09 July 2010

Follow Their Lead

Today we call this room the Board Room, though the Board of CBE hasn't met there in more than five years.  Back then, when the Temple House was opened in 1929, it was called--as you can see in the picture above--the Men's Club.  It's a rather august looking room, and from what the description says above, a place where things really happened--as long as one was over 21.

The language of this document is filled with the hope, promise and certitude of the early 20th century.  One might even say it represents a kind of "can-do" spirit that clearly permeated much of the organizational structure of American Jewish life nearly 100 years ago.  There was a generational shift taking place, an age of true Americanization, and the sense of thrill and excitement and pride that came from the endeavor of affiliation was truly inspiring.  Jonathan Sarna famously referred to this time period as one of a "great awakening" (read his essay here) and in the last ten years much has been made of the current generation's desire to see Jewish life re-invented again and some of the initiatives were begun in part because of the inspiration of Sarna's essay. 

But the purposes of my including this picture today have to do with a sentence that I skimmed over last time I read this pamphlet but which really shot out at me today, particularly because these days, increasingly, I am cognizant of our community's enormous physical infrastructure needs at precisely the same time that there is great economic dislocation, domestically and internationally, and a vast range of competing needs for precious resources.  Of course, that's not entirely different from the time period in which the Temple House was dedicated--1929--and as we know from our archives, those leaders simply ran out of money for a time when the market crashed and did what they could to finish the work.  One of the things we discovered is that they deeded more than 180 cemetery plots to a family in exchange for a loan to finish the work on the building; and today, more than 80 years later, we are trying to recover those plots because due to rapid rates of assimilation, the family who owned them never buried there dead in our old Jewish cemetery.  While earlier Reform rejected resurrection of the dead, we may find that doctrine  can help support our building efforts.

But in any case, the lines that intrigued me greatly was the following:  "Each of the War Loan Drives was sponsored by special committees of the Men's Club.  In the 6th War Loan Drive the Men's Club obtained subscriptions in excess of $665,000 in bonds.  Gift packages for the men and women of Beth Elohim in the Armed Services are sent by the Men's Club from time to time, with a special gift in celebration of Hanukah."

The sense of purpose and sacrifice and pride of place--the CBE Men's Club contribution to the War Effort was the sale of $665,000 in bonds--is an amazing achievement.  It represents, for me, the perfect combination of particular Jewish devotion and universal patriotic expression that quite frankly too few liberal Jews practice.  Rather than be clouded by what for an earlier generation was a very dangerous and ambivalent time, our predecessors forged ahead with a vision and commitment that stands the test of time.  At the opening of the brochure, the writer argues that for his generation -- "Even those Jews who by no means seek to escape their origin and destiny are confused and troubled" -- and this is a sentiment that is true for our age as well.  Those who created the spaces where we now sit were at one time greatly troubled.  But they found their way toward the future by a sense of brotherhood and generosity that, to this day, remains a promising light for our own future.

Not a bad lead to follow.


Rick said...

"quite frankly too few liberal Jews ________" is something that I, as a liberal Jew, am awful tired of hearing from other liberal Jews. Self-reflection and self-correction are essential to the liberal ethos, but self-flagellation need not be. Is it possible that it is just "too many Jews" period would fit the bill?

The only other explanation for this is that the orthodox are beyond correction, but i don't like that expression either.

I've seen people get their level of observance and commitment increased a lot of ways, but never by making them feel unjewish or inferior in their way of being Jewish.

Shababat shalom.

Andy Bachman said...

Hi Rick. Thanks for writing. I don't quite see the self-flagellation, to be honest. What I mean to say is that a couple generations ago, liberal Jews were cognizant of building a new America alongside a new Jewish life. Today, those devotions are *less equal* and the number of Jews who support Jewish institutions *and* secular institutions has diminished. Our assimilation is more near complete and while for some this is proof that we have fully and truly arrived, for me, I worry about an eroded commitment to a continued rejuvenation of our community while remaining proudly committed to upholding American civic values as well. Shabbat Shalom.