November 12, 2004

Making sense of US Jewish organizations


It's not easy making sense of the American Jewish organizational superstructure-largely because there is none.

Unlike in Britain, where the Board of Deputies represents British Jewry, or Argentina, where the DAIA is the central political group of Argentine Jewry, American Jews do not have a central umbrella group.

"American culture recoils from the notion of a planned economy and some super organization that runs everything," said American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna, of Brandeis University. Instead, Americans prefer "the invisible hand of the marketplace."

The United Jewish Communities, which is hosting next week's G.A. in Cleveland, is the main charity organization of American Jewry. But even that umbrella body of North American Jewish federations is tentative, at best. The five-year-old UJC is quite new, it has had trouble getting individual federations to follow its party line-or even pay their dues-and its future remains uncertain.

Furthermore, American Jews have been sending less and less of their Jewish charitable dollars to their local federations. Instead, they have been sending an increasing proportion directly to recipient charities, be they educational programs at local Jewish schools, emergency funds for Argentine Jews or after-school programs for Ethiopian immigrants in Israel.

On political matters, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which has about 52 members, says it is the main voice of American Jews. But many member groups do not subscribe to all of its positions, and many of the groups that are not part of its membership argue that the Conference of Presidents does not represent them and has no right to speak in the name of American Jewry.

That's pretty much the pattern in America, where broad-based groups like the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League and others too numerous to count stake out positions and make claims in the name of American Jews but in reality represent none other than their members or their donors. They, too, articulate political positions independent of the Conference of Presidents.

Some of the religious movements do the same for their Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist constituents, though they operate unilaterally rather than by consensus. For example, the Orthodox Union has member synagogues and some donors, but it by no means is the consensus organization of centrist Orthodox Americans. Nevertheless, it purports to speak in the name of centrist Orthodox Jews.

Perhaps the best-known organizations in American Jewish life are the Israel advocacy groups, the most famous of which is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. These, too, suffer from the mixed curse and blessing of decentralization in America: There are at least as many Israel advocacy groups in America as there are positions on the Israeli political spectrum.

Any attempt to provide a comprehensive list or picture of American Jewish organizations is necessarily folly, because not a day goes by when a new one isn't born. The question of which ones are relevant to the bulk of American Jews changes with each generation. The only certainty is that few ever die.