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American Judaism and the “Unity” Impulse

Tue, December 18, 12:45 to 2:15pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Cambridge 2

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


In 1949, Rabbi Joseph Buchler of Chicago published a lengthy article on the “struggle for unity” within American Judaism. In his oft-quoted essay, Buchler studied the history of the various rabbinical and congregational alliances from 1654 to 1868 as a semi-evolutionary phenomenon. Scholars of the American Jewish experience have borrowed from this, suggesting that religious movements were created or splintered off from attempts among the religious elites to create better cohesion within American Judaism. For instance, they have used this argument to explain the formation of national and far-reaching nineteenth century organizations like B’nai B’rith (1843), Hebrew Union College (1875) and the Jewish Theological Seminary (1886).

Yet, the attempts to strike compromise and federalize involved more than just rabbinical conferences and national organizations. This panel seeks to understand the impulse to form American Jewish “unions” with greater heft and depth. The papers included below argue that historical actors during the latter-half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century sought to consolidate efforts to secure more meaningful footholds in the changing American Jewish landscape. From 1850 to 1900, the Jewish population in the United States spiked from 150,000 to one million women and men. Migration from Europe brought new ideas and conceptions of Jewish life. To reinforce existing structures and accommodate new expectations, Jewish leaders searched for agreeable and united efforts in religious spaces and rituals. Unity then, was a means to maintaining order in all areas of religious life.

The four papers in this panel assume an interdisciplinary approach. Each pays close attention to “lived religion” while weighing equally the history of religious folkways, music and liturgy, gender, and comparative history of the Modern Jewish experience. Viewed together, these studies make the case that attempts at cohesion went beyond struggles for religious power and ambitious institutions. Rather, the parameters that these unification initiatives carefully cultivated offered crucial strategies for fortifying New World Judaism amid transformative change.

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