Early History of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington (1938 – 1942)
Mrs. Henry Gichner
The Jewish Community Council of Washington grew out of a desire on the part of many citizens for the creation of a body composed of representatives of all Jewish agencies and organizations authorized to speak for the Jewish community on matters of common concern. In 1938 the community was faced with a specific problem, that of the refugees, on which no one agency wished to set policy. At the request of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Social Services Agency a meeting of the presidents of the major Jewish organizations was called on March 6, 1938 to consider the formation of a coordinating committee representing the entire Jewish Community. The JSSA had received requests for assistance to refugees from Germany and other countries. The JSSA admitted that it could not assume the entire burden, nor could the Council of Jewish Women who were called in to help. It was decided at that meeting to call together a body composed of two representative of each other to establish a coordinating committee.
On March 29, 1938 a delegates meeting was held. This was to be a coordinating committee, to arouse the consciousness of Washington to meet the needs of new arrivals. It was the purpose to have an organization where reports could be given to the delegates to be taken back to the parent organization. At that meeting, the JSSA presented a resolution that delegates take back their organizations the suggestion that steps be taken to create a Jewish Community Council which could speak for the entire community on matters of interest to the Jewish community as a whole. Rabbi Solomon H. Metz was elected temporary chairman.
On October 18, 1938, delegates of local Jewish organizations came together to form a Jewish Community Council. This Council would serve to have Jewish organizations form the habit of working together an discussing their views, thus finding joint ground for action on affairs that affected the entire Jewish community. It was to be a forum to ascertain community opinion and work together, and not a governing body. The autonomy of no constituent was to be involved. No community action was to be taken without a majority vote of the delegates. At that time a motion was LOST to limit the scope of the Council to purely local matters, for fear that the Council, which it was agreed should have broad powers, might find its hands tied. The warning was stated that many vexing problems would arise in the future and obstacles loom up to threaten the Council structure. If the basic principles of communal cooperation and harmony would be accepted by all Jewish organizations the city, the future would bring benefit to the community.
On October 13, 1938 an emergency meeting of the Executive Committee was called for the purpose of discussing affecting the status of the Jews in Germany. It was agreed that an effort must be made to keep organizations in line and avoid the possibility or irresponsible action by any group. No organization must be allowed to protest without communal sanction. A meeting of the delegates was to be called, since it was agreed that the Council was the only body having the right to call such a meeting.
On November 15, 1938 a special meeting of the delegates of the Jewish Community Council was called at the request of the four local branches of the national organizations making up the General Council for the Protection of Jewish Rights. Among others, the purposes of the meeting were to establish control and communal discipline among Jewish organizations and individuals in the city. A resolution was passed unanimously that the Council may initiate action, and that no organization should take action without first the approval of the Council.
On January 31, 1939, the first election meeting of the Council was held. Rabbi Metz was elected president, Morris Simon, vice-president, Louis Speigler, secretary, and Joseph Barr, treasurer. It was noted that there existed a multiplicity of independent services to refugees. It was decided that the responsibility for local refugee work be centered in the JSSA. It was reaffirmed by the delegates that the Jewish Community Council is the only organization that has the authority to speak for the Jewish community.
On February 21, 1939 at a meeting of the Executive Committee, it was voted that the Jewish Community Council apply for membership in the National Council of Jewish Federation and Welfare Funds.
(At the meeting of March 14, 1939, it was agreed that speeches at Delegates’ Meeting be limited to three minutes, and no delegates should speak twice without the unanimous consent of the meeting.)
On March 16, 1939, the Delegates’ meeting was concerned with the problem of discrimination against Jewish workers. A four-point program was adopted after considerable discussion:
- A fact-finding committee was to be established
- Cooperative with public and private employment agencies concerned about discrimination against the Jewish worker.
- Represent the interests of the Jewish Community in conferences with individual employers, groups, government and private organizations
- Secure assistance from interested groups.
The importance of the Council as a consultative body was stressed.
On March 28, 1939, at an Executive Committee meeting, the question of the establishment of a congregation fro refugees was raised. It was decided that the Council would send a list of all congregations and a description and a description of their religious character to all newcomers.
On April 6, 1939 a dispute between capital and labor was presented to the Council. It was decided that the Council inform its constituents that it cannot take any action in such a dispute, and it was recommended that the constituent organizations follow the same policy. The necessity for an arbitration committee was recognized, to settle certain disputes between Jews, in an effort to check litigation, and to prevent such cases being introduced in the local courts. A committee was also appointed on economic discrimination. The opinion was expressed that as a result of the efforts of the Jewish Community Council, a Jewish Welfare Fund might ultimately be created. The question of Jewish indigents was also raised.
On October 10, 1939 it was decided to make a survey of Jewish organizations in the city to determine the type of community service rendered by each so that the services might be coordinated. A survey was suggested on the number and adequacy of synagogues, to plan for future needs. A committee was to be set up to consider Jewish education.
On October 26, 1939 the Council celebrated its first birthday. It was pointed out that deliberately the Council had not sought publicity. A report on Meshulochim was adopted, that they have proper credentials, a limited time to solicit, and that the committee be notified of their activities. Licensing requirements will be established.
The Council was to call a meeting of congregations and burial societies to consider the problem of the burial of Jewish indigents. It was suggested that graves be given on a rotating basis and that a register be kept. A resolution was passed urging all constituents organizations to participate in the Community Chest campaign, and that a copy be sent to the Chest.
March 25, 1940, Council was invited to participate in the Committee on Religious Life in the Nation’s Capital.
It was agreed that a publicity committee should be appointed.
April 18, 1940 a Committee was appointed to study the question of the formation of a Jewish Welfare Fund.
January 27, 1941, Hymen Goldman was elected president. Constituent organizations were urged to send men and woemn as representatives who will give time and thought to community interest. Mr. Speigler outlined the principles of the Council:
“The Council will have to struggle for another year or two until it is made into an agency of the entire Jewish Community. The will entail the giving up of some authority and perhaps some fields of endeavor by many existing organizations.”
It can have a salutary effect on fund-raising. The following points should be noted:
- The council should remain autonomous and independent or any organization.
- Not be attached to or made part of any welfare fund or charitable organization.
- Should be considered as the voice of the entire Jewish Community and allow no compromise with the group seeking special privilege.
- Endeavor to be practical rather than theoretical.
April 1, 1941 an Arbitration Committee was to be set up for the purpose of settling arguments between Jews which in some way affected the welfare and good name of the entire Jewish community, not for settling private quarrels between Jews where no such community interest exists. There was to be a panel of ten to twelve persons, of whom any three could be selected as arbitrators.
In relation to a Welfare Fund, it was agreed that the proposal should come from the Jewish Community Council and not the UJA.
June 8, 1941 it was decided that no action be taken on the remarks of Mr. Rankin in Congress, and that the constituent organizations be asked that no steps be taken, in the interest of the general community welfare.
The Board of Education was to be consulted on the matters of Christmas Carols in the public schools.
June 30, 1941 it was stated that the Council should not duplicate the efforts of National Bodies in their work on Congressional and Federal matters. In connection with the Rankin attacks, all the National organizations have been written to.
The Board of Education is acquainted with the Jewish holiday situation. Children need only bring a note from home to be excused. Constituent organizations are to be written to about this report.
Dr. Ballou, Superintendent of Schools has promised that at an appropriate time the teachers will be advised that the religious beliefs of all pupils should be respected, so hat no embarrassment will result to those whose convictions do not coincide with the majority (Christmas Carols). A survey is to be made of the library facilities at the Jewish Community Center.
August 1, 1941 the matter of the date of the opening of school, which falls on Rosh Hashanah, was presented. The Rabbinical Council took it upon itself to send a letter to all organizations to write the Superintendent of Schools. It was decided that a committee of the Council be appointed to confer with Superintendent, to change the date of the opening of school or to make arrangements for earlier registration of Jewish students. All constituent organizations were to be written to disregard the earlier letter.
The Council cooperated with the Department of Justice on the National Citizenship Education program.
Minutes state “Te best interests of the Jewish Community are not served by hasty, often premature actions of independent self-constituted groups. The Council, because of it is composed of representatives of all Jewish groups, must be the spokesman for the community.”
November 25, 1941 the parochial school question was discussed. The Council should be consulted on all matters of communal interest.
The Hebrew Free Loan Society suits in the courts were referred to the Public Relations Committee.
Articles appeared in the “Afro-American” newspaper concerning Negro-Jewish relations. These were referred to the Public Relations Committee. A Jewish Education Committee was formed. A meeting was to be called of all rabbis and heads of congregations, and all Jews were to be urged to join a congregation.
December 16, 1941 the problem of the Jewish non-citizens was discussed since they are now classed as enemy aliens. This was referred to the JSSA as the agency already active in the field and set up to handle the problem.
March 10, 1941 the “Strum Incident”. The S. S. Struma, an unseaworthy boat with 750 Roumanian refugees, went down because it was not permitted to land in Turkey. The passengers had no Palestine certificates. The question was raised as to whether to call a protest meeting. An extraordinary meeting of the Delegates was to be called for March 19, 1942. A resolution was passed to send “regrets” to the British Colonial Office and the State Department.
At the Annual Meeting of February 23, 1942 it was decided to cooperate with the Civilian Defense Authority and the Committee on Housing.
There was a multiplicity of problems facing the American Jewish Community. Unity of action makes the solution easier and less distant.
July 16, 1942 Real Estate discrimination was discussed. Editors were to be approached about the ads in newspapers. This was to be handled by individuals, not the Council. An effort was to be made to bring Jewish Realtors into line.
A committee was to continue to gather data on Released Time. The Board of Education rejected it for the next year. The cooperation of the Rabbinical Council was to be invited.
July 28, 1942 the Committee for a Jewish Army requested cooperation in recruiting help in D.C. A letter was sent to the constituent organizations about the discussion.
December 3, 1942 Mr. Speigler reported on the suggested formation of a Jewish Welfare Fund. The study was recommended to be held in abeyance until the end of the war for the following reasons:
- The Jewish population of D.C. is a shifting one.
- Economy is disrupted for war needs. Organizations which might be constituents of a Welfare Fund are fluid now.
- What problems will arise at the end of the war is conjectural. Overseas needs have primacy at the present time.
- D.C. has a limited welfare fund in the UJA.
If there should be demand by an overwhelming majority of the Jewish community for a Welfare Fund, this could be fulfilled by converting the UJA, and adding constituents that the community deems meritorious and noteworthy.
CONCLUSION (paraphrase from early minutes)
The Jewish Community Council came into being to avoid duplication; to do away with costly and unnecessary competition; to coordinate various groups; to create a healthy and more progressive Jewish life; to have one voice speak for the Jewish Community when necessary. There were at that time twenty-three Councils in the United States.
The objectives of the D.C. Jewish Community Council are:
- To help maintain the dignity and integrity of Jewish life.
- To develop articulate, intelligent, and effective public opinion on Jewish problems and interests.
- To coordinate (as far as possible) activities of Washington Jewish Community and to cooperate with other agencies.
- To promote and advance the cultural, social, philanthropic and spiritual interests of the Jewish people.
- To help in promoting mutual understanding with the non-Jewish population.
- To help safeguard and defend the rights of the Jewish people.
- To encourage amicable adjustment of differences between individuals and/or groups by providing arbitration and conciliation.
It is not the purpose to interfere in the autonomy of any constituent member. The Council stimulates services of a worthwhile character. The Council will be the instrumentality which speaks for the entire Jewish Community.
Source: From the files of Philip Schiff and shared by his daughter Mrs. Jeanne Talpers.