Synagogue Council of America

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The Synagogue Council of America was an American Jewish organization of synagogue and rabbinical associations, founded in 1926. The Council was the umbrella body bridging the three primary religious movements within Judaism in the United States. It included:

The organization dissolved in 1994, facing financial difficulties and fractiousness among its members, the organization effectively collapsed after a proposal to relocate the council's offices from Manhattan to White Plains, New York, where it would have been housed in a Reform congregation, was rejected by Orthodox members of the organization. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of the Orthodox Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun served as the organization's final president lamented the lack of "people who are really interested in maintaining the organization."[1] Steven Bayme considers that the Council's collapse was symbolic of the general Orthodox drift to the right, and raised serious questions of how orthodoxy can cooperate with the broader Jewish community in areas of external protection, support for Israel and Jewish continuity.[2]

The records of the organization are stored with the Center for Jewish History (CJH) in New York, which also maintains a history of the organization.[3]

The North American Boards of Rabbis was formed in 1999, as part of an effort at interdenominational cohesiveness in the Jewish community. The organization would be a parent body for boards of rabbis in individual communities, with its first president being Orthodox Rabbi Marc Schneier, who was then serving as president of the New York Board of Rabbis.[4]

The Synagogue Council of America (SCA) was founded in 1926 by the congregational and rabbinical organizations of the major Jewish religious movements of American Jewry. The six bodies were and remain: The United Synagogue of America, The Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative); The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, The Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox); The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, The Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform). The presidents and officers, rabbis, rotated among the three movements. Later, the position of a lay chairman of the Board of Governors, appointed by the synagogal bodies, was established.

The original declaration of principles provided that the SCA seek those common concerns shared by all six constituent bodies. Thus, the SCA offered a central address for a diverse religious community that could achieve sufficient consensus to be able to speak literally with “one voice” to the larger world on vital issues. Since consensus was necessary for any action, position, and statement, the SCA did not address internal religious conflicts, often embroiling the Jewish religious community.

It is apparent that over the many decades, great care and discipline was exercised by SCA leadership to determine the agenda in a way which avoided confrontations which would lead to the casting of a veto by one constituent because of a particular ideological or theological position. Indeed, the veto was resorted to only once or twice during the SCA’s history. There was criticism of this arrangement by those who thought the purpose of the SCA was to adjudicate or at least reconcile the religious differences which were dividing the Jewish community. Not to be able to do so was viewed as “weakness” or “ineffectualness.” But that was not its mandate. This self-imposed restrictiveness accounted for the continued viability of the SCA, allowing it to develop into a full-fledged “church body” working with the other major church bodies in this country and abroad, governmental agencies in the White House.

There have been other efforts to bring individual Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Jews together to address in their collectivity internal Jewish religious issues of faith and practice. They were not able to achieve consensus on such divisive issues as conversion, inter-marriage, and women’s participation in the synagogue service.

Therefore, the SCA was able to address a range of concerns to the Jewish community, some specifically Jewish and many related to the mandate to “impact on the moral character of society,” such as:

--- The first national conference on Hospice for the Jewish Community, 1984. --- The first national study of Jewish voter registration in America (1988) which determined that close to one million American Jews of voting age were not registered to vote; followed in 1994 by the SCA’s nationwide voter registration drive; voter registration manuals produced and distributed to congregations, JCC’s and JCRC’s. --- SCA’s task force on disabilities and its co-sponsorship of That All May Worship, an interfaith handbook to assist congregations in accommodating persons with disabilities. --- National conference: Call to the Common Ground for the Common Good – Renewing our Nation’s Social Welfare Policy, co-sponsored by the SCA, United States Catholic Bishops Conference, and National Council of Churches. --- SCA co-sponsor of Bicentennial conference on The Status of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment (1991). --- Co-sponsor of the conference on Judaism and a Just Economy, How Jewish Values and Traditions can Inform New Economic Models that Respond to Today’s Needs. --- A Lesson of Value: a joint statement on moral education in the public schools, SCA, National Conference of Catholic Bishops. --- National Council on Aging. SCA co-sponsored and led workshops on congregational outreach programs to the frail elderly. --- United Nations, NGO Division --- National Conference on Soviet Jewry --- National Workshop on Christian Jewish Relations --- National Interfaith Coalition on Aging --- Leadership Conference on Civil Rights --- National Interreligious Task Force on Criminal Justice --- National Hospice Organization --- Children’s Hospice International --- Interfaith Hunger Appeal --- National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (NISBCO) --- Partners in Ecumenicism/Black Religious Leaders --- Congress of National Black Churches --- Religion in American Life (RIAL) --- Jewish Girl Scouts of America --- Jewish Boy Scouts of America

Though major church bodies in this country and internationally had interfaith dialogue with other secular Jewish organizations, they recognized the SCA as their true religious peer seeking particular relationships with it because the SCA was the “religious address” of American Jewry. This fact was underscored by the Washington Post which stated that the “highest level interfaith meetings” are the ones which take place three times a year among “the general secretaries of the United States Catholic Bishops Conference, the National Council of Churches, and the Synagogue Council of America…”

--- Ongoing exchanges with leaders of the Mormon church, the Lutheran church, USA, the National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptist convention, Central Committee of German Catholics, the Lutheran World Federation, Congress of National Black Churches, the World Council of Churches, Geneva, and the All-Africa Conference of Churches, Nairobi.

The SCA, as American Secretariat of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) coordinated the Vatican-Jewish exchanges in Prague, Rome, and Baltimore which helped pave the way for the normalization of Israel-Vatican diplomatic relations and official Vatican statements such as “Anti-Semitism as a Sin Against God…”

In addition, SCA addressed issues facing the country, including: -- Church/State (Unification Church and Bob Jones University) -- Prayer in public schools—Nuclear disarmament—Immigration, Refugee and Asylum—Energy/Conservation—Bio-medical Ethics and Genetic Experimentations, the President’s Commission on Bio-Medical Ethics—Martin Luther King Federal Holiday Commission

As a church body operating primarily in national and international arenas, the SCA was not well known in the local community. It’s activities were often viewed as distant from the community’s interests and needs, a perennial problem facing other church bodies. But in effect, the SCA was able to position itself on the cutting edge of social/economic policy, church/state issues and interreligious cooperation.

Closing Chapter:

The Synagogue Council of America closed its doors in 1994 after 68 years of existence due to a number of circumstances which combined to render the organization no longer viable, not least of which was the SCA’s inability to raise funds. The constituent agencies historically contributed less than 10% of its operating needs, the balance being produced each year through aggressive fundraising by the SCA itself. There was a dimunition of interest in support and participation as the UOJCA, the US, and the UAHC increasingly wanted to establish their own denominational presence in interfaith exchanges and social action work with the very agencies the SCA related to in their names as well. Increasing religious divisions in Israel contributed to increased tensions among the denominations of American Jewry, making cooperation and consensus even more difficult to achieve within the Synagogue Council. The constituent bodies became increasingly driven by internal agendas, overcoming the historic commitment of each to achieve the consesus indispensable to preserving the organization and its program.

Bibliography: The facts and figures contained in this report are on file with the LARGE CITY BUDGETING CONFERENCE (LCBC).

Rabbi Henry D. Michelman Executive Vice President, Synagogue Council from 1981 – 1992.

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