Pen Pals, Pilgrims, and Pioneers: Reform Youth and Israel, 1948-1967

By Katz, Emily Alice | American Jewish History, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Pen Pals, Pilgrims, and Pioneers: Reform Youth and Israel, 1948-1967


Katz, Emily Alice, American Jewish History


"One of the most urgent tasks confronting American Jewry in the postwar world is the problem of planting Jewish cultural roots deep in the soil of America," declared Paula Ackerman, chair of the National Committee on Religious Schools, an arm of the Reform movement's National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, in 1945. "Each of us must share the responsibility of seeing that American Jewish youth is not 'lost' to Judaism, of concerning ourselves today with the religious education of our children who will become the Jewish leaders of tomorrow." (1) Ackerman could not have known it at the time, three years before the establishment of the Jewish state, but the Reform movement would soon turn to Israel as a key tool in this quest to instruct, inspire, and retain its young people. This essay traces the advent of a robust Zionism in the Reform movement's informal educational spheres and argues that Zionist Reform educators successfully positioned engagement with Israel as a prime means of deepening young people's Jewish and American identities in the first postwar decades.

The growing centrality of Israel to Reform youth in the postwar period seems particularly remarkable considering the Reform movement's historically checkered relationship with Zionism. The relationship between Jewish religious belief and practice and Jewish nationalism had been politically and ideologically fraught since the late nineteenth century, not only within Zionist circles, but also among the full range of Jewish religious spokesmen and thinkers, from the ultra-Orthodox to the radical Reform. (2) Opposition to Jewish nationalism was a hallmark of official Reform ideology in the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a stance softened but not fully resolved in 1937, with the Central Conference of American Rabbis' adoption of the Columbus Platform, with its proclamation of support for the upbuilding of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Sectors of the Reform rabbinate and laity remained indifferent--and in some cases hostile--to Zionism, particularly in the South, small-town Midwest, and portions of the West well through World War II and the immediate postwar years. (3)

On the other hand, among the members of the newly established, quickly proliferating Reform congregations of the postwar synagogue boom were many men and women who had grown up (at least nominally) in Orthodox or Conservative families, and who exhibited greater receptivity to Zionism than their fellow Reform Jews of German or central European background. (4) This demographic shift stemmed from the interwar years, as increasing numbers of acculturated eastern European Jews and their children joined the Reform camp, bringing with them more traditional conceptions of Jewishness. Among the rabbinate, a growing contingent of this group reinstated prayers, blessings, and practices that had been marginalized or jettisoned by an earlier generation of Reform rabbis. In addition to altering the parameters and content of Reform religious life, the new cohort of Reform Jews exhibited greater openness to the notion of Jewish peoplehood. They maintained the traditional precept that Jews constitute an extended family and are responsible for one another--a repudiation of the classical Reform tenet that Jews form a religious body and nothing more. The idea of peoplehood gained further momentum in the Reform movement as the Nazi persecution of European Jewry intensified, and it was elevated to new heights in the wake of the Holocaust and in response to Israel's dramatic establishment. (5)

The postwar Reform movement's new receptivity toward Israel can also be traced to an ideological rapprochement between Reform Judaism and Zionism, which had begun earlier in the twentieth century, when some of the most illustrious and influential figures in the Reform movement, such as Gustav Gottheil, Bernard Felsenthal, Max Heller, and David Neumark, embraced and promoted Zionism as a religious concern firmly rooted in the American pluralist ethos. …

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