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The Making of Jewish Values within Postwar American Public Discourse

Tue, December 17, 8:30 to 10:00am, Hilton Bayfront San Diego, Aqua Salon C


In the postwar era, American Jews increasingly spoke and educated about “Jewish values.” Armed with a vocabulary and lexicon of Jewish values furnished and furthered by earlier theologians and writers, Jews in the second half of the twentieth century drew upon Jewish values for two primary reasons. First, they required this language to hold up to their end of the bargain of the “Judeo-Christian” rhetoric that abounded in this so-called Tri-Faith America epoch. Second, rabbis, Jewish synagogue educators, day school teachers and Jewish Federation staff members viewed a “values”-centered educational program as particularly useful to transmit pragmatic knowledge and behaviors in nontraditional Jewish spaces. They understood their project as a means to package and disseminate Jewish teachings to the American Jewish public in a style that made religion relevant to their constituencies.
This paper examines this formative period of “Jewish values” cultivation in the 1940s-1960s, studying how educators and leaders decided on just what was to be considered a value and how those teachings blended with American religious culture. Rarely did educators attempt to formulate Jewish values in a centralized consensus-minded format. As a result, American Jews spoke about Jewish values that sometimes contradicted one another (issues relating to family planning and pluralism, for example). This paper draws upon unpublished archival materials of major American Jewish organizations as well as discussions found in the well-circulated periodicals of this era. While unable to speak in a unified way about Jewish values, the very public presentations of this issue ensured that "Jewish values" remained an important Jewish teaching item for years to come.


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