Foundation and Collapse: The Synagogue Council of America and a Shifting Jewish American Landscape [Essays]
By Aminadav Grossman
In 1926, Rabbi Abram Simon founded the Synagogue Council of America, realizing his vision of an organization to unify American Jewish leaders. The Reform rabbi from Washington D.C. imagined an entity that would formulate unified Jewish positions on policy issues of his day, which were as diverse in scope as were the Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative rabbis he enlisted to tackle them. Issues of marriage and divorce, the effects of prohibition, and religious education in public schools presented the fledgling American Jewish minority with concerns that collective organization could protect.
The Council’s birth was an auspicious one, representing the first time American Jewish organizations had formed a national, cross-denominational institution focused on cooperative Jewish interests in American politics and culture. Jewish leaders believed that unity between disparate movements would enable them to exert greater influence on national and community matters, and even constituted a religious good. Early members prized its historical exceptionality: Rabbi Bernard Bamberger, former president and author of a 1963 history of the Council, called the Synagogue Council of America “a unique experiment for which there is no precedent and no parallel in Jewish history.”
But the SCA faced challenges meeting its lofty ideals. From its inception, critics were skeptical of its ability to unify divergent sectors of the Jewish community. Indeed, the project of unification proved to become the very wedge that drove the Council’s members apart, and the consortium’s ultimate collapse in 1993 was marked by the various denominations blaming each other for impeding their collective efforts. Since then, no effort has been made to reestablish the Council, or to formulate a united American Jewish consensus of any kind. Unsung and unmissed, the SCA’s story remains an untold chapter of American Jewish history.
The SCA was born in an America whose immigrant Jews, newly arrived from Europe, formed political and cultural organizations to protect their local and global interests. Its early 20th century contemporaries included the Anti-Defamation League (founded in 1913) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (1914), as well as the rabbinic and synagogue bodies of the Orthodox and Conservative movements. The rapid growth of what had so recently been a struggling immigrant community inspired American Jewish leaders “to think and plan in increasingly larger terms,” Bamberger wrote, in the hopes of carving a Jewish niche in an expansive, multicultural America. With the help of community and religious-based organizations, immigrants could confront their common needs and ambitions as members of a larger, theoretically more powerful, collective.
In June 1924, Rabbi Simon first offered a tentative solution to unite the greater Jewish community, and proposed his plan to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, two Reform rabbinic organizations. Both accepted, and shortly after were joined by Conservative and Orthodox leaders. At their first meeting, the members of the SCA agreed that all Council decisions required unanimous consent. Simon’s vision for the SCA was a body concerned with secular issues—the welfare of Jewish university students, for example—in which all Jewish denominations had a stake, and on which they could find common ground. The SCA’s early leaders knew very well that agreement on issues of theology were beyond the scope of what the organization could hope to accomplish. The reality was, and remains, that “Jewish” is hardly a monolithic ideological moniker—agreement, as such, cannot be met without divisiveness and difficulty.
Doomed in its early years by vague institutional goals, the Synagogue Council suffered from poor organization and the absence of a distinct identity. In fact, according to Bamberger, the SCA’s members themselves were often unsure of their goals. The Council was persistently insolvent due to lack of funds, and consequently was unable to employ or retain full-time employees.
Structural issues notwithstanding, the early SCA did manage to exert itself as it learned to navigate the intricacies of public policy while avoiding contentious religious topics, out of fear of estranging members of different denominations. For example, the Council promoted observance of the Sabbath by discouraging the scheduling of Jewish communal functions on Saturdays and by advocating for a five-day workweek, which gave Jewish employees the right to observe their Day of Rest. However, in a move of avoidance—though admittedly, one of great tact—the SCA did not specify programmatically what actually constituted “observance.”
The SCA also formulated positions on contemporary international politics. During the Holocaust, the SCA called for prayer and political activism among American Jews on behalf of their brethren in Europe. Engaging in the American political system, it joined forces with interfaith groups to lobby President Roosevelt to intervene in the European conflict before America entered the war. The Council condemned the British White Paper, which limited immigration to its then-colony Palestine, and expressed its support for the creation of the United Nations as an organ to help fashion post-WWII peace.
Despite its varied stances and attentiveness to national and global Jewish issues, the 1940s and 50s were also marked by persistent disagreement in the Synagogue Council between its Reform and Orthodox members. Reform Council members were growing skeptical of the Council’s efficacy, questioning (and, at times, even opposing) the positions it held, particularly those related to Zionism. Orthodox members were equally disgruntled and felt pressure to drop out of the SCA by prominent rabbinic émigrés from Europe, who deemed its interdenominational project objectionable. So displeased were these newly-American Rabbis, in fact, that in 1963 a ban was issued by some prominent Orthodox rabbis against Orthodox participation in the Council, inciting controversy not only within the organization itself, but also among members of the Orthodox rabbinic community. Though the Orthodox contingent of the Council stood by its membership, the hypertension between constituent religious groups proved to be foreboding and, ultimately, insurmountable.
Aware of the inherent challenge of Jewish interdenominational policymaking, the SCA persisted in its effort to remain effectual while avoiding those topics that promised to unravel its shaky intra-organizational diplomacy. The Council learned to operate under a political distinction between “external” Jewish affairs—issues of a secular nature in which Jewish interests had a stake—and “internal” ones, the sort of theologically-charged questions that were to be avoided at all costs. Seeking exclusive involvement with the former, the SCA demonstrated its public solidarity with members of the Black Civil Rights movement and with the oppressed Jews of the Soviet Union, and furthermore attempted interfaith dialogue with Christian groups (though, of course, such dialogue remained strictly sociologically and politically oriented). American Jewry’s deficient ability to confront its own internal diversity became distinctly recognizable when the Council, conflicted over policies related to the Israeli Law of Return (the streamlined nationalization process for Jews who emigrate to Israel), was fundamentally torn asunder in response to the seemingly simple, but theologically thorny, definition of who can be considered a Jew.
Steady feuding and diminishing political potency led to the SCA’s decline in the 1980s, a sign of its failure to meaningfully affect American Jewry. Its activities devolved into a series of nominal resolutions and scattered conferences. At the heart of its slow decline remained the tension between its members: the Reform belief in Orthodoxy’s looming extinction, and the Orthodox prediction of Reform assimilation. It’s ineffectiveness soon washed over its footprint on the national consciousness, revived only by a final spark of controversy regarding the hour of its collapse in 1994.
Complicated and perennially unresolved, the SCA’s identity crisis was the source of its own undoing. In his history of the organization, Bamberger writes that its official discourse “had to be formulated chiefly in sociological terms because theological [issues] or topics relating to Jewish law (halakha) as such would create difficulties for the constituent groups.” The records of what the SCA did discuss, however, “have been unmistakably religious,” a suggestion that there may have been, perhaps, two dynamics at work—effectively, two Councils. While topics such as ritual observance were discussed only internally (indeed, an area highly susceptible to divisiveness among participating groups), the unified discourse as presented publicly, was carefully framed in non-religious terms so as to be most palatable to the discordant groups issuing it. Split on the nature of its mission, the Council was ultimately unable to overcome the difficulties that such a dichotomy demanded.
Even after the Council’s collapse, infighting continued in contests to narrate the demise of the organization. Many, such as Rabbi Mordechai Liebling—whose Reconstructionist denomination was not represented in the SCA—blamed the Orthodox. The SCA was “an artificial organization,” wrote Liebling in the Chicago Tribune, “because the Orthodox maintained a stranglehold over it, not allowing any substantive discussion and preventing any real interfaith dialogue.” Similarly, Albert Vorspan, a prominent Reform figure, blamed the Orthodox for the growing gaps between different segments of American Jewry in a cover article for the magazine Reform Judaism. Orthodox Rabbis such as Haskel Lookstein disputed the accusations against their movement, claiming that, in fact, the majority of vetoes cast against SCA policies were issued by Reform and Conservative members. That the defunct organization’s memory served as the cause for continued argument highlights the contentious terrain of contemporary American Jewry, whose divided denominations are apparently ill-suited to recreate a unified Jewish voice such as the SCA once offered.
It appears unlikely that the SCA actually influenced the viewpoints of American Jews in any significant way, because it was relegated to issuing policy statements that were increasingly narrow and decreasingly noteworthy. Ironically, the Council’s attempt to create a unified Jewish voice resulted in a chorus of dissent, in which the gaps between different denominations of Jews in America were made more pronounced. In time, its meetings became more of a theatre for Jewish debate and politics than a workshop for policy. Its primary good, though, as Bamberger believed, may have been in its very existence, however flawed, of a representative congress of American Jews that lasted for close to 70 years.
But perhaps existence alone was not enough to keep the SCA relevant in the lives of the Jews it purported to represent. According to Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the last president of the SCA, the organization collapsed because “it [didn’t] have a natural constituency of lay people” and “there [didn’t] seem to be enough people who are really interested in maintaining the organization.” The indifference of the laity to an organization devoted to the common, unified interest of American Jewry is further reflected in the lack of efforts to create any similar kind of organization in the years since 1993. Little attention has been given to the SCA in writing about the history of American Judaism since its collapse. But the value of the SCA’s story warrants its reemergence from the archives. Its conflict-ridden history illuminates the changing nature of American Jewry away from large umbrella organizations such as the SCA and in favor of more informal ones, separate from formal denominational affiliation.
The remaining few faithful to the idea of an organization to unite all Jews may face a problem of generational proportions. In his 2005 paper, “Engaging the Next Generation of American Jews,” sociologist Steven Cohen documents the changing affiliations and interests of younger generations of American Jews. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College and New York University, notes that of Jews between the ages of 25 and 39, 47% are unmarried. These young Jews, Cohen writes, “find their Jewish identity expressed elsewhere, outside the institutional network. They are drawn to ‘scenes’ and like-minded ‘crowds,’ but have little need for conventional, formal institutions to express their Jewishness.” Unlike the Jewish immigrants from the early 20th century who gained much-needed support from the synagogues and organizations they joined, today’s young Jews in America have sought means of religious association that go beyond the scope of such entities, many of which are often attached to a rigid ideology.
Contemporary American Jews seek to blend external cultural influences with their Jewish identities, and as a consequence are less likely to fight for an exclusively Jewish perspective on a particular issue. As Cohen writes, Jews under 40 “remain suspicious of ideology, exclusiveness, agenda, an apparent judgmentalism, and are uncomfortable with an overt stress on politics, even on those issues with which they may share a consensus.” Seeking more porous ethnic and cultural boundaries than the clear demarcations that circumscribed earlier immigrant communities, young American Jews are hardly motivated to seek community or identity through affiliation with an institution like the SCA.
But the demise of institutional affiliation does not necessarily signal the downfall of Jewish public participation. Rather, less formal modes of Jewish engagement, such as Birthright, the Limmud Conference, and Independent Minyanim, offer trans-denominational outlets for Jewish cultural and religious expression, without the constriction of pre-ordained dogma of which young Jews in America are so skeptical. Last year, Israel’s Minister for Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, Yuli Edelstein, called Birthright “the most successful project in the Jewish world.” Birthright provides free, 10-day Israel trips to American Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 who have never been on an organized peer trip to Israel. The short tour of the country is designed to foster deeper connections with Israel and generally, in the words of philanthropist Charles Bronfman, to “[sell] Jewishness to Jews.” Birthright’s high annual enrollments are in no small part attributed to its ability to operate without a prescriptive religious or political ideology, and as such it has proven a successful medium for Jews of diverse backgrounds and affiliations to unite over an emotional encounter with their heritage and history.
The Limmud Conference, founded in the United Kingdom over 30 years ago, brings together Jews of all affiliations for conferences dedicated to Jewish learning, each with hundreds of sessions on a range of topics including spirituality, politics, history, and art. Conferences are now held in dozens of communities around the world, each one committed to a mission of pluralism and avoiding debates between or across separate denominations. Seeking to engage intellectually and socially while still apolitically and free from specific credos, participants find in Limmud the kind of lay engagement and unity that was absent in the SCA’s model.
Beyond finding creative ways to engage culture and education from a contemporary Jewish perspective, though, are the successfully-flourishing Independent Minyanim, which serve young American Jews in the cultivation of a freer religiosity. Unaffiliated with specific denominations, these groups meet in buildings that are otherwise not associated with Jewish life, inspiring energetic and democratic spiritual experiences of which various denominational leadership (particularly within the Conservative movement) are envious, sparking discussion about how to bring such religious passion into the synagogue. The strength of these Independent Minyanim is a growing indication as to why the SCA is now such a small part of the American Jewish community’s recent historical memory, and why very little has been published on an organization that once held such powerful representative of that community’s interests.
The likely future of the American Jewish community will be one that avoids superficial structures created in the name of some prized notion of unity, and instead encourages greater interaction on the personal, informal level. Indeed, such a reality would be a more productive one. Unlike their immigrant ancestors, young members of the American Jewish community of today are comfortable in their surroundings, firmly entrenched in a culture and politics that they can rightly call theirs. Passionate young Jews, equipped with a desire and capacity to determine the programming that gives meaningful expression to their identities, offer opportunities for lay leadership and open participation regardless of denomination or ideology. They no longer need a Synagogue Council of America to fight for them. The SCA’s collapse proves that the ground beneath modern American Jewry has split along denominational fault lines—the auspicious project of the next generation will be (and, it seems, they’ve already started) learning to step over those boundaries, seeking cooperation that is meaningfully organic, and not simply for its own sake.
AMINADAV GROSSMAN is a sophomore in Columbia College and a contributing editor for The Current. He can be reached at abg2148@columbia.