Jewish Voluntary Societies Today

Organizing for Good Works in the 21st Century.

From Bible times until now Jews have been forming themselves into two kinds of organizations. First, Jews organize synagogues where the faithful assemble for worship. Second, Jews organize hevrahs for doing good works. However, in the last century terms like “association” or “organization” have replaced the Hebrew term hevrah. This change has occurred as Jews have become less religious. The only Jewish hevrah that uses that term today, it seems to me, is the hevrah kadisha, or holy brotherhood, whose mission is to prepare the body of a Jew for burial. You can read about the hevrah kadisha (or chevra kadisha) here.

Jewish associations have actually grown in their importance in the 21st century, even though the term hevrah has largely fallen into disuse. Daniel J. Elazar, in his article “Jewish Organization Patterns in the United States,” writes that modern day hevrahs/associations have become more important during recent decades as Jewish sabbath attendance at synagogues has fallen. In other words. Elazar writes,

Jews belong to all manner of membership societies that are made for good works. Jews do not demean these voluntary structures as “para-synagogue” organizations, as though the synagogue were the center of the Jewish activities. Membership in Jewish special-purpose associations today is often more important than membership in the synagogue.

How do secular Jews in the 21st century retain their Jewish identity? Many Jews in modern times give voice to their Jewishness by their membership in special-purpose associations. Elazar explains this social characteristic:

“It is not simply association with a synagogue that enables a Jew to become part of the organized Jewish community. Affiliation with any of a whole range of organizations, from clearly philanthropic groups to ‘secularist’ cultural societies, offers the same option” [emphasis is in the original.]

Daniel J. Elazar, “Patterns of Jewish Organization in the United States,” in American Denominational Organizations (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1980). 133

Since 1960 the synagogue has become less important in the Jewish life, while the importance of Jewish organizations has increased a great deal. Elazar writes,

The American Jewish community is built upon an associational base to a far greater extent than any other in Jewish history. That is to say, not only is there no inescapable compulsion, external or internal, to affiliate with organized Jewry, but there is no automatic way to become a member of the Jewish community. All connections with organized Jewish life are based on voluntary associations with some particular organization or institution, whether in the form of synagogue membership, contribution to the local Jewish Welfare Fund (generally considered to be an act of joining as well as contributing) or affiliation with B’nai Brith Lodge of Hadassah (the Women’s Zionist Organization) chapter.

In sum, the term hevrah has largely disappeared, but the form of the hevrah is more important than ever. For example, I borrow books from the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. You can visit the website here. There is a restaurant, a swimming pool, and a membership fee. Every night there are lectures. It is a modern day hevrah, a voluntary association that Jews have organized. Without its associational base, “there would be no organized Jewish community at all,” Elazar writes. “With it, the Jewish community attains the kind of social status (and even a certain legal status) that enables it to fit well into the larger society of which it is a part.” The Jewish congregation “is a very flexible device that can accommodate all those services and more, usually through a system of hevrot (fellowships) or committees.” Jews can organize these services, or missions, whether or not there is a synagogue. Indeed, members of the hevrot may be members of more than one synagogue or of no synagogue at all.

Jews accept, often reluctantly, that a great diversity of religious and political opinions exists in Jewish America and even in Israel today. This pluralism defies any notion that a unifying governing power would ever deny Jews their liberty to organize special-interest associations. There is no temple to force a unity on the entire Jewish world. Therefore, Jews form special-interest associations based with other like-minded Jews. Elazar calls this phenomenon “creative chaos”:

“The new “voluntarism” takes the place of previously homogeneous and monolithic community structures [emphasis is in original]. It is a kind of “pluralistic federalism,” a kind of creative chaos that “substantially eliminates the neat patterns, the kinds which are easily presented on organizational charts.” A hierarchical organizational structure “does not offer an accurate picture of the distribution of powers and responsibilities in the Jewish community today.

There is no functioning, organizational pyramid in Jewish life. No national organization is able to issue directives to local affiliates; and no local “judicatory” organization able to order others within its “jurisdiction” into line. In sum, there is no central governing agent in most Jewish communities which serves as the point at which authority, responsibility, and power converge, even at the local level [emphasis is in original].

Attempts at centralization have met with resistance because Jews prefer options to rigid uniformity:

From the late 1850s to the early 1880s, the growing American Jewish community experimented with a centralized “Board of Deputies of American Israelites,” modeled after the Board of Deputies of British Jews in the United Kingdom. The experiment was launched with great difficulty and failed almost immediately. Neither it nor its more narrowly based successor, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the very name reveals how contemporaries still conceived of Jewish life as concentrated in the synagogue and potentially unifiable on the congregational basis), ever came close to achieving universality.

Thus, differing interests of Jewish traditionalists and liberals, Zionists and secularists were too diverse for any Jewish hierarchy that would try to impose a uniformity upon the whole of the Jewish people. There is just too many opinions about what it means to be a Jew for that.

Blincoe. I learned a lot by borrowing books from the Jewish Study Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. The librarian told me the two structures–synagogues and voluntary associations–are known and accepted by all Jews. The rabbi knows the synagogue is not the only structure for the Jewish people. He does not say, “If only the synagogue were organized as it should be, we would not need the Jewish humanitarian associations.”

Therefore, as it was in the beginning, so it is in the 21st century, two kinds of structures in the Jewish religion. The Hebrew term hevrah has been changed to the English word “organization,” and most Jewish organizations in secular American culture are no longer sacred in the same way that they were in past centuries. But both kinds of organizations–the synagogue and the Jewish associations–exist today as they have existed since Biblical times. What is the lesson, if any, for churches and Christian organizations in our day?

[1] Israel M. Goldman, Lifelong Learning among Jews: Adult Education in Judaism from Biblical Times to the Twentieth Century (New York: Ktav Pub. House, 1975).173 Read my book review here.