Today's Conflicts Among American Jews Rooted in Political Origins of Conservative JudaismHistorians in the News
tags: Jewish history, immigration, Conservative Judaism, Jewish Theological Seminary
Allen Lipson is a rabbinical student and community organizer learning at Hebrew College and the Yashrut Institute. He has organized with UNITE HERE and Faith in Action, and his writing has been published in Review of Rabbinic Judaism and Zeramim.
AS 2018’S HEATED MIDTERM CYCLE reached its heights, with candidates vying to rebuke or reaffirm then-President Donald Trump’s leadership, Rabbi David Wolpe, leader of the 1,500-family Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and Newsweek’s 2012 “most influential rabbi in America,” took to the local Jewish Journal to explain “why I keep politics off the pulpit”: “I am endlessly besieged by requests to take a stance on this or that political or social issue . . . All we hear all day long is politics. Can we not come to shul for something different, something deeper? I want to know what my rabbi thinks of Jacob and Rachel, not of Pence and Pelosi.”
Yet Wolpe’s plea for apoliticism is, to put it generously, selective; as a few of his more progressive colleagues observed in public responses, he showed no such qualms about vocally aligning himself with AIPAC against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—nor, more recently, about signing onto a 2021 anti-cancel-culture letter for Jewish leaders aimed at the left, decrying “the ascendency of an ideology that . . . sees the world solely in terms of oppressed versus oppressor” as “a familiar and frightening development for the Jewish people.”
Wolpe articulates a common political posture among the intellectual leadership of his denomination, the Conservative movement, which, despite decades of attrition, remains a primary source of community for Jews around the country, with over one million American Jews identifying as Conservative. In its sole statement following the 2016 elections, the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s clergy arm, declared itself “one [family] sensitive to and aware of the many and varied views held by our members and members of our communities about any political figure or public issue.” A few weeks earlier, Marc Gary, chief operating officer at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the movement’s rabbinical school and intellectual center, had pointedly avoided criticizing either candidate by name, instead lamenting in general terms the “dire condition of widespread poverty.” (Like Wolpe, JTS has checked its avowed centrism at the door when it comes to Israeli foreign politics, hailing President Trump’s 2017 decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem.)
This particular brand of centrism among Conservative leadership is a feature, not a bug, of that leadership’s hundred-year history, and a legacy of their consistent aversion toward radicalism. While this stance has been shaped by a number of broad historical trends like upward economic mobility among white American Jews, its origins lie in the movement’s infancy more than a century ago, when a cadre of donors took over JTS, the intellectual wellspring of what would become Conservative Judaism, as part of a larger strategy to smooth out the rough edges of a Jewish community teeming with recent immigrants. Those donors—including giants of American Jewish philanthropy Jacob Schiff and Louis Marshall—understood political radicalism and Old World religious observance as interrelated obstacles to the goal of seamless Americanization, and in response they created an institution meant to serve as a force of acculturation. Their vision would enjoy a long-lasting afterlife as an axiom of the emergent institutional Jewish status quo. If Judaism was to become truly American, they decided, political, economic, and social opposition to the mainstream ultimately had to go.
THE EARLY EVOLUTION of JTS is in large part the product of an ethnic, economic, and political clash between well-established German Jews and Eastern European arrivals. As immigration swelled the American Jewish population by 500,000 between 1880 and 1900, a relatively acculturated German establishment valiantly strove to meet the staggering humanitarian needs of the hour. At the same time, they harbored a paternalistic distaste toward Eastern Europeans. As one 1889 editorial in the German American Hebrew Standard (cited in Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd) declared, “The thoroughly acculturated American Jew . . . is closer to the Christian sentiment around him than to the Judaism of these miserable darkened Hebrews.” This establishment also feared the influence of immigrants’ leftist politics and broad support for trade unionism, which they saw as contrary to the nation’s ethos: The German-dominated Central Conference of American Rabbis voiced a lurking dread in 1891 that “there should grow up in our midst a class of people not imbued with American ideas,” bringing upon all Jews “ills of which none may be guilty.”