was linked in that blog post, demonstrating that American religious communities have been engaging with religious law alongside secular law for generations.

This week, from the J-Vault: The Modern Bet Din (1938)

Writing in Jewish Social Service Quarterly (predecessor to the Journal of Jewish Communal Service), William I. Boxerman describes the establishment of a Jewish court of arbitration in Baltimore:

Perhaps never was the need greater for eliminating from the regular courts such controversies as tend to bring discredit upon the Jewish people as a whole. For, with the rising tide of anti-Semitism, our defamers seize readily upon incidents which support their stereotypes of the Jew as an undesirable citizen...

...Furthermore, a Jewish court meets other definite needs in the community. Often the problems presented should not come into the regular courts because they concern Jewish tradition, religious observances, etc., which cannot be understood easily by a non-Jewish judge or jury... Sometimes, too, the courts offer no relief for the aggrieved individual because the offense against him is not punishable under the law; whereas in the Jewish court, which is not limited in its scope by the statutes, he may find a ready remedy...

...The value of the Jewish Court in providing an emotional outlet for individuals who feel themselves wronged should not be overlooked. The award actually entered in a case is sometimes not nearly so important to the client as the opportunity for expressing his feelings, for having himself declared to be in the right and thus vindicated before an impartial body...

...Because of the expense involved, many individuals with rightful claims cannot file suit in the established courts... The cost of the litigation in such a case would be prohibitive. Many clients cannot even advance the necessary attorney's fees. These claims, however, may be heard in the Jewish Court without charge...

...The procedure is informal; the arbitrators in each case may make and adopt their own rules. This individualized treatment has worked very satisfactorily. Litigants and their witnesses testify under oath; it has been found that the psychological effect of taking, an oath is even more important when the rest of the proceedings take place in an informal atmosphere. During the progress of the hearing, the arbitrators may interrupt as often as they wish in order to ask questions, to clarify points, or to elicit pertinent facts from the witnesses... The participants may speak either in English or in Yiddish... Since the hearing is not open to the general public, an individual need have no hesitation about discussing details which he would be reluctant to relate before outsiders.

The court does not adhere to the rules of evidence. This adds to the informality. Hearsay evidence, unsupported statements, and beliefs, all of which are taboo in the law courts, may be introduced. Lawyers may represent their clients before the court, but the absence of legal "red tape" has sometimes proved annoying to them. In one hearing, an attorney coud hardly control his wrath because the arbitrator repeatedly reminded him that he could not "object" to hearsay evidence.

Boxerman goes on to provide examples of cases brought before the court. Download the publication if you want to hear the description beginning:

"Galician swine, trying to cheat us on the dead!"
"Roumanian schnorrers! We don't owe you a cent!"

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From the J-Vault: Censorship & Sensitivity

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Last month, the US Supreme Court struck down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children. Defenders of the law used various (unsuccessful) lines of reasoning, such as arguing that harm to children takes priority over other concerns, and arguing that minors do not have the same free speech rights as adults. None of the law's defenders, however, could be seen explicitly endorsing censorship, or even using the word "censorship".

But that's only because times have changed.

This week, from the J-Vault: Objectionable Films (1915)

This little report from the November 1915 Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities was obviously not particularly noteworthy at the time, but viewed from 2011, it provides a fascinating glimpse into a time when there was a "National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures".

The National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures has just issued a special bulletin to all producers and directors of motion pictures in the United States. This is the first definite step taken by the Board to check the vilification of the Jewish race in the "movies." Acting in co-operation with the Jewish Community (Kehillah) of New York City, Maurice Simmons, chairman of the Committee for the Protection of the Good Name of Immigrant Peoples, has been in constant touch with the National Board of Censorship. The libeling of the Jew in the "films" had assumed alarming proportions and was the subject of complaint all over the country.

Don't you wish we still had a "Committee for the Protection of the Good Name of Immigrant Peoples"? Americans used to be much better at naming things. Also, isn't it quaint to reflect that there used to be a time when Jews were portrayed in "movies" and "films" as falling into a set of stereotypical roles? Oh, wait a minute...

On a more serious note, it may come as a surprise to modern American Jews, who are accustomed to seeing Jewish communal institutions stand generally on the side of civil liberties, that in 1915 Jewish community institutions apparently felt no tension about, or even any need to explain, appealing to the National Board of Censorship.

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Independence Day J-Vault: Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas

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Happy Independence Day! Today, a special patriotic installment of the J-Vault:

Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas "The Patriot Jewish Minister of the American Revolution" (1905)

In this excerpt from the 1905 American Jewish Yearbook, N. Taylor Phillips profiles Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas, the Hazzan during the American Revolution of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (which happens to be the oldest congregation, though not nearly the oldest synagogue building, in the USA).

...He was an ardent patriot during the preliminaries to the struggle for independence, and it is related that when at length the crisis came, rather than continue the Synagogue under British auspices, he closed the doors of the edifice, which act was fiercely contested, even families being split apart as the result of it. Many of the members of the Congregation were merchants in active business in New York City, and their interests naturally were with the Tories rather than with the feeble little band of patriots endeavoring to secure freedom for the Colonies. When the patriot members of the Congregation were about to flee from the city upon the appearance of the British fleet in New York Bay in August, 1776, preparatory to the occupation of the city by Lord Howe, the Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas preached a sermon in English, in which he feelingly stated that the service on that occasion might be the last to be held in the historic old edifice situated in Mill Street (now South William Street), then approaching the half-century mark, and we are told that it was delivered with such force and eloquence that tears were shed by all present, men and women alike...

...[T]aking with him the sacred objects of holy worship, [he] established at Philadelphia the Congregation Mickve Israel, a majority of the members being patriot refugees from New York...

[Note: Mikve Israel's own web page traces the congregation's history back to before Rev. Seixas's arrival. See this page.]

Hazzan Seixas

...On the inauguration of President Washington as the first President of the United States, at New York, 1789, the Rev. Mr. Seixas with thirteen other clergymen of various denominations participated in the ceremonies, which notable fact may serve to remind American citizens for all time that our republic is founded on the very broadest principles, tolerating every race and creed, and American Israelites should ever recall with pride that the lives of Hebrews like the Rev. Gershom Mendez Seixas and his brothers, who cheerfully offered their lives and fortunes for the establishment of American independence, give to their brethren throughout the world a right of asylum on these shores which no truehearted or grateful American will ever have the temerity to challenge...

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"The World-Wide Scandal of American Marriage and Divorce Law"

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Yesterday, this blog discussed the attitude of one segment of the Jewish population toward the marriage issue du jour, same-sex marriage. 98 years ago, however, a different issue related to civil marriage captured Jewish communal attention.

This week, from the J-Vault: Remedy for the Divorce Evil: A Proposed Federal Marriage and Divorce Law (1913)

The laxity of our divorce laws has done much toward the undermining and disrupting of our homes. Agencies interested in adjusting martial differences have found themselves helpless in adjusting the case of a deserted wife and children, wherein the husband and father produced a decree of separation or divorce obtained by him in another State...

...Under the liberal divorce laws of the United States, divorce is almost optional with either of the parties and fraud has become legalized. But now that the power of amending the United States Constitution is being more actively exercised, it is a source of satisfaction that the following proposed joint resolution to amending the United States Constitution has been introduced into the House of Representatives: "Congress shall have the power to establish uniform laws on the subject of marriage and divorce for the United States, and to provide penalties for the violation thereof."...

...The difference of sentiment between South Carolina, where divorces are not granted, and South Dakota, where they are procured for trivial cause, or between New York and Massachusetts, can scarcely be compromised to enable the adoption of similar laws by the States. For a cooperative statute to be of real service, it would have to be of uniform application and force... The proposed amendment should be zealously advocated, because it offers the only practical method of doing away with the world-wide scandal of American marriage and divorce law.

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