Jews - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Today, Jews are highly integrated into the North American class system, with Jews found in the upper, middle, and working classes. Upward social mobility is an important value, and has been achieved for about three generations largely through education. Although Jews are often thought to be concentrated in the upper-middle and lower-upper classes, there is still a sizable number in the working class and some elderly Jews live below the poverty line. Vestiges of discrimination remain and Jews are still excluded from some social organizations open to non-Jews. In communities with large Jewish populations, exclusively or largely Jewish social organizations such as community centers, the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Associations

(YMHA, YWHA), B'nai B'rith, and Hadassah are important. And in some communities the synagogue ( shul ) plays an Important social and recreational role. Many Jews are also involved in or contribute to national or international organizations that support Jewish causes such as the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith, the United Jewish Appeal, and the United Jewish Welfare Fund.

Internally, Jews have no formal social or political Organization, although they can be and are often divided into Subgroups on the basis of three overlapping criteria: degree of Religiousness, place of one's own or one's ancestor's birth, and Ashkenazic or Sephardic ancestry. Degree of religiousness is reflected in the labels Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Judaism. Orthodox Jews generally follow and resist changes in traditional religious beliefs and practices, which they base on the halakhah, the Jewish literature that covers ethical, Religious, civil, and criminal matters. Conservative Judaism comprises a combination of thought reflecting different Philosophical, ethical, and spiritual schools. In general, Conservatives stress change from within, Zionism, and an ingathering of all Jews. Because of the diversity of opinion, Conservative religious practices run a wide gamut, although most are less traditional than those of Orthodoxy. Reform Judaism, as the name suggests, reflects a modification of Orthodoxy in light of contemporary life and thought. Thus, Reform Jews do not believe that Jewish law is divinely revealed and eschew many practices central to Orthodoxy such as eating only kosher foods, wearing a skull-cap ( yarmulke ) when praying, and using Hebrew in prayer. The differences among Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews go well beyond religion and are manifested in many day-to-day activities and events and the degree to which members of each are assimilated into North American society. Other categories of Jews based on degree of religiousness include Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, Reconstructionalists, and "Civil" Jews.

As mentioned above, Jews arrived in North America in waves, largely from European nations and these places of ancestry are used to delineate one Jew or group of Jews from another. Thus, for example, one speaks of German Jews, Russian Jews, Polish Jews, Syrian Jews, and so on, or in a more general sense, eastern, central, or southern European Jews. These distinctions are no longer especially important, although German Jews are still looked upon as wealthier and of higher status than other Jews.

The final major distinction is between Jews of Ashkenazic (Ashkenazim) or Sephardic (Sephardim, Sfardim) ancestry. Ashkenazim Jews are those descended from the Ashkenazic Jews of eastern and central Europe and Currently make up about 90 percent of North American Jews. Sephardim are descended from the Sephardic Jews who lived in southern Europe from about the seventh to the fifteenth Century when they were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Most of the exiles settled in the Middle East and North Africa. Beyond a difference in place of ancestry, Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews differed and in some ways continue to differ in language (Yiddish or European Languages versus Judeo-Spanish or Middle Eastern languages), the pronunciation and spelling of Hebrew, liturgy, and surnames. But members of both groups freely acknowledge that members of the other group are Jews, although some Ashkenazim were less accepting of Sephardim in the past. Although North American Judaism is dominated by Ashkenazim because of their large numbers, there are important Sephardic communities in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta, Chicago, Montreal, Rochester, and Indianapolis.

These communities derive from a migration occurring from 1900 to 1925 when Sephardic Jews left areas that are now Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Rhodes, and other territories of the Ottoman Empire.

Finally, mention should be made of other Jewish groups such as Karaites (Qaraites), Israeli, and Russian Jews who have recently immigrated to North America from their Respective countries, and Black Jews who have formed their own sects (though by Jewish-defined criteria most of these sects are not considered Jews). These groups, who sometimes follow an ultra-Orthodox life-style or a life-style different from that of assimilated Jews, also sometimes choose to live in relatively isolated urban communities and form their own synagogues. The recent emigrants from Israel are looked upon by some with puzzlement, as they seem to be rejecting the aliyyah, or ascent to the land of Israel, a marker of Jewish identity if not a goal for many Jews.

Political Organization. Although North American Judaism has no overarching political structure similar to that of Roman Catholicism or the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues are aligned with central organizations—the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America, the United Synagogue of America (Conservative), and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform). Although in the past the synagogue played an important organizational and leadership role, it no longer does so for most Jews. Similarly, the rabbi, the spiritual and moral leader of the synagogue congregation, now rarely plays a leadership role in the community, based solely on his status as the rabbi.

Jews have been seen (often by anti-Semitic commentators) as aligned with liberal or radical political philosophies including socialism, communism, unionization, and the New Deal and tended to vote heavily in favor of candidates of the Democratic party in the United States; in the past decade or two, a marked trend toward conservatism and identification with the Republican party has been noted among a minority of Jews. Jews, despite being only about 2 percent of the Population, are an important voting bloc because large numbers vote and because they make up a sizable percentage of the population in some large states such as New York and Florida and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Jews run for and have been elected to numerous local and state offices.

Social Control and Conflict. Integrated as they are into U.S. and Canadian society, Jews generally resolve legal conflicts with Jews or non-Jews through the legal system. Legal remedies available through Jewish agencies are rarely used. Among the Orthodox there is recourse to some religiously sanctioned social control such as Orthodox divorce. Although overt discrimination against Jews is waning in North America, there is a long tradition of anti-Semitism, reflected in limited access to certain professions and residential isolation. Within the Jewish communities in both nations, there are long traditions of supporting Jewish causes and institutions through charitable donations to and work for synagogues, schools, community centers, social welfare agencies, and the state of Israel.

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Nancy Hargrave
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Oct 28, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

I am writing a paper on the social organization of Orthodox Judiasm. I would appreciate any information you may have on the topic. Thank you.

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