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Catholic Schools and Jewish Day Schools

Alan Brill has an interesting post on his must-see blog, The Book of Doctrines and Opinions: Notes on Jewish Theology and Spirituality, about Catholic Schools and Jewish Day Schools. This post reminds me of another interesting comparison which has been made, and that is between the Jewish and Catholic communities in Boston. A number of important books have been written about the subject, including Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon’s The Death of an American Jewish Community: A Tragedy of Good Intentions and Gerald Gamm’s Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed. The following is from a review of Gamm’s book in American Jewish History, vol. 89, 2001, by Edward S. Shapiro.

It is difficult to conceive of two books in American Jewish history more different in their assumptions and conclusions than The Death of an American Jewish Community and Urban Exodus. Levine and Harmon argued that the demise of the Jewish community in Mattapan, the southern part of Dorchester, during the 1960s was caused by an unholy alliance of real estate interests, banks, and politicians, eager to benefit from the federal government’s largesse in subsidizing of urban development programs. These “elusive forces,” organized into the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group, directed Boston’s growing Black population into Jewish areas rather than into Irish, Italian, and other ethnic enclaves. Jews, they believed, would be less resistant to the racial transformation of their neighborhoods and less prone to violence.

Gamm strongly disagrees, and Urban Exodus focuses on another aspect of this story–the different rates by which Jews and Catholics left Boston. In Boston, as elsewhere, “the exodus from Jewish neighborhoods occurred earlier, faster, and more thoroughly than the exodus from Catholic neighborhoods–and with much less violence” (p. 13). By the 1970s, Jewish Boston had become part of the Black ghetto. The G&G delicatessen, the center of Jewish Mattapan, indicated this when it added bacon and eggs to its breakfast menu. But this transformation had begun decades earlier. During the early and mid-1950s, a time when the Jewish community of Roxbury-Dorchester was still viable, five important Jewish institutions left the area for Brookline and Newton: Hebrew Teachers College, the Maimonides day school, Orthodox congregations Beth El and Atereth Israel, and Conservative synagogue Mishkan Tefila. “These institutions,” Gamm writes, “relocated once their leaders had become convinced that the urban exodus posed threats to institutional survival, but before those threats were fully manifest” (p. 233).

According to Gamm, who teaches politics and history at the University of Rochester, the difference between the demographic mobility of Jews and Roman Catholics stemmed from the different institutional structures of the two groups. As a result of a close examination of church and synagogue records, census data, newspaper accounts, Boston government records, and other primary source material, Gamm argues that “what primarily distinguishes Jews from Catholics is not a different capacity for racist behavior but a different attachment to territory. Catholics have a strong sense of turf, regarding their neighborhoods as defended geographical communities (pp. 15-16).” And this, in turn, has been shaped by how synagogue and church view urban space.

The institutions of the authoritarian and parish-based Roman Catholic Church were anchored deep into the soil of Boston and were there to stay. The Catholic laity were loyal to the territorial churches and schools they had known since youth, and were loath to leave the cozy and familiar confines of the parish. Catholics who lived the furthest from the parish church were the most likely to leave Boston for the suburbs, while the Catholics who lived the closest, the heroes of Gamm’s book, stayed and maintained the stability and prosperity of Roxbury and Dorchester. The parish, Gamm writes, “was a fortress for old- time residents, stoutly maintaining familiar rituals, social events, and the neighborhood’s disappearing ethnic character. Its pastor and curates continued to provide vigorous leadership, reinforcing for white Catholics the permanence of the parish’s commitment to the neighborhood. In a time of change, the parish offered stability” (p. 239).

Jewish institutions, by contrast, were less constrained by residential factors, and, except for Orthodox synagogues, could be relocated easily. “The inability of Jewish institutions to define and anchor neighborhoods is based,” Gamm writes, “in the rules that separate synagogue sites from members’ homes, rules that make synagogues portable, and rules that locate institutional authority in the congregational membership” (p. 93). Their institutions, including synagogues, were lay-controlled, and permission to move them did not require approval from a higher religious authority. The migration of Jewish institutions to suburbia had a snowballing effect, encouraging other institutions and individuals to flee also. The evidence, Gamm concludes, supports the thesis that the respective histories of their institutions explain why Catholic and Jews have responded differently to urban change.

Shapiro ends his review with a question.

But the question remains: what distinctive historical and psychological factors persuaded Boston’s Jewish leaders to so readily uproot their institutions?

Something interesting to think about when the Jewish community ponders its future and that of its educational institutions.

2 Responses to “Catholic Schools and Jewish Day Schools”

  1. 1
    adderabbi:

    I remember the Bostoner Rebbetzin a”h saying, the only time I met her that they moved out of Roxbury (apparently they were among the last Jewish institutions to leave, “you can’t make a minyan from the shvartze.”

  2. 2
    tzvee:

    but does ed mention the factor that we jews as a people are used to packing up on a moment’s notice and fleeing persecution. it’s part of our evolved dna – because we have been prey for so many generations, we developed the traits of faster running …

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