A Brief History of the Kehillah


By Harry Sackler, Administrative Secretary of the Kehillah
1. The Kehillah Idea

The Kehillah idea, that is, organized Jewish life with a Jewish community as its basis is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and in Jewish experience. During the many centuries of national disintegration, the result of persecution and dispersion, the Jews still managed to maintain their community life, the last vestige of autonomous existence. Wherever a group of Jews found refuge, even if it were only a temporary respite, t hey immediately began to look after their communal needs; a place to pray for the living and a place to rest for the dead.

But while the primary functions of the traditional Kehillah were of a religious nature, it also took upon itself to care for many of the social and economic, as well as the political, needs of the Jewish group. Charity, or more properly "Justice" (Zdokoh) was one of its main tasks; and whenever the peace of the community or of any of its members was threatened by the powers that be, it devolved upon the leaders of the Kehillah to avert the blow or, at least, to mitigate its severity. And so, in the course of centuries, the kehillah became the stronghold of the individual Jew, and "Kahal" came to be looked upon by the non-Jewish world as the authoritative representative of Jewish interests.

 It would, indeed, have been rather strange and disconcerting if a tradition so deeply rooted in Jewish life and in Jewish experience, would have been discontinued in the new haven which the Jews found in the Western hemisphere. For a long time it looked as if American Jewry, and particularly in its greatest point of concentration, in the City of New York, would break with the old tradition and be content to remain a conglomeration of isolated, small congregations. For many years it looked as if there were small hope that the greatest Jewish aggregation in the world would make an effort to unite on a common platform and thus make possible a solution of both its external and internal problems.

There were, indeed, many difficulties in the way of such an organization. The heterogeneous character of the Jewish population; its unprecedented growth, due to a constant influx of immigrants; the new-comers' natural distrust of the older settlers, who looked upon them from on high ; the strained relationship that existed for many years between "Uptown" and "Downtown"; the economic adjustment which absorbed the entire attention of the vast majority of the new settlers and left little room for the higher, more spiritual needs; the "Landsmannschaft" tendency to segregation—all these represented, and in a measure still represent, the forces that kept the Kehillah idea in abeyance. But, fortunately, none of these difficulties was insuperable. The "Melting Pot" process within the Jewish community has been going on slowly, but steadily, and the sporadic outbursts of external pressure greatly helped to weld Jewish interests and develop community consciousness.

Beginning with the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews, one generation ago, the problem of organizing the Jewish community in New York City became more acute from year to year. But the formative forces making for such an organization were continually gaining strength, and it required only some external impetus to bring these forces into play and to precipitate
the formation of a Kehillah or Jewish Community in this city . This external impetus was supplied by the Bingham incident, in the fall of the year 1908. General Bingham, who was then the Police Commissioner of New York, made a statement that the Jews contributed 50% of the criminals of New York City. This statement was afterwards retracted as the result of many meetings held by
Jewish organizations, which protested vehemently against this unfounded accusation. While probably undue importance was attached to this incident at the time, it is certain that it sufficed to arouse community consciousness to a degree where the organization of the Kehillah became feasible.

 2. Organization and Programme

The preliminary steps leading to the organization of the Kehillah were taken during the fall and winter of 1908-1909. The conference held at Clinton Hall on October 11 and 12, 1908, decided that an attempt be made to form a central organization of the Jews of New
York City. The breaking of the trail was entrusted to a Committee of Twenty Five, and after four months of preparation, the call for the "Constituent Convention of the Jewish Community of new York City" was issued.

On February 27, 1909, three hundred delegates, representing two hundred and twenty-two organizations, convened in the auditorium of the Hebrew Charities Building. The convention was called to order by Dr. J. L. Magnes, who was elected chairman.

In his keynote speech, the chairman outlined the reasons for the calling of the convention and stated the aims of the contemplated organization. He emphasized the fact that "at the present time there is no representative, authoritative, permanent organization that dare speak for the Jewish people" and that "any individual or any organization can claim to be the spokesman of the Jews, and as a result there is confusion worse confounded." He called attention to the chaos prevailing in our religious affairs, tot he sorry plight in which Jewish education found itself then, to our social and charitable problems and to the utter lack of Jewish statistics, as the prerequisite of any ameliorating effort. The remedy, he saw in the creation of a Jewish public opinion. "There is no such thing at present, and a central organization like that of the Jewish Community of New York Cioty is necessary to create a Jewish public opinion."

The Constituent Convention held sessions on February 27, 28; March 6, 27 and April 10. Ultimately it adopted a constitution and proceeded to elect an executive committee consisting of twenty five members and an advisory council of seventy members.

The constitution adopted gave sufficient latitude to the work of the new organization by declaring that the purpose of the Jewish Community of New York City is "to further the cause of Judaism in New York City and to represent the Jews of this city with respect to all local matters of Jewish interest." The apparent limitation to "local matters" was, in fact, a purely legalistic provision. The relationship of the new organization to the American Jewish  Committee gave thye former ample scope for making its voice heard and its opinions felt in all questions affecting the Jews the world over. This broad field of endeavor was secured through the constitutional provision that "the twenty five members elected by the Jewish Community of New York City as the Executive Committee thereof, shall, at the same time, constitute District XII of the American Jewish Committee."

The Proceedings of the Constituent Convention were followed with eagerness by the Jews of new York and the new Kehillah attracted a great number of followers. it is true, there were those who doubted the ultimate success of this new venture in Jewish organization. They based their lack of belief on the fact that no governmental authority  could possibly be secured; in other words, that the Kehillah of New York could not hope to wield the same power, based on governmental coercion, as the Kehillahs of the old world. But the enthusiastic sponsors of the Kehillah felt that this apparent weakness was really a source of strength. They gloried in the fact that the new Kehillah would ultimately derive its strength from the purely moral and spiritual powers inherent in the Jewish people.

The first year of the Kehillah was crowded with man experiences. "Each day has brought us new proofs ? the need of a Kehillah," declared the Chairman of the Executive Committee, in his report to the first annual convention. The magnitude of the internal problem first revealed itself. New problems were cropping up continually, clamoring for immediate attention.

Meanwhile, the Vaad Horabbonim or the Board of Authoritative Kabbis was established for the regulation of Kashruth, of Marriage and Divorce, Circumcision an Ritual Bath. The Board was also to cope with the problem  of Sabbath Observance and to establish a Beth Din or Court of Arbitration.

 The problems of education and of social and philanthropic work received particular attention. A report on the educational situation, embodying the findings of a comprehensive investigation, was laid before the first convention, simultaneously with the announcement that a fund of $75,000 had been given by Jacob H. Schiff and the New York Foundation for the purpose of promoting and improving Jewish education. The establishing of an Employment Bureau for handicapped Jews was recommended. The regulation of the collections for Palestinian poor, known as "Chalukah," the repudiation of "White Slave" charges made by an unfriendly magazine, intercession in behalf of Jewish employees in the various Municipal departments who wished to be excused for the High Holidays, and the conducting of four model provisional synagogues for the New Year and the Day of Atonement, were the more important of the numerous activities which engrossed the attention of the Kehillah during its first year of existence.

3. The Kebillah at Work

The founders of the Kehillah showed foresight, when they defined its main task to be the formulation of our communal problems and the coordination of the existing communal instruments in order to call into being a conscious, organized and united community. The Kehillah would surely have followed this clear-sighted policy, were it not for the fact that many of the vital needs of the
community had been entirely neglected. A careful survey of the field disclosed the imminent necessity of creating several new communal agencies, simultaneously with the coordination of those already existing. The Kehillah then set to work with unparalleled determination and perseverance, and the next seven years saw the birth of several of the most important communal instruments.

In 1910, the Bureau of Education was organized, for the purpose of standardizing the methods of Jewish education. This Bureau was also to find ways and means oŁ providing Jewish training for all the Jewish children of school age in this city. In the seven years of its existence, this Bureau has grown to astonishing proportions, and its activities, as an educational factor, have long since
extended beyond the city limits. The work is conducted through nine departments, a description of which will be found elsewhere in this volume.

The work of surveying and charting the communal assets of New York Jewry was undertaken in 1911 and the results published in the Jewish Communal Directory, the first attempt of its kind in this city.

The Employment Bureau for the Handicapped began its activities  in November, 1911, and has since helped to find employment for thousands of Jews suffering from disabilities of many sorts. The work of securing employment for handicapped Jews, brought the Kehillah face to face with one of the industrial problems affecting Jewish life, and it was inevitable that ere long many other phases of the industrial problems would present themselves. The leaders of the Kehillah were frequently called upon to settle labor disputes, where both sides were Jews. The record of the organization abounds with many successful arbitrations of big strikes. This gave rise to the idea that the Kehillah ought to establish permanent machinery lookijg to the adjustment of all industrial disputes in the Jewish community. This idea was realized in 1914, when the Bureau of Industry was established. Its scope was defined as an "endeavor, on the basis of a comprehensive knowledge of industrial conditions, to direct vocational training, to provide employment for the handicapped, as well as for the highly skilled, and to work out methods for the maintenance of peace in industries where Jews preponderate."

The suppression of improper moral conditions, so far as they affect the Jews in this city, was  undertaken by the Welfare Committee of the Kehillah as early as 1912, following certain shocking revelations which had cast a sinister shadow on the good name of our people. A discreet but effective activity was carried on to stamp out the shame from our house, and the work met with unusual success. Judge Gaynor, who was then Mayor of New York, expressed his approbation in a letter in which he said, "nobody has done so much work to better moral conditions in this city, during my time, as you have done.

An attempt to supply the dire want of scientifically trained communal workers was made through the establishment of the School for Communal Work, while the Bureau of Philanthropic REsearch having as its aim, the scientific study of the charity problem of New York Jewry, from a communal point of view was organized by the Council of Jewish Communal Institutions in conjunction with the Kehillah.

The maintenance of these communal agencies was a source of constant anxiety to the leaders of the Kehillah. The great mass of the people was not sufficiently alive to its obligations and failed to supply the necessary funds. But the Kehillah was undaunted. Neither indifference nor open hostility, could deflect it from the determined goal, to arouse the Jews of New York to a full realization of their communal needs and their communal responsibilities.

4. Democratization

Intensive work, carefully planned and well directed, marked the first seven years of the Kehillah's existence. In the annals of the organization, this its first period, may well be designated as one where the use of the so-called, "scientific" method was in the ascendency. This method was su8mmed up by the  Chairman of the Eecutive Committee in his statement to the Eighth Annual Convention, as an effort "first, to secure exact, systematic, comprehensive knowledge concerning the Jewish Community of New York City, and the Jewish problem in all of its phases; second, to engage upon as many experiments as possible through first-hand experience of the various phases of the problem; and, third, to point out the paths along which the community might develop
in order to become in fact a conscious, organized, united community."

But aside from the creation of this communal machinery, and the work of specialization that this entailed, the Kehillah has rendered a far greater service to the Jews of this city, by emphasizing the fact of the existence of the community. Its sheer existence had been a constant reiteration of this fact. Its activities have shown the way leading to the ultimate development of an organized community.

The work of coordinating the existing communal agencies was in many instances successfully carried out, in spite of heated opposition. It was quite evident that whatever opposition there was would ultimately give way before an awakened Jewish public opinion. Moreover, the opposition was never organized and never advanced a communal theory differing from the one held by the
Kehillah. It is safe to say that it was generally actuated by the simple motive of protecting its "vested interests' ' lest they come to harm in an enlightened, well organized community. To be sure, there was also honest opposition. But this may be traced to the innate distrust that many people have for everything new and unusual. One of the greatest gains of the Kehillah in the eight years of its existence was the dissipation of this distrust, of this Kehillah-phobia. The complexion of the Jewish community has materially changed during these years, and all Jewish work is now carried on on a much higher plane than it was carried on prior to 1910. The Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies, a project insistently advocated by the Kehillah, may fairly be pointed out as an example of the awakening communal consciousness.

However, one phase of the Kehillah's work receded into the background, owing to the all-absorbing activity of communal experimentation ; namely, the expansion of the Kehillah organization from the point of view of numbers. The great mass of New York Jewry, while tacitly approving the work of the Kehillah, has not displayed an active interest in the formation of its policy
and of its programme. This indifference on the part of the Jewish mass may be traced to a somewhat defective system of representation which considered the Jewish society as the only unit from which representation was allowed to the annual convention. The distribution of the Jewish population in Greater New York, creating densely populated Jewish districts at points widely remote from each other, was another contributing factor. As a central organization, the Kehillah was too far removed
from the simpler elements of our population, who are impressed only by a concrete, visible fact. Many of them had only heard of the existence of the Kehillah and most likely considered it as "one of many good organizations."

At the last annual convention, this phase of the problem was carefully gone into and the thorough-going democratization of the Kehillah decided upon. To afford the Kehillah an opportunity for doing the work of democratization without let or hindrance, it was deemed best to sever the Bureaus from the Kehillah and to give them an independent existence, so that all the energy of the Kehillah could be devoted to its main task: namely, the formulation of our communal problems and the co-ordination of the existing communal agencies which will bring about a conscious, organized and united community.

The plan of representation, appended to  his review, was the result of a careful study of the various constituencies which would make the Kehillah representative of New York Jewry in the widest sense. it is based on the experience of the Kehillah since 1908, in addition to a careful and searching survey which extended over six months of investigation, from July, 1917, to January, 1918. The compilation and the interpretation of these facts are submitted in this volume.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: A Brief History of the Kehillah
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Jewish Communal Register of New York City 1917-1918; Edited and published by Kehillah (Jewish Community of NYC) 1918; Lipshitz Press, 80 Lafayette Street, N.Y., N.Y.
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