Academic journal article American Jewish History

The Jewish Welfare Board and Religious Pluralism in the American Military of World War I

Academic journal article American Jewish History

The Jewish Welfare Board and Religious Pluralism in the American Military of World War I

Article excerpt

Throughout World War I and during the period of demobilization, the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) worked alongside the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), a Protestant organization, and The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, as a civilian partner to the U.S. War Department's Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA). In early 1919, just months after the end of the war, Raymond Fosdick, chairman of the CTCA, speaking at the annual meeting of the JWB, assessed the wartime achievements of the three partners by asserting, "The fences have disappeared; the sectarian lines have vanished" in work carried on not as "Jewish work or Protestant work or Catholic work," but as "fundamentally an American work ... for all the troops in the camps without regard to faith." (1)

Audience members, men and women who had devoted their time, money, and energy to the welfare of soldiers, must have been pleased to hear Fosdick praise their efforts and the harmony achieved among these different religiously based organizations. For those involved in founding the Jewish Welfare Board, it must have been particularly gratifying to have a high-ranking government official like Fosdick describe its work as fundamentally American. Less than two years earlier, in April 1917, when the United States had entered the war, the JWB had met with a far more skeptical view of what a Jewish organization could contribute to the welfare of American soldiers. The U.S. War Department had entered World War I committed to building a nonsectarian program of welfare services for soldiers, but it had understood "nonsectarianism" in distinctly Protestant terms. Over the course of conflict, the JWB managed to change official conceptions of the place of Judaism within the American military, and to advocate for a more pluralistic notion of religion in America.

American religious pluralism is most often thought of as a phenomenon of the post-World War II era, a triumph of postwar liberal ideology and a product of the social shifts caused by military service during that war. (2) Ideas about pluralism, however, originated earlier and flourished in the 1910s in places such as the pages of the Intercollegiate Menorah Association's (IMA) Menorah Journal and the writing of one of the Harvard Menorah Society's founding members, philosopher Horace Kallen. (3) Kallen would go on to argue that ethnic "cultural pluralism" was one of the cornerstones of American democracy. Some of the IMA's early supporters, however, men like Jacob Schiff, Cyrus Adler, Julian Mack, and Irving Lehman, were deeply involved in the establishment of the JWB. They saw the welfare work done on behalf of American soldiers as an opportunity to advance a vision of pluralism that was tied to religious belief and practice, and supported by government policy.

During World War I, as a result of the interventions of the JWB, the U.S. government gave official sanction to a new vision of the types of moral guidance and religious observance young men needed in order to be good soldiers and responsible citizens. Judaism was recognized by the state, along with Protestantism and Catholicism, as a "fundamentally American" religion. While such recognition did not immediately transform the United States into a nation committed to broad conceptions of pluralism, it played a crucial role in advancing the idea that religious pluralism was central to American identity, and that the United States was a country of three faiths: Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. (4) Welfare programs for World War I soldiers thus marked a critical moment of experimenting with ideas about pluralism and with the possibility of transforming pluralism from a philosophic idea into a state-mandated reality.

The Welfare of Soldiers and the Commission on Training Camp Activities

In 1917, progressive reformer Newton Baker headed the U.S. War Department. Baker had come to Washington after serving as mayor of Cleveland, where he attracted national attention with his campaign to stamp out vice by providing citizens with wholesome, alcohol-free entertainment. …

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