Eric’s Forum Archive 9-24-19

For the next year, I will be using this space to post selections from the published writings of Mordecai Kaplan that address issues of continued relevance to Jewish (and non-Jewish) life. Most of these will be passages that are not well known. A new selection will be posted every month.

For each passage chosen, I will provide a brief introduction that places it in its historical context and situates it within the rest of Kaplan’s thought. After each excerpt, I will share my own thoughts on the passage and then invite you to post your own response to it. My hope is that this forum will thereby become a venue for a vibrant discussion of contemporary issues in Jewish life that is in dialogue with the thought of Mordecai Kaplan. Teaching Kaplan at McGill University and elsewhere, I have seen that engaging with Kaplan in this way leads to rich conversations.

This month’s selection is taken from Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers. This book was published by the Reconstructionist Press in 1956 and gathers together many of the “Know how to Answer” columns that Kaplan wrote for The Reconstructionist magazine throughout the 1950s. These columns were responses to questions addressed to Kaplan in writing at lectures given in the late 1940s and early 1950s. (Kaplan insisted that audiences submit their questions on note cards because he believed that this both led to clearer questions and encouraged them to formulate their thoughts as a question.) The book divides the columns thematically—Jewish peoplehood, God, ritual etc.—and each section begins with a significant article published in The Reconstructionistthat challenged Kaplan’s approach to the subject, followed by the response that Kaplan published at the time. The Reconstructionist Press also released an accompanying six-LP box set of Kaplan reading his answers to many of these questions (unfortunately, the question below is not one of them).

Questions Jews Ask is one of my favorite Kaplan books because it presents the cornerstones of his thought clearly and succinctly and occasionally discusses issues that Kaplan does not address elsewhere. The selection below (from pp. 197-198) reflects both of these aspects of the book. Kaplan is asked a question that is not much explored in his other writings. His answer touches upon central concerns in his thought–the experience of the working class, Judaism as a force for social justice, the creation of organic Jewish communities in the diaspora—but connects them in a way that is both new and thought-provoking. Here is the text:

How should we reckon with the general tendency of Jewish workers to keep aloof from the Synagogue and institutional religion?

We should try to face the problem realistically. Labor does not keep aloof from the synagogue primarily on ideological grounds. Under existing conditions, the Synagogue depends for its maintenance on those who can afford to provide the necessary resources. The average worker is in no position to contribute to those resources in adequate measure. Not being a member of a congregation, he is deprived of the services of the rabbi, the teacher and other members of the congregation’s staff, whose function it is to foster the religious expression of Jewish life. Lacking such guidance, he soon loses touch with institutional religion. It is natural for him then to seek and to find a rationale to justify his apathy or antagonism.

That condition will prevail as long as religious services are rendered only to those who can afford to join a congregation. Thus, congregations will remain middle-class institutions. Some congregational organizations and rabbinic bodies have occasionally tried to grapple with the problem. They have endeavored to make membership accessible to workers of limited means. Their offer, however, has never been taken up. The reason is not far to seek. Members of congregations, like those of social clubs, tend to associate with people of the same social and economic status as their own. Consequently, Jews of a different social and economic status do not feel at home in the society of those who are the principal financial supporters of the Synagogue.

Not only does this condition have an injurious effect on the religion of the workers whom it keeps away from the Synagogue; it has a bad effect also on the membership of the congregation itself. Being confined to middle-class people, the synagogue runs the danger of identifying religion with the interests of the middle-class, of covering with a cloak of respectability the social and economic transgressions of its members, of providing them with an anodyne against pangs of conscience, instead of sensitizing their consciences. If these Jews could meet in the Synagogue on an equal plane with Jews of the underprivileged group, who suffer from social injustice, it would deflate the pride of possession and help foster better social and ethical attitudes.

The only alternative to the present situation is the establishment of organic Jewish communities. In an organic community, the fostering of Jewish religion would not be left to the private initiative of socially congenial and economically homogenous groups organized as congregations; it would be the responsibility of the entire community. Just as in certain Christian denominations, affiliation is with the parish rather than with a congregation, so in Judaism affiliation should be with the local community. Membership in the community should entitle every Jew to the religious services he needs. The Jewish community should be responsible for making facilities for worship and education available to all Jews who desire them, on the same principle that the civic community assumes responsibility for public education and public health.

Kaplan makes several points here that are of great relevance to contemporary Jewish life. Most poor and lower middle class Jews continue to stay away from synagogues in North America, and the Jewish community has not succeeded in changing this by offering reduced price memberships. Some non-Orthodox synagogues have made dues voluntary, but it is unclear whether this has led more poor and lower middle class Jews to join. Also, bringing in these constituencies does not seem to be the primary aim of the new dues model (see, in this regard, Are Voluntary Dues Right for Your Synagogue?, published by UJA-Federation of New York). The net result is that the clear majority of synagogues remain middle class, if not upper middle class, institutions and this, as Kaplan points out, does make it less likely that joining a synagogue will lead Jews to question how they spend their money and time. Kaplan assumes, correctly in my view, that becoming friends in synagogue with people who are facing serious financial difficulties would increase our empathy for the poor and lead to higher levels of social activism and generosity.

Per the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of American Jews, 42% of Jewish households have combined incomes above $100,000, while 31% have combined incomes below $50,000. In contrast, only 18% of the general US population have household earnings of $100,000 or more, but 56% have earnings below $50,000. In other words, North American Jews, in general, are an exceptionally wealthy community, and when we gather it is inevitable that the well off significantly outnumber the people with modest or inadequate incomes. So In fact, today, this situation will not be changed by the creation of “organic Jewish communities”. It is therefore essential, if synagogues wish to attract and retain poor and lower middle class Jews, that they probe further the reasons why, in Kaplan’s words, we “tend to associate with people of the same social and economic status as [our] own.”

I gained some insight into this question when I served on a synagogue board while I was in graduate school and my wife was a part-time elementary school teacher and a student herself. At one of the meetings, the board discussed a proposal to celebrate a milestone in the rabbi’s relationship to the congregation by holding a dinner that would cost $50 per person (equal to about $79 today ). I argued against the proposal because it would keep away members who could not afford the cost, but my words did not convince enough people, and the proposal passed. Most board members agreed with the person who argued that “everyone spends $100 per couple when they go out to dinner” so there was nothing to be concerned about here. At the time, my wife and I had never spent that much money on one evening and we, along with several members—including many regular synagogue-goers—did not attend this celebration.

If we want our synagogues to attract and retain people with lower incomes, we need to take their financial realities into consideration always, and not only when we set our synagogue dues. All day long, people facing financial challenges see things that they cannot afford. Do we want our synagogues to add to this experience? And if we want our synagogues “to help foster better social and ethical attitudes,” we need to talk more openly about the economic disparities that exist in our congregations. Wealthy, middle class, lower middle class, and poor Jews can see each other at Sabbath kiddushim, Chanukkah parties, and multiple other communal events but generally will not gain any knowledge of the challenges that each face because of their financial position. Most synagogues do not help members avoid superficial stereotypes of the “1%,” nor do they help us see how good people fall into poverty. This is a significant missed opportunity for, even today, synagogues are more economically diverse than many other institutions that Jews participate in. Unmasking and engaging with financial diversity would strengthen our connections to each other and make us more likely to support one another, and could motivate us to give more time and money to pressing social causes.

I look forward to reading your thoughts on this passage from Kaplan, my response to it, or both.

Eric Caplan can be reached at