February 17, 2019

The History of Jewish Community Centers

“If there’s one thing the American Jewish community has in abundance, it’s critics. “There are no colors gloomy enough to paint too morbidly” the present condition of the Jews, notes one of their number. A “baleful fog of indifference hover[s] over Judaism,” chimes in another. The synagogues are empty, more “grand vacuum” than grand house of worship, and young people today are “loud in dress, louder in commonplace and empty words,” or, worse still, apt to be “atheists, agnostics, or nothingarians,” adds a third and then a fourth naysayer.

Sound familiar? You’ve heard it all before, I’m sure. Even so, it might come as a bit of a surprise to learn that every single one of these observations dates from the late 19th century.

Then, as now, securing the interest and loyalty of the younger, or “rising,” generation befuddled even the most thoughtful of American Jewish leaders. The “young Israelite of today lives in an atmosphere of restless inquiry,” observed Rabbi Gustav Gottheil in 1886. How are we to formulate “some comprehensive reasons for living the Jewish life” when the established verities no longer ring true?

Some of Gottheil’s colleagues threw up their hands and gave into despair, as the published proceedings of rabbinical conclaves and the editorial pages of American Jewish newspapers recount in vivid detail. Others rose to the challenge, developing a creative strategy that, more than a century or so later, continues to hold sway among a significant proportion of the population: the showcasing of sociability rather than worship as the primary form of affiliation.”

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