Thursday, September 11, 2008

Fabulously Observant: The 3 most important US Jews


This month marks the 354th anniversary of the arrival of the first boatload of Jews to North America. To honor the birthday of the American Jewish community, I surveyed several dozen leading American Jewish historians about who they think are the three most important figures in American Jewish history. Twenty scholars responded, including perhaps the three leading figures in the field - Dr. Hasia Diner (New York University), Dr. Deborah Dash Moore (University of Michigan) and Dr. Jonathan Sarna (Brandeis University). Hebrew University's Dr. Eli Lederhendler and Tel Aviv University's Dr. Robert Rockaway participated, though the other major historian of American Jewry living in Israel, Kimmy Caplan of Bar-Ilan University, chose not to.

Interestingly, although 10 names were listed and 10 more were volunteered, it quickly became clear that American Jewish historians consider three men to be towering figures in the tales they tell.

Louis Brandeis was the most important American Jew. He was the first Jew appointed to the Supreme Court, and pioneered a uniquely American form of Zionism. Rockaway pointed out that Brandeis "made Zionism a respected American movement, and sold the idea to American Jews and non-Jews."

Prof. Lee Shai Weissbach of the University of Louisville said Brandeis's elevation to the Supreme Court "symbolized the opening of possibilities for Jews in American civic and political life." When Brandeis joined the court in 1916, anti-Semitism was so intense that one of his fellow justices refused to sit next to him for the official court photo.

For many years after Brandeis's appointment, particularly after Associate Justice Benjamin Cardozo retired and was replaced by Felix Frankfurter, there was a de facto "Jewish seat" on the Supreme Court. Frankfurter was replaced by Arthur Goldberg, who was replaced by Abe Fortas, after whom the tradition ceased. But both of president Bill Clinton's appointees, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, are Jewish. In addition, president Ronald Reagan tried to appoint Judge Douglas Ginsburg, whose nomination was scotched because of accusations that he had smoked marijuana.

Two scholars offered important final descriptions of Brandeis: Dr. David Kaufman of the Hebrew Union College called him "the personification of American-Jewish synthesis," and Dr. Samuel Heilman of the City University of New York Graduate Center said Brandeis's involvement with the Supreme Court and American Zionism "put the lie to the dual-loyalty canard."

PERHAPS THE most important American Jew little-known to today's American Jews is Mordecai Kaplan. Kaufman called Kaplan "the key figure in the Americanization of Judaism." Jewish scholar and prolific author Jacob Neusner said Kaplan "thought through the issues of Judaism in a way that matched the American Jewish situation." University of Washington Prof. Noam Pianko praised Kaplan's "insights into the sociological basis of Jewish peoplehood."

Several key institutions in American Judaism which Kaplan pioneered endure. For example, Kaplan brought the bat mitzva to America, with his daughter Judith being the first to undergo that new rite of passage. He also helped innovate the Jewish community center movement, the so-called "shul with a pool" (the title of one of Kaufman's books). He imagined that a synagogue should be more than a place to pray - that it should be a place for the social, intellectual and recreational needs of Jews as well. Today's JCC's owe much to his ideas.

In addition, Kaplan's ideas became the keystone of today's Reconstructionist movement. The only major American Jewish movement in which God is not necessarily central, Reconstructionism emphasizes Kaplan's idea that Judaism is an "evolving religious civilization." Reconstructionism also experimented with the havura movement growing out of Kaplan's values.

Kaplan had an impact on every American Jewish religious movement - including Orthodoxy, as documented in Jeffrey Gurock and Jacob Schacter's A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community. At least two generations of Conservative Judaism's teachers and rabbis were influenced by Kaplan's instruction at the Jewish Theological Seminary's rabbinical school and Teacher's Institute. And Reform Judaism adopted Kaplan's saying that Halacha should have "a vote but not a veto."

FINALLY, 19TH-century pioneer of Reform Judaism Isaac Mayer Wise came in third place. According to Rockaway, Wise "put Reform Judaism on the map" in the United States. Working from Cincinnati, he established Hebrew Union College, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He trained hundreds of Reform rabbis, and in Rockaway's words, "made Reform the strongest Jewish religious movement in America."

The European-born Wise was one of the earliest American rabbis to push for family pews in the synagogue, a mixed choir and counting women in a minyan. He wrote a new prayer book entitled Minhag America (American custom), with the goal of uniting all American congregations. He was also an American Jewish press pioneer, publishing his own The Israelite (later The American Israelite) newspaper.

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