What Do We Owe Peter Stuyvesant? Jewish and Non-Sectarian Social Services

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"In 1652, Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New Amsterdam, now New York, received a promise from the Jews who came to settle there that they (the Jews) would care for their own poor. Ever since then, the Jews of this country have prided themselves that this sacred promise which the first Jewish settlers in America made has never been broken."

With this quote I.M. Rubinow opens his discussion of the relationship between Jewish social services and the broader social and economic trends, questioning whether the story reflects "good history", and, more importantly, challenging the notion that it reflects "good sociology, good social ethics or good social work."

From the J-Vault: What Do We Owe to Peter Stuyvesant? (1930)

Speaking at the National Conference of Jewish Social Service, Rubinow asks: "Have we made a promise? Just what kind of a promise did we make? Have we fulfilled the pledge? And is the promise still binding?" The original promise not to be "a burden" was originally a concession to "Stuyvesant's bigotry", according to sources Rubinow quotes.

If this be a promise, evidently it was obtained under duress, under threat of expulsion... It would be funny if it were not so sad. For as a matter of fact, this whole misconception, supported by a curious mixture of holy tradition, race pride, and a typical Jewish sense of group guilt, has definitely colored both the theory and practice of our work, and much of the social philosophy of the American Jewish community. No more tragic illustration may be found of the truth of the statement that necessity may be made into a virtue...

In any event, Rubinow explains, this "promise" has not really been kept:

non-Jewish contributions have been made to Jewish drives and campaigns. They have been diplomatically solicited in secret. Just why do we find a situation of this nature so very damaging to our pride? Is it because we are still a "chosen people" ? Is it because we still live in a ghetto and must not disclose our sores to the enemy? Is it because we are so proud, or because we are afraid to admit the ugly truth?

Rubinow argues that the truth is that the Jewish community cannot continue to conceive of its socioeconomic needs as existing in a vacuum:

Jewish poverty is not a result of intra-group conditions. It is a part and parcel of the whole economic and social problem of wealth production and wealth accumulation of the country as a whole. The expectation that the problem of Jewish poverty can be met individually, may be hoped to be eliminated irrespective of those general economic forces, is an expression of excessive group pride uncontrolled by scientific research and thinking. The sermon of independent group responsibility becomes a definite anti-social force if it destroys Jewish force—if it destroys Jewish interest, and Jewish participation in national progressive social movements.

Jewish communal and social service should not therefore be subsumed into larger social movements, however:

Jewish social service... has largely grown for at least three reasons: (1) To perform functions which, otherwise, would have been left undone. (2) To give expression to the need and desire of communal co-operation. (3) To enable the Jewish minority to make its contribution to development of cultural, ethical and even social values and concepts in the community in which we live.

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"But their God runs Mississippi..."

"Jews have been and remain marginal to the South," writes Deborah Dash Moore:

Their marginality is intrinsic to their existence as southern Jews. African Americans have been and remain central to the South. It is impossible to imagine southern culture, politics, religion, economy, or in short, any aspect of southern life, without African Americans.

Moore's comparison of African American and Jewish American history is presented in her chapter, "Separate Paths: Blacks and Jews in the Twentieth-Century South," from the book Struggles in the Promised Land: Toward a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States. Continuing our Black History Month series, some excerpts:

The history of Jews and Blacks in the South reveals enormous contrasts and few similarities. Differences include demographic and settlement patterns, occupational distribution, forms of culture, religion, and community life, even politics and the prejudice and discrimination endured by each group. Visible Jewish presence in the South is considered so atypical that when large numbers of Jews (that is, over 100,000) actually did settle in a southern city, as they did In Miami and Miami Beach after World War II, the entire area of South Florida was soon dismissed as no longer southern and jokingly referred to as a suburb of New York City... In the popular mind as well as in reality, the South would not be the South without Black Americans. Jews, by contrast, offer an interesting footnote to understanding the region, an opportunity to examine the possibilities and cost of religious and ethnic diversity in a society sharply divided along color lines...

Irrespective of where they settled (except, of course, for Miami), Jews usually worked in middleman minority occupations not considered typically southern: as peddlers, shopkeepers, merchants, manufacturers, and occasionally professionals (doctors, dentists, druggists). Main street was their domain. Initially Jews lived behind or above their stores; as they prospered they moved to white residential sections of town...

By contrast, African Americans worked at a wide range of occupations from sharecropper and farmer, to day laborer and industrial worker, to a handful of middle and upper class positions, including storekeepers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and professionals serving a segregated society... Unlike Jews, many of whom were self-employed, Blacks largely worked for others, usually whites, restricted by custom and prejudice to the least desirable jobs in each sector of the economy...

Probably the single most important communal institution was the Black church. Virtually all African Americans, seeking individual salvation and collective spirituality, joined a church, which was usually either Baptist or Methodist. The church not only offered Sunday services and schooling, but it also sponsored social welfare, and civic and cultural activities... Synagogues assumed far less centrality in the Jewish community, though far greater percentages of Jews joined them in the South than in the North...

Usually accepted as white, and not summarily excluded from participation in civic affairs as were African Americans, Jews tried to maintain communal institutions focused upon internal Jewish needs, such as community centers, B'nai B'rith lodges, social welfare organizations, as well as women's clubs and Zionist groups, while supporting white community endeavors not connected wirh the church, such as cultural activities, better business and chamber of commerce groups, and philanthropic endeavors. Their success in this dual enterprise depended upon politics; during the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan after its reestablishment in 1915 in Georgia, Jews generally found themselves unwelcome in both political and civic endeavors. This chilly environment warmed substantially during World War II, and southern Jews faced the dawning of the postwar civil rights era feeling integrated into the white community. Observers in the 1960s discovered even among relatively small Jewish populations that two communities often coexisted, divided sharply by their "degree of Southernness."... Opposition to Zionism, and by extension Jewish nationalism and ethnicity, coincided with a high degree of "Southernness." Irrespective of ideology, however, southern Jews uncovered no antisemitism among their neighbors, although many feared that it might be "stirred up" by political change." Outsiders visiting their fellow Jews rarely understood such sentiments... Coming down to Mississippi to help with legal defense of those involved in the voter registration drive, Marvin Braiterman, a lawyer, decided to attend services at a local synagogue to escape the tensions of the week. "We know right from wrong, and the difference between our God and the segregationist God they talk about down here," his Jewish hosts told him. "But their God runs Mississippi, not ours. We have to work quietly, secretly. We have to play ball. Anti-Semitism is always right around the corner."...

World War II changed southern Jewish attitudes toward politics, but not enough to bring them into convergence with African Americans' increasing demands for equal civil rights and for an end to desegregation. Jews migrating to the South after the war carried their politics in their suitcases, but since 80 percent of these northern newcomers went down to Miami, they exerted little influence on the emerging civil rights movement. A handful of young rabbis joined forces with Christian clergy across the color line, but most feared to speak out lest they lose their positions...

The shift from protest to politics--especially the voter registration drives organized by SNCC in 1964 that drew large numbers of northern Jewish students to the South-exacerbated southern Jewish discomfort. The rabbi of Meridian, Mississippi, urged Michael Schwerner to leave, fearing that white anger at Schwerner might turn against local Jews.

Much more fascinating history follows, including the bitter conflict between the Black and Jewish communities surrounding the Leo Frank case.

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To read more publications at intersections of Black and Jewish history, see this special Bookshelf for Black History Month.

(Remember, if you're a registered user [it's free], you can create bookshelves like this one to save sets of BJPA documents for later. Keep them private, or publish them to the web to share with colleagues. Sort manually, or automatically by date or title. View or print the lists, or export to MS Word for easy bibliographies.)

I'll Put Down My Institution if You Put Down Yours

Writing for eJPhil, Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin point out that we have, in the United States, "Too Many Jewish Institutions".

As a community, we have funneled untold billions of dollars and other human capital into constructing Jewish institutions – museums, hospitals, social service agencies, arts and cultural entities – that in too many cases would be more suitable as smaller components of larger facilities rather than as “stand alone” entities...

... It is not our role to state which institutions hold the most value, reputation or prestige. That is the role of stakeholders, constituents and leaders. However, our logic tells us that if your city already has millions of dollars invested in a Jewish art museum, you probably don’t need to build a new institution nearby that could feature exhibits and collections housed elsewhere.

We should also address the specialization of each institution. If there is a strongly-supported American Jewish history museum, does there need to be a Russian-American Jewish history museum, a European-American Jewish history museum, a Spanish-American Jewish history museum or can we cover them all under one set of four walls?...

...Why not a Jewish Arts Center in a synagogue complex built to include a Holocaust Remembrance wing? By putting these entities all into one building, we are preserving precious resources and reflecting on cooperation and other efficiencies.

I can just imagine the meeting between all those "stakeholders, constituents and leaders." Somebody starts the meeting off noting that a lot of the institutions represented in the room, in the words of Evans and Lapin, "would be more suitable as smaller components of larger facilities." "Sure," another leader will respond, "some of us need to be subsumed. Fine. You go first." The egos of leaders can be annoying, but the egos of leaders do not constitute an entirely harmful force. When leaders feel like big shots of organizations, they're more invested. Spreading around the ego-boost is a very real way to spread around engagement.

But this isn't really about leaders' egos. Another quibble: the authors seem to assume the existence of a certain, stable-sized pot of funding which can either be divided among many institutions or given to fewer of them in larger portions. This is a false assumption. Perhaps there are certain donors who will donate generously to a Russian-American Jewish history museum, but who will not give anything at all for an American Jewish history museum. In such a case, the separate museum is not necessarily as inefficient as one might assume. How much of the redundancy really represents money that could be consolidated, and how much represents money that will be spent either redundantly or not at all? It would seem quite difficult to say.

Let me not belabor this point, however. I fully concede that inefficiency is rampant in American Jewish communal life. The real problem is that human life is not all about efficiency. The most efficient meal would be a perfectly calibrated nutritional concoction delivered intravenously, but I think most of us would rather have a nice meal. Consider: how many of the best days of your life could be best described by the word "efficient"? I don't mean to say that efficiency counts for nothing -- just that it only counts as much as it counts, because other things count too.

Some of those things that count are the vast diversity of views and ideologies in American Jewish life -- differences that sometimes require institutions with divergent missions, values, and operational guidelines. To the authors' rhetorical question, "Why not a Jewish Arts Center in a synagogue complex built to include a Holocaust Remembrance wing?" I answer: what kind of synagogue complex? Whose shul gets the community's art, and what does that say to the people who daven across the street?

The countless throngs of Jewish organizations that have sprung up from generations ago to the present tell the story of a people unlikely to fall suddenly into lockstep with one another, and I'm not ready to say that's a bad thing. Evans and Lapin make a point worth considering, and I'm sure there are many cases in which they're right. But in a world of declining civic engagement, do we really want to say that fewer of us should be starting organizations? Maybe we do. Maybe we need more joiners, more humble servants, and fewer egotistical leaders. But I do hope we conduct the conversation rightly started by Evans and Lapin on grounds far broader than efficiency alone.

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.

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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: Arab-Jewish Relations, Pre-Statehood

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On a day which saw comedienne Sarah Silverman offer her prescription for Middle East peace at the Israeli Presidential Conference -- a conference whose theme is "Tomorrow" -- let's take a look back at the Israel of yesterday, through the eyes of one of America's most important Zionists: Henrietta Szold.

This week, from the J-Vault: Recent Jewish Progress in Palestine (1916)

While Szold's report is mostly concerned with immigration figures, economic development, urban planning, village life, and other such logistical concerns, one section discusses relations between Arabs and Jews, and makes the reader long for an alternate and peaceful past that did not occur:

In general, the relation between Jews and Arabs is not unsatisfactory, in spite of the friction that occurs at certain points of contact. The reasonable expectation is that it will improve, because the mutual respect is increasing. The Arab has begun to recognize the value that has accrued to him and the land by the presence and the activity of the Jew. He already pays him the flattery of imitation. In some places he has adopted the modern methods and implements introduced by the Jew. On the other hand, the Jew recognizes that the Arab may be his teacher in all that relates to the soil. His fiber is, as it were, habituated to it. He knows it by instinct. For instance, the primitive plow of the Arab husbandman, wielded by his predecessor on the soil three thousand years ago, it was thought must be baniyhed beyond recall. More careful investigation has demonstrated that on some soils deep upturning is harmful; the superficial scratching of the wooden plowshare with its small iron attachment is exactly what is needed. Such recognitions of mutual helpfulness will multiply and make for a better understanding and neighborly tolerance. But that the relation is an aspect of Jewish colonization that will require wisdom and tact and statesmanship can and should not be minimized; nor are the leaders of Palestine public opinion guilty of neglect in this particular.

Szold goes on to describe the presence of a significant number of Russian converts to Judaism. She also predicts that Yemenite Jews, who are "tenaciously and loyally Jewish, intellectually alert," but "Arabic in speech and habit," will be "a cement between Arab and Jew, between the industrially-minded Jew of the city and the agriculturally minded Jew of the country, between Sefardi and Ashkenazi."

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Barriers to Jewish Participation: Poverty

Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute addresses the problem of financial need among some unaffiliated American Jews in an article for e-Jewish philanthropy:

At any given time, the majority of US Jewish households are not affiliated with Jewish institutions like synagogues or JCCs. There are many reasons why, perhaps the most important being that the organized community hasn’t made a strong enough case for the meaning and value of being affiliated. There’s a subset of the unaffiliated, however, who already understand the meaning and value – or who, like most affiliated households, simply want or need the services provided – but do not affiliate because of their own personal financial situations. And the size of this subset has likely grown during the recent Great Recession.

The problem, writes Golin, is not that Jewish organizations are unwilling to make accomodation. "[T]here is almost universal agreement among Jewish communal professionals that their organizations will make accommodations," he explains. "However, how that actually works is in no way uniform and in fact represents a serious barrier to participation. In most organizations, those accommodations are not advertised in any way – the impetus is on the financially-challenged to ask for assistance."

 Rabbi Mordechai Liebling made a similar point in 2005 in an article called "Money in Synagogues":

Many congregations state that dues payments should not be a barrier to membership, and reduced rates are available. But studies show that the process of applying for a dues reduction is humiliating. In some congregations the process itself is unfriendly — even to the point of asking for income tax forms.

(A digression: it's comical to me that we need studies in order to tell us that asking for a dues reduction is humiliating.) Rabbi Liebling also points out, however, that the outright payment of dues is not the only way in which socioeconomic status can become a barrier:

How obligated is the institution to help members feel comfortable? Little can be done about the cars members drive, the schools children attend, or the vacations families enjoy. But a great deal can be done about the assumptions that the synagogue makes. The synagogue needs to be very conscious of the underlying economic assumptions made vis-à-vis programs and public statements. Presuming that everyone is at least “middle class” and won’t have trouble spending the extra $10 or $20 for a special program or school event is incorrect.

Celebrations are perhaps the most visible manifestation of wealth differences. Synagogues can set standards or guidelines about the lavishness of a kiddush or even a bar or a bat mitzvah party... Hundreds of years ago medieval Jewry created sumptuary laws to regulate conspicuous consumption; perhaps we need to reconsider them.

To learn more about poverty in the American Jewish community, start with "Economic Vulnerability in the American Jewish Community", a report based on the the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-1. In 2008, the AJC published "The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvement and Barriers". The BJPA also has many more holdings under the topic of Socioeconomic Status.

Opening an Online Dialogue on Baby Boomers and Public Service

Jewish organizations are ill-positioned to tap the skills and experience of the many Jewish Baby Boomers who see retirement as a time for "encore careers."

This was the major finding of a discussion with senior leaders in the Jewish community based on a new report from NYU Wagner Professor David Elcott, "Baby Boomers, Public Service, and Minority Communities: A Case Study of the Jewish Community in the United States." (For a summary of other key findings, click here. For a podcast of the event itself, click here.)

The discussion was moderated by the Jewish Week's Gary Rosenblatt and featured Stuart Himmelfarb and Roberta Leiner. It was hosted by BJPA @ NYU Wagner and the Research Center for Leadership in Action at NYU Wagner on 9/21.

To promote an exchange of ideas, the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner is initiating a conversation on this blog on the topic of engaging retiring Baby Boomers in public service Encore careers. This conversation will take the form of guest blog posts, which we hope will come from a variety of institutional, generational and professional perspectives -- perhaps including your own.

Among the questions we’d like to address are:

  • How do the report findings comport with your own impressions?
  • Which current programs or practices address the issue of effectively capitalizing on Baby Boomers’ talents and expertise while meeting their needs, and what can we learn from them?
  • What steps should policymakers and practitioners be taking and in what order of priority?

For an example of an institutional view of ongoing efforts, see this article by Roberta Leiner, discussing the UJA-Federation of New York's ongoing approach to this issue.

We look forward to hearing about initiatives in your organization or community, your concerns or current challenges, or your thoughts on new ways forward. If you would like to contribute a posting to this discussion, whether as brief as a paragraph, or as long as a few pages, please email bjpa.wagner@nyu.edu. In any event, check our blog frequently to read what others are contributing.

Relationship-endings and Jewish communities

American Jewish marriages end in divorce at a similar rate as American marriages in general. In her article, Rekindling Tradition as Life Partnerships End, Kathleen Jenkins uses dozens of qualitative interviews with Jewish divorce(e)s and clergy to explore how divorce affects Jewish practices, attachments, and needs.

All the participants talked about how negatively divorce impacted their home practice, shabbat and holiday celebrations. Many turned or returned to synagogue congregational life as a source of meaningful Jewish engagement. Singing, communal prayer, and various rituals that communities have developed, like a mikvah visit associated with the completion of the divorce or the recitation of kaddish for the death of the relationship, could be sources of comfort and meaning.

On the other hand, respondents also often described experiences of silence, frustration, and shame: synagogue dues not accessible to a suddenly poorer unit; activities centered around families; fear of gossip and/or anxiety around divorce making discussions of divorce feel taboo, etc.

The author points out that the transitional period after a divorce is a time of rich spiritual potential, one that Jewish communities and clergy should not overlook in terms of outreach and building communal connections. Her recommendations include ideas like explicitly including divorce in references to areas of pastoral care and not shying away from mentioning divorce in sermons; establishing and offering ritual practices associated with divorce; and diversifying synagogue activities beyond the normative family model.