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November 6, 2015 5:44 am

Lack of Democracy Weakens US Jewish Institutions

avatar by Rafael Medoff /

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Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. Photo: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. Photo: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies – Fifty years ago this week, two prominent figures in the American Jewish community startled their colleagues by calling for democratic elections to choose Jewish leaders.

The occasion was a two-day conference in New York City, in November 1965, on “Planning for the American Jewish Community of Tomorrow — 1975.” Jewish organizational professionals, rabbis, and scholars came together to discuss what should be done to ensure the well-being of American Jewry 10 years hence.

Most of the speakers confined themselves to generalities and platitudes. But two of them stepped outside the box to present what was, at the time, a radical proposal.

“One of the first issues in planning for the future is that of creating a democratic structure for the Jewish community,” said Dr. Judah Shapiro, secretary of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. That structure should “include an expression of decision (voting), the presentation of alternatives (platforms and parties), and the selection of leaders on the basis of merit (elections), rather than ascription. Planning for 1975 demands the earliest attention to the establishment of democratically structured Jewish communities,” Shapiro explained. (Parentheses in the original.)

C. Bezalel Sherman, the noted sociologist and historian of American Jewish life, seconded Shapiro’s call. He told the conference that the main problem was “the growing indigenousness of American Jewry” — 50 years earlier, some 60 percent of American Jews were immigrants and felt a strong Jewish identity, but by 1965, “at least 80 percent” were native-born and less attached to Judaism. Such challenges could be met only by establishing a central Jewish organization that would be “democratically constituted” and “will have the right to speak in the name of American Jews and weave a Jewish strand into the fabric of American society without tearing it out of the texture of Jewish peoplehood.”

Shapiro and Sherman touched on one of the unspoken ironies of contemporary American Jewish life: US Jews are patriotic and strongly committed to the American value of democracy — yet there is no real democratic tradition in the American Jewish community.

The only genuine nationwide American Jewish elections took place in 1917, for the founding assembly of the American Jewish Congress. (There were also elections in 1943 for a short-lived umbrella group called the American Jewish Conference, but there were no competing views in that contest; the voting was basically just a taking of the community’s pulse.)

The absence of democracy in American Jewish organizational life had serious consequences during the Holocaust. Jewish leaders who failed to mount an effective response to the news of the mass killings could not be voted out of office. Grassroots Jews had no say in choosing the leaders who claimed to represent them.

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the foremost US Jewish leader in the 1930s and 1940s, simultaneously headed a remarkable number of organizations and institutions: the American Jewish Congress, the American Zionist movement, the Jewish Institute of Religion (a rabbinical seminary that later merged with Hebrew Union College), Manhattan’s Free Synagogue, and others.

He spread himself thin, and it showed. Wise’s wide array of commitments, combined with his deteriorating health, reduced his effectiveness precisely at the moment that a focused and robust leader was most needed: as news of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews was reaching America.

Wise was also seriously handicapped by his political loyalties. A devout supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, he could not bring himself to challenge FDR’s abandonment of the Jewish refugees and lukewarm support for Zionism. But those in the Jewish community who favored a more activist policy did not have the option of voting for a new leader.

Seventy years after Wise’s heyday, and 50 years after Judah Shapiro and C. Bezalel Sherman issued their call for democracy in Jewish life, little has changed. Democracy is still a foreign concept in the organized Jewish community.

There are American Jewish organizations today where the same person has been president for more than 20 years…where “elections” are held but there is only one candidate…where entrenched leaders have abolished term limits so they can remain in power indefinitely…where elections required by an organization’s own by-laws are simply ignored.

The democratic values which American Jews ardently champion as Americans are seldom practiced in the Jewish organizational world. American Jewry has suffered, and will continue to suffer, from the consequences of this absence of democracy.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. His latest book is “The Anguish of a Jewish Leader: Stephen S. Wise and the Holocaust,” available on Kindle from and as a free downloadable PDF from

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  • Mordecai Ben Natan

    What puzzles me, is that US Jews have a very short memory,

    Rabbi Wise, was no friend of Jews. He was Rosseval’s adviser. And Roosevalt would not allow Jews to enter USA, but sent them to the gas chambers.
    And Roosevelt was Democrat.
    And US Jews still vote for the Dems. Thanks to their vote, they have the most hostile POTUS after Roosevelt Obama, a Muslim

  • Mordecai Ben Natan

    Mr D Hunter. You are really blessed by HASHEM.
    If only more Goyim (as you call yourself), would think like you do, then Israel would not have to face the hatred and lies,spewed by Islam
    I have said before, many times, The Christian world must wake up, before it is too late,
    Islam has said. “first the Saturday people, then the Sunday people’
    By not supporting Israel, the Christian world will wake up, too late.
    This wont happen soon, but the way Islam is spreading, and the world believes every lie, it WILL happen.

  • Pinchas Baram in Boston

    democracy, term limits, the concept that a leader is a public servant who truly listens to his public– these are foreign ideas to a lot of Jewish organizations. How long did it take for the past head of the ADL to finally leave (with a mega-salary of course)? And look at the ZOA– I like what the ZOA says, but it is a neanderthal in many ways and the present leader has been in his chair for decades! The oligarchic and money-based nature of so-called “American Jewish leadership” is ridiculous and below contempt.

  • D.Hunter

    Dr. Medoff,

    I am Goyim, an American “born again” Evangelical, a Pro Israel Zionist who ardently believes that the King, the God of Israel is still working, still fulfilling his promises to the Nation of Israel, not Israel as the UN perceives it, but as God claims His Nation.

    What I have just read, after years of reading about and studying Jewish issues, is a NEW revelation to me.

    I did know that Israel itself has never formally adopted a true Constitution of its rights, privileges, commitment to universal humanitarian principles, but, more importantly, to the God-given mandates.

    Only Israel has so unique a relationship to the Creator. For Israel to be ISRAEL I believe it is essential, literally, for Israel to first proclaim its own allegiance to that God. Forget the secular argument against proclaiming such a connection.

    All who are secular, atheist, non-practicing, non-Observant, etc, owe their identity as Jews to the God who made a special covenant with their ancestors.

    If Israel cannot acknowledge that she is foremost, by historical basis, the Nation of Jehovah, then she will continue to wander the world lost, without any purpose but to supply electronics, medicines, fruits, vegetables, weaponry, arts, etc.

    All her contributions are magnificent, the best that humanity can create, but ultimately fall short of offering to her God her own heart and soul.

    Until making this commitment Israel is empty, without a nurturing soul to guide and spiritually prosper her people.

    Even when my country, the USA, is gone, Israel is promised to remain. It is promised that the heads of ALL nations shall come to the New Jerusalem to pay respects and obeisance.

    Bless you, Israel, Bless you O Jews!
    My God is your God.
    The blessings in faith that I receive this moment come from the God who has offered them to you, first.

    • Annie Wise

      You are a kind and a highly spiritual man . I am taken by your admiration of Jews. But by your extremely limited beliefs in only one character which you consider a “saviour” you box the Jews in certain scenario of surviving. Jewish spirituality and the strength is not limited to ancient texts. It is a combination of different variables which makes us a nation within nations. Thank you for your goodheartedness, and your great and generous soul. G-d bless.

    • David Blacher

      Mr. Hunter:

      Thank you for your thoughts and commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. I hold many of the same opinions and beliefs which you have passionately articulated.

      I have been involved in Jewish communal institutions (local, national and international) for the past 60 years, both as a lay participant and in leadership. I found Dr. Medoff’s article both an interesting historical perspective and a contextual insight into the nature of Jewish communities everywhere. There are several practical lessons to be derived from his words, and the onus is certainly on all of the many Jewish organizations to adapt to the modern realities, as he lays out.

      Unfortunately, your wonderful remarks did not address the governance issues which this important article presents. I, for one, would, indeed, be interested in your external view of what might be amelioratory both in setting and implementing an agenda for the many Jewish communities as we move forward in time.

      Again, thank you for your remarks.