Judaism as a Consumer Good?

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Writing for eJewish Philanthropy, I react to two Forward articles this summer by David Bryfman and Noam Neusner. Excerpt:

Bryfman argues that giving away major Jewish experiences for free devalues those experiences. “Why would people want to pay for a Jewish experience,” he writes, “if… they can get Jewish products for free? And for a community that prides itself on wanting people to become more responsible, invested and committed, the very notion that we are prepared to give away things sends a mixed message…"

But what is it, exactly, that we want Jews to value? Is it specific “Jewish experiences”, or the Jewish experience, writ large? If the latter, then we shouldn’t fear devaluing individual programs; they’re the means, not the end...

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely, whom Bryfman quotes regarding the strange things people will do when something is free, also writes about a different problem which perfectly describes the trouble with Bryfman’s approach. In his book Predictably Irrational, Ariely writes: “we live simultaneously in two different worlds – one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rules. The social norms… are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required… The second world, the one governed by market norms, is very different… The exchanges are sharp-edged … When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for – that’s just the way it is.” Ariely illustrates the absurdity of confusing these worlds with the example of paying your mother-in-law for Thanksgiving dinner. Bryfman’s article makes this mistake, consigning Judaism to the world of market norms, when social norms are better-suited to meaningful Jewish commitment. Social norms do not preclude financial contribution, but Jewish communal contributions should be more like a married couple pooling their salaries for groceries, and less like a crowd of strangers ordering their own lunches. If this vision seems naïve, that’s because too many Jews lack a familial commitment to the Jewish people. Trying to change that by charging more fees is like trying to get kids to appreciate family dinners by having grandma collect admission at the door.

Read more at eJewish Philanthropy.

 The question of whether or not it's a good idea to treat Judaism as a market commodity is (naturally) not new. Here are some other publications of interest on this topic:

Understanding the Jewish Community Center Marketplace: A Celebration of Volunteerism and the Voluntary Process (1982) David Esekenazi:

Our agencies are heading into a very difficult period, largely because there are (and will almost certainly continue to be) fewer Jews. We will be going after a shrinking and a changing market. We will increasingly compete with other vendors who (in the minds of many of our potential customers) offer similar products.

Esekenazi changed his mind somewhat six years later, in Revisiting the Jewish Community Center Marketplace:

Some years ago in this Journal I argued for the need to redirect our normal noncompetitive perspective and move more in the direction of competing with "other vendors . . . [who], in the minds of many of our potential customers, offer similar products." In that article, I embraced the field of marketing as one of the most promising means of helping JCCs to better compete in the increasingly competitive and open marketplace. While I have not shut my eyes to the marketplace reality, I now wonder about the wisdom with which input from the field of marketing is being incorporated by many not-for-profit agencies. With hindsight, I would counsel more caution today in terms of how marketing ought to be used in a JCC. Unfortunately, I did not adequately consider at that time the effects of marketing upon basic institutional purpose, nor did I adequately distinguish in my own mind the fundamental differences between what I refer to in this article as "method" and "purpose."

Markets and More? (2001). Shari Cohen:

Surely any discussion of religion in public life needs to address the inexorable reach of commercialization into every aspect of human existence. We need to consider whether shopping and working are replacing social activism, civic duty or religious ritual as the boundaries between the roles of the customer, citizen, congregant and employee shift... By looking at five main areas – the market’s monopolization of our time and attention, its increasing role in creating our loyalties and identifications, its shaping of our modes of thinking about individual choice, work’s place in our lives, and the ways in which business might involve itself in critical aspects of social change – we can begin to sketch the crucial implications of these trends for independent thought, ethical sensibilities, collective action and human expression.

The Jewish Marketplace (2004). Chava Weissler

As we know, American Jewry is struggling with the decline of traditional loyalties to congregation and community. Like other Americans, Jews live in a commodity culture, in which consumption is the main means of self-expression. There is a realization that Judaism resembles other leisure commodities offered to consumers in the marketplace, and is judged by similar criteria...

Missing: the Vision and the Values (2004). Andrew Silow-Carroll:

[D]espite experience with marketing, Jewish communal institutions don’t seem very good at it. While some individual advertisements and campaigns have been clever or appealing, they always seem to address short-term goals: How do we get you to come to this service? How can we entice you into enrolling in this course, or give to this campaign? This exemplifies a “product-driven” model of Jewish life, as if our institutions offer only discrete services to consumers. What is often missing from Jewish communal marketing is a reflection of the bedrock vision of the institution behind the ad — the core values and purposes that the institution hopes to share with its members.

Advertising Judaism (2004). David Nelson:

Why do so many Jews have a visceral, negative reaction to the “commercialization” (by which we mean the selling) of Judaism? Some people feel that “selling” and “advertising” connote cheapness and lack of inherent worth. Should we sell Judaism like potato chips? Wouldn’t that cheapen and commodify our sense of Judaism? People don’t give up their lives, or stake their children’s future, on commodities. But there are also ads for universities and hospitals, ads to discourage drug use, or smoking, or to encourage people to use public libraries. These ads represent institutions and causes that affect our survival and our ultimate welfare. And they advertise because we live in a very crowded marketplace of ideas, images, and products.

Marketing Undermines Judaism (2004). Jay Michaelson:

To “market” Judaism, as Andrew Silow- Carroll and David Nelson suggest, contradicts exactly what makes Judaism worthwhile. Consumption co-opts our loves and energies to enhance our selfish desire (the yetzer hara), but Jewish practice reins in our selfish desire so that we can love and serve better. Marketing asks us to sublimate yearning into consumerism; Judaism asks us to restrain our consumerism and open up to yearning...

I know that some say we have to be “realistic.” We live in a society of constant marketing, they say, and to not participate will make Judaism a religion without adherents. And Judaism has always marketed itself, from the original purpose of the Hanukkah menorah to Chabad’s use of it in American public squares. But we undermine Judaism by dumbing it down, dressing it up as “cool” or oversimplifying what Silow-Carroll calls the Jewish vision of “success.” We can and should invite Jews to learn about and love their tradition. But to treat Judaism as something to be consumed is to start down a spiritual path on the wrong foot. A real religious life is not something that one buys or sells. If Judaism is to transform, it will require full participation, a yearning heart. If you can buy it, it’s not holy.

Most relevant to Neusner's article is this Sh'ma article from just this February: Synagogue Membership: What's the Deal? Sara Moore Litt:

[I]f you are a Jewish consumer looking for value in any traditional cost/benefit sense, don’t join a synagogue. It is expensive and you can get almost all the benefits synagogues purport to offer members either for free or at a much lower cost if you buy them a la carte... But what keeps all of us renewing our memberships despite the complaints is that we have found a place where we can confront the central questions of our existence. When that happens, the synagogue becomes a place where we connect to something larger than ourselves — to our community, to ideas that can transform our world, and even to a transcendent experience. If you join that kind of synagogue, membership dues are a bargain and not a burden. They become, in consumer language, a value proposition. These intangible benefits of membership are the only ones that make the high dollar cost of being a synagogue member “worth it.” Anything less is a bad deal.

J-Vault: How to Translate the Bible

Since Jews worldwide are beginning a new cycle of Daf Yomi (one page per day Talmud study), BJPA will be dedicating our August Reader's Guide to the topic of Jewish Text. (Watch your email for our newsletter later in the month.) Meanwhile, as a preview, this installment of the J-Vault features an explanation of a major achievement in American Jewish text: the 1917 JPS Bible.

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From the J-Vault: The New English Translation of the Bible (1918)

This article in the 1918 American Jewish Year Book, based on the preface to the JPS Bible released the previous year, explains the project's origins, process and results--all in quite a bit of detail. Excerpts:

With the Jews the need of a new translation is twofold. We, too, are naturally eager to have a translation based upon the most recent results of scientific research. At the same time it is our ardent desire that our translation should be prepared by representative scholars of the Jewish faith. All the various Christian denominations, Catholics, Protestants, and so forth, have issued translations of their own, and the Jewish people that produced the prophets, psalmists, and historical writers is certainly entitled to lay before the world its interpretation of the Sacred Book. It is unreasonable to expect that the Jew should allow other denominations to prepare for him the book for his religious needs. Moreover, there are technical difficulties which make it inconvenient for a Jew to use the English versions in his synagogue. The order of the biblical books according to Jewish tradition differs greatly from that adopted by the Church...

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The Jewish Publication Society of America almost at the very outset of its career conceived the plan of the new English translation of the Bible. At its second biennial convention, held on June 5, 1892, the following statement was made: "We look forward to the time when the Society shall furnish a new and popular English rendition of the book which the Jews have given to the world, the Bible, that shall be the work of American Jewish scholars."...

Professor [Max L.] Margolis devoted himself entirely to the work, and prepared a manuscript draft of the new translation, taking into account the existing English versions, the standard commentaries, ancient and modern, the translations already made for the Jewish Publication Society of America, the divergent renderings from the Revised Version prepared for the Jews of England, the marginal notes of the Revised Version, and the changes of the American Revisers. Due weight was given to the ancient versions as establishing a tradition of interpretation, notably the Septuagint and the versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, the Targums, the Peshitta, the Vulgate, and the Arabic version of Saadya. Talmudic and midrashic allusions and all available Jewish commentators, both the great mediaeval authorities, like Rashi, Kimhi, and Ibn Ezra, and the moderns, S. D. Luzzatto, Malbim, and Ehrlich, as well as all the important non-Jewish commentators, were consulted. A copy of the manuscript was sent in advance to the members of the Board of Editors in order to give them ample time to consider the merits of every improvement proposed by the Editor-in-Chief and to enable them to make new suggestions not included in the draft. Sixteen meetings, each lasting ten days or more, covering a period of seven years (1908-1915), were held, at which the proposals in this manuscript and many additional suggestions by the members of the Board were considered. Each point was thoroughly discussed, and the view of the majority was incorporated into the manuscript. When the Board was evenly divided, the Chairman cast the deciding vote...

Before being sent to the printer the manuscript was once more examined in order to harmonize, as far as possible, the various suggestions made in the course of seven years. The first proof of the entire work was sent to each member of the Board for revision. The various corrections and suggestions made by the Editors were tabulated, and those which were supported by a majority or by a general rule of the Board were immediately inserted in the proof. There remained about three hundred cases for which the Editor-in-Chief and Chairman did not think it advisable to assume responsibility, and these were referred to the Board for discussion at the final meeting, the seventeenth, which took place in the autumn of 1915...

The new translation is the first for which a group of men representative of Jewish learning among English-speaking Jews assume joint responsibility, all previous efforts in the English language having been the work of individual translators. It has a character of its own. It aims to combine the spirit of Jewish tradition with the results of biblical scholarship, ancient, mediaeval, and modern. It gives to the Jewish world a translation of the Scriptures done by men imbued with the Jewish consciousness, while the non-Jewish world, it is hoped, will welcome a translation that presents many passages from the Jewish traditional point of view...

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Empowered Judaism, 1956 Edition

 This month's newsletter and Reader's Guide will feature religious denominations other than the big three. Among the authors featured in that guide will be Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, one of the founders of Mechon Hadar, an institution on the forefront of the independent minyan movement (I mean, emphatically non-movement!).

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Rabbi Kaunfer is also the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. To his credit, Rabbi Kaunfer recognizes that the approach he advocates is not actually new. "[T]his book is about a vision of Jewish life in the twenty-first century and the opportunity we have of bringing that vision to fruition," he writes (page 1). "In this vision, the future of Jewish life is dependent on Jews--not just rabbis--taking hold of the rich, challenging, surprising, and inspiring heritage that makes up our texts and traditions. It is not about a new 'big idea' or innovation for its own sake, but a recognition that the big ideas in Judaism were laid out clearly by our ancestors thousands of years ago."

 In this installment of the J-Vault, we see that similar calls to renew Jewish lay empowerment, rethink synagogue institutions and communal prayer, and reconsider the nature of the rabbinate, can also be found in the world of the mid-20th-century Jewish institutional world--a milieu usually criticized for being stilted and thin in substance. But voices of dissent, of course, challenged the community to aspire to more.

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 From the J-Vault: The Jewish Community and the Synagogue in Perspective (1956)

 "I am less impressed by the thousands of students in the Sunday schools, the magnificence of the facilities, and the pageants," said Judah J. Shapiro, "than by the sterility of curricula and the limited time spent by the child at the school." Shapiro was speaking at the 1956 annual meeting of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service. Excerpts:

The rabbi in eastern Europe existed in an informed, and frequently learned, Jewish community... in the eastern European Jewish community, the average Jew had learned sufficiently to know what was expected of him as a Jew and could answer most of his questions out of his own learning... because of his learning, the layman knew at what point to turn to the rabbi who then delved and pondered and was in turn, checked and perhaps corrected by the layman in defining a position. Compare this with our own situation!

Rabbi [Emanuel] Rackman adds weight to this description when he says: "Rabbis derive their authority as interpreters of the law from the people, but this authority can only be conferred by a public literate enough to recognize who is worthy of it. '' How many people affiliated with the synagogue are able to deal with the questions of practice and observance on their own, without the directive of the rabbi? How many know when to ask a question?...

[T]he synagogue has become the cover of ignorance, for once affiliated, the individual is no longer questioned on Jewish identification and no longer requires the thoughts and convictions that must be derived only out of understanding...

In Chelm, it is told, the inhabitants realized how difficult it was to search for something lost in the dark. Accustomed to deal with all problems that presented themselves, they finally decided to hang a large sign on the synagogue, boldly illuminated at night, on which was inscribed in big letters: "All searching done here." In this way, when anyone lost something in the dark at night, he found it much more comfortable to do his seeking by the light of the synagogue. I fear that our synagogues here are not assisting the individual members with the resources and tools to face the questions which arise in the home and in the office and on the street but rather call out, '' All searching done here, in the synagogue." There the rabbi sits with the answers. Our problem in this area is to give the Jew the Jewish resources and outlook which will permit him to function Jewishly wherever he finds himself and on whatever terms he has formulated his Jewishness...

My first point, therefore, is that there is an absence of knowledge and that the increase in enrollment in Jewish schools, in synagogue and temple affiliation, and in rabbinical direction has not, and is not a symbol of, increased Jewish knowledge...

[E]ven where the Jew knows little of Jewishness and even where he derives little learning from his synagogue affiliation, he nevertheless finds reassurance from the learning of the rabbi. The rabbi may be more or less successful in enlightening his congregants, but they associate themselves with his Jewish learning. Someone, it seems, must be actively Jewish, and if the member is not, or cannot be, he at least derives satisfaction from the paid employee who is, on his behalf...

If there is no Jewish context to any of our services, I hope that you will agree that they are not Jewish communal services. Jewish communal services are not identifiable by their service to Jews, for that makes the doctor, the psychiatrist, the barber, the theatre, the manicurist, and taxi driver a Jewish communal worker at the moment that these serve
Jewish clientele. Jewish communal services are what they are called, only when they serve the Jewish client in the context of his Jewishness and on behalf of a Jewish community...

Our present American Jewish community is increasingly the product of these public schools where subtly and painlessly we have been severed from the nourishment of a previous Jewish culture. Add to this the urge to be integrated in the total society, especially strong in an immigrant group, and we can see how far we have come from a pre-dominating Jewish cultural pattern. Today, therefore, any discussion of Jewish culture invariably suggests something of the past, something irrelevant, something unknown. To mention Jewish culture is to summon up a picture of Jewishness drawn out of another social and economic context...

From the wealth of what Jewish culture can mean, we have endless resources for living Jewishly and being integrated in the whole of the society in which we find ourselves... It is the successful search of a meaning in Jewish culture that can hopefully establish such goals and values which can govern Jewish communal services by re-establishing a cultural concept of community...

Shapiro, too, by the way, affirms that "I have said nothing new in this paper".

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For July 4th: Why Study American Jewish History?

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 Today, Bible, Hebrew, and holidays form the central themes of Jewish education; Jewish history and American Jewish history are neglected.

Historian Jonathan Sarna asks: Why Study American Jewish History?

American Jewish history contextualizes contemporary challenges facing American Jews...

American Jewish history deepens students' understanding of America and shows them how their ancestors fit into the larger picture of American society...

American Jewish history broadens students' horizons...

American Jewish history helps to deepen attachments to Judaism and the Jewish people...

American Jewish history communicates the enduring power of religion in America...

American Jewish history bridges the gap between collective experiences and personal stories...

American Jewish history encourages students to integrate Jewish and secular studies...

American Jewish history forms the basis for the shared Jewish memories that are basic to both Jewish identity and Jewish community....

 ...Deepening students' Jewish identity is, of course, a noble endeavor, but using American Jewish history as the vehicle to accomplish this aim raises significant problems. What do we do, for example, about unpleasant facts: criminality, slaveholding, intermarriage, or even (for those who teach in a Reform setting) the postwar resurgence of Orthodoxy? How, moreover, will students react later in life when they learn the more complex realities of the American Jewish experience? Will they feel that their religious educators betrayed them? Even now, are we providing students with a portrait of American Jewish history that is as multifaceted and self-critical as their curriculum in American history? And, if not, what message are we unintentionally conveying-not just about American Jewish history but about Jewish education in general?

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Rule, Brittania

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As Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee this week, all eyes were on Britain. A little late, but better than never, click here for a short list of publications about British Jewry, created using BJPA's Bookshelf feature. Below are the top 10 (by date), out of 28 on the list:

  1. Vulkan, Daniel. "Britain's Jewish Community Statistics 2010". The Board of Deputies of the British Jews. April 2012

  2. Boyd, Jonathan. "Child poverty and deprivation in the British Jewish community". Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR). March 2011

  3. Wagner, Leslie. "The Challenges Facing British Jewry". Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA). 15 February 2011

  4. Graham, David. Vulkan, Daniel. "Synagogue Membership in the United Kingdom in 2010". Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR),The Board of Deputies of British Jews, The Board of Deputies of the British Jews. 13 May 2010

  5. Boyd, Jonathan. "United Kingdom: Creativity by Critique: The Unseen Force Behind Innovation". Josh Rolnick, The Sh'ma Institute. May 2010

  6. Capelouto, Lisa. "United Kingdom: British and Jewish". Josh Rolnick, The Sh'ma Institute. May 2010

  7. Graham, David. "The Political Leanings of Britain's Jews". Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR). 29 April 2010

  8. Berdichevsky, Norman. "Multiculturalism in the U.K.: Faith Based and Ethnic Schools". New English Review. February 2008

  9. Graham, David. Schmool, Marlena. Waterman, Stanley. "Jews in Britain: A Snapshot from the 2001 Census". Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR). 2007

  10. Berger, Luciana. "Muslim-Jewish Dialogue in the United Kingdom: A Bittersweet Experience". Jewish Family & Life (JFL Media). May 2005

Click here for the remainder of the bookshelf.

Silencing, Censoring, Hosting, Choosing

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An opinion piece by J.J. Goldberg appears in the Forward under the headline, Silencing of the Liberal American Jew. Reacting to a synagogue's cancellation of a speech by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Goldberg writes, among other things:

Determined campaigns by noisy minorities or threats by a handful of major donors regularly silence voices deemed controversial...

The disinviting of Wasserman Schultz takes the stifling of free discourse into a new and alarming realm...

[Jews] have long been an important voice for justice. It’s a pity that they let their voice be hijacked, diverted or cut off from allies by an unrepresentative minority.

[Emphasis is mine.]

A few weeks ago, when the 14th St Y canceled a Jewish youth group's planned event to discuss a partial boycott of Israel, a leader of the group said:

“This is consistent with other issues we have seen in Jewish institutional spaces, when Jews who have tried to express opinions that are not of the status quo about Israel are censored". (Emphasis is mine.)

There are two questions here which must remain separate: first, how broad is the discourse that the Jewish community chooses to host, encourage, and/or facilitate? And, second, is failing to host, encourage, and facilitate a discussion the same thing as censoring it?

It seems to me that broader discourse is usually good. Politics matter and carry both moral and religious weight, so both liberal and conservative voices should be heard in our shuls. The Jewish community includes a large spectrum of opinion about Zionism, so a strong case can be made that Jewish communal institutions should welcome a broader spectrum of discourse about Israel than they currently do.

At the same time, I would ask all those who use these terms like censorship, silencing, stifling, etc.: is it really the case that choosing not to host, encourage or facilitate every kind of conversation is censorship? Isn't it within any institution's right to choose its own boundaries and norms? Is it really the case that the membership of an institution is being somehow denied the chance to take part in the discussion, when any member can, at any time they wish, join or attend another institution at which the discussion does take place? Did the 14th St Y somehow lock Young, Jewish and Proud out of the city of New York entirely, preventing them from holding an event at any other venue? Did they lock the doors of anyone's radio station or smash anyone's printing press? Is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of the United States Congress now suddenly lost in the wilderness, bereft of microphones, now that the mighty Temple Israel of Miami has slammed its doors to her humble plea to speak her mind?

We're not talking about anyone facing any actual sanction, danger, penalty, or obstacle for voicing an opinion -- we're talking about institutions making choices about whom they will give a platform for voicing which opinions. Those choices are important, and they merit a real debate, one from which I certainly would not ask Mr. Goldberg, nor Jewish Voices for Peace and its youth affiliate, to back down. I would only ask: isn't it possible to make a strong argument for broadening the discourse within Jewish communal institutions without resorting to spurious (and therefore counterproductive) accusations of censorship?

(Browse BJPA for Discourse and Dialogue.)

UPDATE (June 25, 2012): Right-wingers can play this game too.

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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Reinvent Yom HaAtzmaut?

Robbie Gringas makes a case:

Yom Ha'atzmaut is currently far from being an event through which the Jewish community "celebrates itself". While Chanukah, a festival marking momentous events in the land of Israel, is celebrated in the home and in the community with comfort and ease, Yom Ha'atzmaut, another festival marking momentous events in that far-away land, is neither comfortable nor homely. Chanukah has become a festival that is 'owned' by the local population, no matter where in the world they live. Yom Ha'atzmaut is and has always been owned by Israelis...

Nor, for example, is St Patrick's Day to those of Irish descent what Yom Ha'atzmaut is to Jews... St Patrick's Day has now moved far beyond being an Irish Catholic event. The largest St Patrick's Day Parade now takes place in Chicago not Dublin. The slogan throughout the States, "Everyone's Irish on St Patrick's Day", marks its ecumenical, non-ethnic intentions, as the festival celebrates more the sale of Irish-style goods (mainly great beer) than the promotion of Irish life and authentic culture. Despite this gradual draining of the festival's content, St Patrick's Day nevertheless celebrates a more authentic, less complicated sense of exilic longing, than does Yom Ha'atzmaut for Jews...

The time may have come for us to begin draw inspiration not from other nationalisms, nor from other ethnicities, but from our own. We need to begin to see and develop Yom Ha'atzmaut as a Jewish holiday: a chag. Paradoxically, because Yom Ha'Atzmaut is such an established yet unclaimed festival in the orthodox world, we may find ourselves with a great deal of room for maneuver. We may draw from religious wisdom without committing to its authority: we may refer to religious constructs without commenting on their essence...

Each chag has a narrative and a theme that express themselves through a designated experience, structured reflection, and symbolic action...

We would suggest that Yom Ha'atzmaut should mark the following theme: להיות עם חופשי בארצנו – To be a free people in our land. This would allow us to focus on the four areas of Zionism that together would suggest a unique aspect to Jewish existence...

For Chag Ha'atzmaut it might be tempting to reach for the Declaration of Independence, or for one's Tanach, to find the specific megillah appropriate to our Chag Ha'atzmaut. But before doing so it would be useful to increase the breadth of our options. Perhaps a piece of literature from beyond the Tanach might be equally appropriate? What might the story of the Golem of Prague reflect on Israel's narrative of sovereignty, power, and tradition? How could a biography of Albert Einstein – an individual, Diaspora-dwelling, light unto the nations, almost-President of Israel – comment on Am Chofshi b'Artzenu? Must we choose only one text?...

As we have stated, there may be value in drawing on Jewish 'traditional forms' of ritual so as to lend - not necessarily authority - but contextual familiarity to our Chag Ha'atzmaut rites of passage. One such form might be the Seder Plate, as applied to the four principles of Chag Ha'atzmaut... one might raise and drink a glass of water to mark the life-giving simplicity of להיות , to cut open a pomegranate to mark the unified and diverse nature of עם , to eat a wild sabra fruit to mark the prickly yet sweet ambivalence of חופשי , and to light a vial of olive oil to mark ארצנו .

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There are  several worthy observations here, but color me skeptical about any attempt to create a really meaningful ritual celebration intentionally and all at once. Isn't it possible that the ancient festivals are so rich with meaning precisely because no one human individual (or, God save us all, committee) designed them? Do we really want to perform rituals born in a brainstorming session and tailored to express themes X, Y, and Z, as defined by seventeen bullet-pointed specifications? Aren't the contradictions and opacities and confusions of the classic Jewish holidays a significant part of the reason we'll never exhaust the ways they can be meaningful? It's not that I disagree with Gringas that Yom HaAtzmaut ought to develop further, but perhaps it will best do so if we let it do so in unexpected and unplanned ways.

1947: Discrimination Against Shoah Survivors, and the Need for Zionism

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Today we remember between five and six million Jews whom the Nazis murdered, and look to the survivors still among us to bear witness to what they saw.

Of course, concentration camp survivors (and others who ended up in DP camps following the war) were not always accorded such honor and reverence as they often are today. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the image of the DP in sectors of the American public was too often an image of the pitiful victim, the uncivilized wretch, or the sneaky criminal. Today's installment of the J-Vault provides a glimpse into this larger topic, among numerous others.

Special J-Vault for Yom HaShoah: The Psychology of Jewish Displaced Persons (1947)

The title to this article is a bit deceptive. Its primary resonances today are less in relation to the human psyche, and more in relation to group issues of socioeconomic classes, race relations, and the need for Zionism.

American Jewry today has little or no understanding of the Jewish Displaced Person. By and large, our ideas of the Jewish "D.P." are built up entirely on descriptions of horror and hunger portrayed by fund raising appeals or on the contrasting stories of "black marketeering," "continual demanding," and "unwillingness to work" in blanket generalizations by newspapermen who often have interviewed some official who himself has little understanding of the Jewish Displaced Person or of what makes him act as he does.

It is easy to understand the point of view of the American, British or French army or UNRRA official who condemns the Jewish Displaced Person. Usually that official is an ordinary citizen who is part of the stream of thought and philosophy of his country, and he measures those he meets by the standards of this background... He tends to forget the fact that some people were more discriminated against than others, and being more deprived, may exhibit the results of the more difficult lives they have experienced, in behavior which will not make for peaceful living, quiet, and cleanliness. It is difficult for such an official to understand (and emotionally accept the idea) that those who exhibit such negative behavior are those who need the most patience and help. More often, instead, the Jewish Displaced Person is characterized as ungrateful, unclean, lazy or unambitious...

It must be understood that that which may have helped a person survive concentration camp does not necessarily help him in his future adjustments after liberation. By and large, these abilities may retard his after liberation adjustment. The Jewish group attitude, except in occasional instances, was opposed to the "law and order" of the Nazis. "Law and order"—after liberation—continued for many to be something to oppose. It is difficult, for example, for the Jewish Displaced-Person who is so close to hunger, to realize that it was good for him to black market and do anything else that would oppose authority (under the Nazis) but that now, under an Allied power, he is to accept freely whatever limitations they see fit to set on him...

Another aspect of the Jewish ex-concentration camp inmate's attitude is his resentment of the general population in the nearby and surrounding towns in Germany and Austria. Most of the general population represent to the Jews their oppressors and supporters of the oppression against them. That they should be treated theoretically on an equal plane with the general population after their years of suffering only adds to their resentment of the authority which imposes this policy. It is difficult for them to see why people who have had full rations, their families complete, their household furnishings, their positions and comparative security, should be given equal treatment with those who have lost everything. That the Jews should be restricted in movement when the non-Jews are not is also a basis for resentment. In general, the Jews from concentration camps do not look to the Allied or local authorities with any great degree of acceptance...

The British point of view is the most difficult for the Jew to understand. His attitude of treating all persons alike (an antithesis of the Nazi philosophy) has often been referred to by Jewish intellectuals as "pseudo liberalism." The Jews feel that it is naive to treat emaciated, harassed victims with the same amounts of food, clothing and other materials as their oppressors. The British attitude is reminiscent of the Abraham Lincoln story of the wife who came upon the scene of her husband in life and death struggle with a huge bear. The wife, feeling she had to do something, said "Go it husband! Go it bear!" The Jew and anti-Nazi similarly want to know on whose side Britain is — the former Nazis or those who were their victims...

The longer Jews have to remain in lands where they can plan no future, the sooner will all Jewish behavior in these lands become more uniformly aggressive and difficult to work with. As time goes on without a bold and decisive plan, more and more insecurity will develop, and with it can be expected hostilities between native residents and Jews, selfishness, rivalry, suspicion and all the behavior expected in cases of severe dependency. With these, and aggravating these conditions, will be the daily increase of ill health, unsanitary conditions, ignorance due to lack of educational facilities, and unemployment with all its depressive characteristics...

Actually, even if all of the possible facilities for social adjustment of Jewish Displaced Persons were available in the occupied zones, (and this would be difficult to secure so long as Allied political aims dictate the general national internal policies), adjustment of the group in the occupied zones would be doomed to failure. There the D.P. is unwanted by the populace, and he faces daily risks of having physical harm done him, when and if the Allied forces are withdrawn. There he daily faces open and veiled discrimination in finding a job, getting a place to live, getting a business license, or even a telephone. Few, if any, of even the highest authorities are interested in seeing that he gets equal opportunity to build an individual economic and social existence. The recent measures of leniency to Nazis, loans to Germany and Austria, and granting of greater autonomy to local governments by the Allies are pretty clear indications of the future of the Jew in these countries...

In work with most of the small handful of immigrants who have already arrived in the United States, the same problems which displaced persons have exhibited in Europe have been found, but in aggravated form. The same techniques which they developed in the process of self-preservation in the concentration camps are often their main "standbys" of behavior in the new environment. Since these techniques have little or no application to life in America, they become useless appendages which do not help to "make friends and influence people."... His seething hostility against a Nazi government (tied up with a general resentment based on his deprivations) is transferred to the new world about him. The Americans, in turn, cannot understand him. They are indifferent to the problems of Nazism, which they prefer to consider distant and of the past...

America and other lands are reluctant to open their doors to such a group. To sit idly by and philosophize on the sensibility or justice of this or that plan is only to draw out the daily growing problem. The greatest number of the group have expressed the wish to be resettled in Palestine. They have learned of the failure of colonization projects in forgotten and little populated parts of the world. They fear the growing anti-Semitism of lands such as Argentina.

Their behavior continually voices the question, "whom can we trust?" They have been able to trust few in the past, except for people who have seen and understood the meaning of their experiences. They want to be among their own, and instinctively express the feeling that only in Palestine will they have people to come to, who will receive them and want them and give them security. In Palestine, the readjustment of the Jew is within the realm of possibility. In the occupied zones, it is not. Here the Jewish Displaced Person can build and work for the future and feel that it is permanent. In the cooperative farms and groups, he gains a feeling of group belonging, so akin to the need for family life and security. Here, he can find understanding of the problems and experiences he has faced, because many of the Jews of Palestine are themselves refugees from the concentration camps and seek the adjustment of the new refugees as an ideological goal...  Here too, he can work out his need for authoritarian leadership learned in the concentration camp, and gradually learn participation and democratic methods within the working group...

Never before in the history of social work has it been necessary to plan for so large a group of disturbed people. Only by introduction of wholesome group life can any progress be expected. As it stands now, every day away from such a therapeutic atmosphere is a day of further regression. Eventually, and not too far in the future, it will be too late.

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Slope-Slippage, Patrilineality, & Conservative Judaism

In the Forward, David A.M. Wilensky, a patrilineal Jew, shares his story of undergoing a Conservative movement conversion so his Conservative congregation would accept him as Jewish, and argues that he ought not to have needed to do so:

...It’s an intolerable, unsustainable situation. I don’t begrudge Orthodoxy its understanding of Jewish law — it is what it is. Conservative Judaism is another story. If Reform Judaism weren’t the largest denomination, the argument that it has irreparably torn asunder the Jewish community in accepting patrilineals might carry some weight. In the real America, though, Reform is the largest movement and the majority of American Jews don’t belong to any Jewish denomination. In my experience, these harder to categorize Jews couldn’t care less about my mom.

The Conservative rabbinate protests that it cannot recognize patrilineal descent because that would violate its understanding of Jewish law. Coming from people who drive to services on the Sabbath, that reeks. When reality, reason and the changing worldview of the Jews in the pews have called, the Conservative movement has managed to trot out new Halacha that changes the previously unchangeable.

Essentially, Wilensky makes the classic slippery slope argument, but from the pro-slip side. It's a powerful argument, the basis for which accords (as Wilensky acknowledges) with an Orthodox understanding of the ideological topography. I don't envy Conservative leaders who want to maintain status quo -- they have the task of persuading their right flank in the movement that the slope won't slip, and their left flank that it oughtn't.

Browse Conservative/Masorti Judaism on BJPA...

Our Reader's Guide to Conservative Judaism...

April 26th: Alisa Rubin Kurshan at NYU Wagner

Via our friends at the NYU Wagner/Skirball Dual Degree Program in Nonprofit Management and Judaic Studies. RSVP here.

If you can't make it, we hope to make a podcast available afterwards.

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Jewish Shrines (BJPA Roulette)

LRS

 

BJPA Roulette is a safer and more informative alternative to its Russian counterpart. It is ideal for Jewish communal procrastinators, and perhaps even for new forms of occult divination. (BJPA takes no legal, moral or spiritual responsibility for predictions derived from our Random Publication feature.) To play, simply go to http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/random.cfm and let blind fate recommend a publication.

I've just done so, and I landed on Living Room: Shrines, by Vanessa L. Ochs.

Jews, in theory, don’t make shrines; in reality, of course, we do — we just don’t talk about them. Our shrines are spiritual agents that construct our religious and cultural identities, that prompt ethical and holy response, and that foster connections between oneself and the community. Sometimes we amass photos of our ancestors to look over us, interceding with God on our behalf at the hot moments of our lives. We may assemble the Rosh Hashanah cards we received on the mantelpiece, with hopes that the wishes they have extended for a good, sweet year will come true. We may keep out various Israeli souvenirs, trinkets, and ritual objects we have collected: the Hebrew Coca-Cola can, the decoupage hamsa, the mezuzah purchased in the Cardo...

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Play BJPA Roulette:    http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/random.cfm

Language, Culture, & School

Two articles from the Spring 2011 issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service caught our attention recently, in light of our upcoming event this Monday (see flier below for details). The event will explore issues facing dual language public schools -- institutions which might be viewed by some as vehicles to preserve and transmit cultural identities, while others would seek to minimize or oppose this goal since public schools ought to serve society as a whole, rather than individual cultural sub-groups. (A viewpoint from the perspective of promoting multiculturalism might not view these two goals as being in tension.)

BJPA didn't have these articles in mind while planning the event, but they're worth excerpting in advance of it.

Leon Wieseltier: Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry

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The American Jewish community is the fi rst great community in the history of our people that believes that it can receive, develop, and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language. By an overwhelming majority, American Jews cannot read or speak or write Hebrew or Yiddish. This is genuinely shocking. American Jewry is quite literally unlettered. The assumption of American Jewry that it can do without a Jewish language is an arrogance without precedent in Jewish history. And this illiteracy, I suggest, will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin... Without Hebrew, the Jewish tradition will not disappear entirely in America, but most of it will certainly disappear...

In America, the first evidence of Jewish illiteracy occurs as early as 1761 and 1766, when Isaac Pinto published his translations of the liturgy into English. He was acting out of a sense of crisis, out of his feeling that Hebrew, as he put it, needed to “be reestablished in Israel.” Of the American Jewish community of his time, Pinto recorded that Hebrew was “imperfectly understood by many; by some, not at all.” In 1784, Haym Solomon found it necessary to address an inquiry in the matter of a certain inheritance to Rabbi David Tevele Schiff of the Great Synagogue in London, but the renowned Jewish leader could not write the Hebrew epistle himself, and so he enlisted the help of a local Jew from Prague. In 1818, at the consecration in New York of a building for the Shearith Israel synagogue, Mordecai Emanuel Noah observed that “with the loss of the Hebrew language may be added the downfall of the house of Israel.”...

Of course, I do not mean to deny the validity or the utility of translation, which was also a primary activity of Jewish intellectuals throughout the centuries... Translation has always represented an admirable realism about the actual cultural situation of the Jews in exile. Whatever the linguistic delinquencies of the Jews, their books must not remain completely closed to them. Better partial access than no access at all, obviously.

Moreover, we are American Jews; that is to say, we believe in the reality of freedom, and we are prepared to pay its price... The requirement that a Jew know a Jewish language is not a requirement that a Jew know only a Jewish language, and it is certainly not a requirement that a Jew express only one belief in only one means of expression... My question to the Jewish writer in America is not, what language can you write? My question is, what language can you read?...

Illiteracy is nothing less than a variety of blindness, and the vast majority of American Jews are blind. The extent of this blindness—and it is a willed blindness, a blindness that can be corrected—can be illustrated anecdotally. Here is a tale. Some years ago, the exiled president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was traveling around the United States in the hope of enlisting sympathy for his cause, and he went to New York for a meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Now, in his youth Aristide had studied at a seminary in Jerusalem, and he happens to be fluent in Hebrew. It seemed entirely natural and right, in his view, to address the assembled representatives of the Jewish community in what he took to be their own tongue, or at least one of their tongues. And so he began to speak to our leaders in Hebrew. After a few minutes, the negidim rather sheepishly asked their distinguished non-Jewish guest if he could make his remarks in English, because they could not understand what he was saying...

All this is not justifiable. It represents a breathtaking communitywide irresponsibility. Between every generation, not only in circumstances of war but also in circumstances of peace, much is always lost. Only a small fraction of the works of the human spirit ever survives the war against time, but the quantity of the Jewish tradition that is slipping through our fingers in America is unprecedented in our history. And it is the illiteracy of American Jewry that makes it complicit in this oblivion.

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Adam R. Gaynor: Beyond the Melting Pot: Finding a Voice for Jewish Identity in Multicultural American Schools

For the better part of a century, integration has characterized the Jewish experience in America, but modern Jewish education struggles to reverse that trend by separating Jewish youth from their non-Jewish peers and herding them into the walls of our communal institutions. This model ignores a particularly acute demographic reality: most American Jews no longer affiliate with the communal institutions in which Jewish learning takes place. Consequently, this article posits that the key to providing high-quality Jewish education with the majority of Jewish students, who do not access Jewish learning or intensive Jewish experiences, is to reach them in the multicultural environments in which they live and learn daily. More specifically, I argue that we need to create, support, and replicate programs that are integrated elements of school communities, the places in which Jewish kids and young adults spend the majority of their time...

...It is worthwhile to note that although Jews are well represented and largely successful in universities and schools, Jewish content is generally absent. Often, when Jewish content is integrated into curricula, Jews and Jewish culture are portrayed as obsolete. Jewish content most often appears in courses about Bible, representing ancient Jewish history, or about the Holocaust, representing Jewish victimization. For Jewish and non-Jewish students alike, the implicit message conveyed through these choices (in the absence of other content) is that Jewish culture lacks contemporary relevance. When prominent Jews, such as Karl Marx, Franz Kafka, and Bella Abzug, are studied, the fact of their Jewishness and its impact on their work remain unexplored. On occasion, Jews emerge in elective courses about the Middle East, but are often portrayed as a monolithic and imperialist group. The diversity of Jewish opinions about the Middle East and the complex modern history of Jewish identities and communities that have affected this topic remain unexamined...

Historically, the problem of representation in educational institutions and curricula is not unique to Jews. For traditionally marginalized and disempowered groups such as communities of color, women, gays and lesbians, and all combinations thereof, the problems described above have existed to a greater or lesser degree for centuries. However, for several decades now, other historically disempowered communities have increasingly seen themselves reflected in the curricular and extracurricular programming of public and private schools on the primary, secondary, and university levels; there is no good reason why Jewish students cannot see themselves reflected in these spaces as well...

Multicultural education has had a profound impact on the contemporary educational landscape, particularly following periods of intense student activism in the late 1960s and early 1990s. In concert with feminist theory, it has brought significant attention to the histories and literature of people of color and women through curricular enrichment and the founding of specialized, interdisciplinary departments at colleges; it has led to the diversification of faculty and student bodies; it has forced schools and colleges to reconsider discriminatory policies; and it has increased faculty professional development on cross-cultural teaching that can lead to improved achievement (Tatum, 2003). However, except for the recent growth of Jewish Studies courses and departments, Jewish content is still nearly absent from curricula, and Jewish culture is largely ignored by student services offices...

Ironically, it is the Jewish community’s own resistance to multicultural education that has prevented our inclusion in educational curricula... Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century were fierce proponents of public education; unlike Catholic immigrants who opted for parochial education in large numbers, Jews valued public schools as a route toward acculturation (Krasner, 2005). Jews have also been fierce defenders of the separation between church and state and have supported the exclusion of religion as a census category. Jews embraced the universalism of the Enlightenment, which was reinvented in the melting pot motif, as a ticket to achieve unprecedented success in America. For many Jews, multiculturalism theoretically threatened the universalism that facilitated this achievement...

The prevailing, isolationist model of Jewish education that pulls students out of their everyday lives and separates them from their peers has not inspired significant participation. Sometimes, separating and feeling grounded as a group are important, and we should honor those needs. However, if we are to inspire Jewish students to feel invested in their Jewishness, then Jewish learning has to imbue their everyday lives with meaning. The key to doing this is through high-quality Jewish education in the multicultural environments in which they live and learn daily. Our aim should be to create, support, and replicate programs that are integrated elements of students’ schools, the communities in which they spend most of their time. Multicultural education is the practical framework for this approach.

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And don't miss the event this Monday:

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From the J-Vault: "in his own language"

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"For the success of this work of Americanizing and educating the immigrant," writes Rabbi Henry Cohen, "one thing is essential. You must go to him first in a friendly and democratic way in his own language."

As you may have seen, our March newsletter featured a Reader's Guide to Jewish Languages, in connection with an upcoming event on Dual Language Public Schools. (March 26th, from 3 to 5. Click here to RSVP.) At the event, educators and scholars will discuss issues of language and education, especially as they relate to issues of culture and identity in the United States. This installment of the J-Vault explores related concepts.

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This week, from the J-Vault: The Immigrant Publication Society (1915)

You ask me to give you an account of our new society. I am very glad to do so, particularly at this time, when the need of making all our immigrants a vital part of the nation is greater than ever before...

For the success of this work of Americanizing and educating the immigrant, one thing is essential. You must go to him first in a friendly and democratic way in his own language. This is the only way to reach him. Every stress must of course be laid upon the necessity of his learning English, and simple and practical books on learning it must be promptly offered him. But to the cleverest, the simplest English book is at first impossible. Not everyone has the gift of languages. Some few never learn any English at all, but, fortunately, experience gives abundant proof that the immigrant can absorb the spirit of the new country through his own language...

The first step in so essentially a patriotic American work was the preparation, curiously enough at the suggestion of the Royal Italian Immigration Commission, of an Immigrant's Guide, telling the newcomer the things which he needs to know, and which he knows he needs... The success of this "Little Green Book," as it was at once called, was immediate. With the cordial help of many interested Jewish societies, it was soon carefully adapted in every detail for the use of the English - speaking immigrants.

Describing the success of the book, and bolstering his case for the need of a new organization dedicated to publishing non-English books, Rabbi Cohen noted that the New York Public Library was in the midst of a sharp rise in demand for Yiddish books.

But ordinarily the librarian in opening a department in a foreign language is forced to depend upon a chance adviser, with consequences that are sometimes amusing, sometimes really disastrous. The problem presents serious difficulties. How can the librarian be sure of giving the immigrant the best books and papers in his own language, not only for his pleasure, but very practically to help him, explaining America and its opportunities, putting before him the means of learning English, of becoming an American citizen, and of satisfying many of the most important necessities of his new life? How can the librarian be sure that she is not innocently placing on the shelves books that are atheistic, anarchistic, propagandizing, indecent or simply "trash?" What hooks should she buy first? What size are they? What do they cost? How shall the foreigner be taught the privileges and rules of the library?...

How remarkable a thing it is that the first popular Yiddish bibliography published in America should be printed at the insistence of American librarians—one of a series that Mr. Anderson, with the practical experience of New York, says, are: "Exactly what we need to help us make the immigrant understand America and its institutions."

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***Join us on March 26***

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Forging a Unity Through Diversity

For a new installment of our "Office Hours" video series, Prof. Erica Foldy of NYU Wagner suggests that there need not be any tension between unity and diversity. For more in this video series, see: http://www.bjpa.org/blog/index.cfm/Office-Hours

Browse BJPA for Diversity: http://bit.ly/xZJsNT

Note: if you cannot see this embedded video, click here.

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