Jewish participation in non-Jewish civic organizations

Update: Jul 3rd, 2011

Looking at the history of Jewish acclimation to small-town America, we can see two vastly different experiences. On the one hand, Peter Rose’s study of Jews in rural New York indicates that Jews in a small-town context are more likely to engage in community life while keeping their Jewish identity in balance. In the small community, “most [Jews] feel that acceptance in the community is a prerequisite for a satisfying life” (Rose, 97). On the other hand, Ewa Morawska’s study of the Jews of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, shows how Jews in a small-town context can remain completely independent of the town in which they live. “The main factor preventing more complete social integration into the local dominant society,” states Morawska, “was the Jews’ active participation in their own ethnic community that offered a variety of activities and sustained a shared group identity” (Morawska, 189). For the most part, the Jews in Johnstown regarded their identity as Jews as much more important than their identification as Johnstown citizens during the first half of the 20th century. Clearly it has been possible for Jews in a small-town context to rely on each other for most of their needs. Where do Waterville’s Jews lie on the spectrum?

1900-1945

Morawska’s study shows that “an array of economic, political, and cultural characteristics of surrounding society [can either] facilitate or constrain the participation of Jews in different activities of local mainstream society” (Morawska, 187).  In other words, the societal values of the external community around a Jewish community are a significant factor in allowing Jewish participation within a particular context. If we apply this idea to the Jewish community in Waterville, we find that Waterville residents tended to be more liberal and open to the participation of Jews within community life. While mainstream social values in America vacillated from anti-Semitic to tolerant to anti-Semitic twice within the first half of the 20th century, Waterville’s social values maintained a distinctiveness from communities in mainstream America. The openness of the Waterville community to Jewish participation was a key factor in how Jews participated in non-Jewish organizations within Waterville.

While only a few cases are documented on Waterville’s Jews’ participation in non-Jewish organizations in the early 1900s, the types of organizations that the Jews were allowed to be involved in at that time reveals how flexible and welcoming Waterville’s social values were. In 1916, Teddy Levine, son of Levine’s store founder William, was accepted into Waterville’s Samaritan Lodge, a chapter of the Masonic order. Lewis Levine, a lawyer, was involved in this organization as well. The Samaritan Lodge was a charity organization devoted to selfless giving.

Waterville's Boy's Club (image courtesy of Tom Longstaff)

Waterville's Boy's Club (image courtesy of Tom Longstaff)

Waterville Jews were also involved in social clubs. Gordon Wolman’s father, Lewis, was involved with the Elks Club and Odd Fellows, organizations that regularly met on weeknights to socialize and play cards. Marcia Beckerman’s mother, Celia Shiro, was active in the Waterville Women’s Club, an organization affiliated with the Christian-run YMCA in Waterville. While country clubs in Bangor like the Penobscot Country Club denied Sumner Lipman’s father from joining until the 1960s, Waterville’s country club invited the Hillson brothers to join during the 1910s, according to Lester Jolovitz. Though the Hillson brothers were more assimilated than most other Waterville residents, the fact still remained that Waterville’s country club was more open than others in Maine. From this list we can see that during the early period from 1900 to 1920, Jews, both men and women, were much more accepted in Waterville’s secular community organizations than in the rest of American society.

From 1920 to 1945, while the United States fortified its immigration laws and Americans began to fear the accumulation of foreigners within urban centers, Waterville began to welcome the Jews into their communal organizations more than in the previous two decades. While no other Jews were documented as accepted into the country club, one of the Hillson brothers was recruited to join the Federal Trust Company board, a prestigious bank within Waterville. According to Lester Jolovitz, though the Hillson brothers were influential within the communal life of Waterville, the Federal Trust Company primarily recruited one of the Hillson brothers as a token Jew.

Parents, mostly women, of children involved in Waterville’s YMCA-run Boys and Girls clubs became volunteers. Burton Shiro and his brothers became more involved in the athletic culture in Waterville, a relatively new trend among Jewish youth. Even now, as Phyllis Shiro told me in an interview, the Shiros are still talked about as legends of the city. Louis Wolman became involved in the Waterville chapters of the American Legion and the Elks Club. During this period there seemed to be more opportunity to give back to the community at large, and most of the Jews in Waterville took them on gladly.

1945-1970

The post-WWII era marked a very significant shift in mainstream American society’s views toward Jews. Many Americans sympathized with the experiences of Jews as they watched in horror the atrocities committed by the Nazis in Germany during the war. Whether out of shame or admiration, Americans let go of their anti-Semitism and began to accept the Jews into mainstream society. Additionally, Zionism, the ideology that the Jews need their own state, became a household term, and organizations with Zionist charters such as Hadassah and B’nai Brith began to flourish during this time.

Even so, Waterville remained relatively unaffected in their acceptance of the Jews, one of a number of Eastern European immigrant groups. Following the war, many of the sons of the Jewish generation of the ’20s and ’30s came back with their spouses after the men’s army service and settled in Waterville. As the saying went in Waterville, “the men here imported their wives.” As such, there was a major influx of married couples into Waterville following the war, which, to an extent, saved Jewish organizational civic life in Waterville . Because of the willingness of Waterville civilians to incorporate Jews into their organizations, Waterville social life was also strengthened by the arrival of what Myrt Wolman called “new young blood” into the town’s population as was seen by their involvement in the area.

In Waterville and Augusta, as Lester Jolovitz stated, “there were no problem being Jewish within these organizations during this time.” Non-Jewish civic organizations actively welcomed the newly arrived Jews and their eager enthusiasm for community engagement. No one experienced any trouble getting into any secular social clubs or non-Jewish community organizations within Waterville. One way in which Jews became involved in community life during this period differently than the era beforehand was through athletics. Children and narrators themselves were very active in high school sports from the 1940s to 1950s. Athletics provided a way for Jews to involve themselves in a community social activity while also making connections with the community. Ida Levine’s father, Lester Levine, also played football when he was younger, and her brothers played basketball and baseball as well. In addition to an increased involvement in sports, children’s involvement in athletics also caused other family members, namely parents, to come and watch their children’s games, whether out of support or pride. Gordon Wolman, when asked about his proudest moment as a parent, answered, “whenever we used to see our son play soccer games down there on the fields.” Involvement in athletics was clearly a sense of pride amongst Waterville Jews.

In addition to athletics, more adults in the area became involved in volunteer organizations. Phyllis Shiro and Marcia Beckerman became women auxiliaries at Thayer Hospital. Phyllis Shiro also headed the Waterville Red Cross chapter for a couple of years, and later became a docent for the Colby College Art Museum for a time. Judy and Morton Brody involved themselves in the YMCA and eventually helped found the Waterville Boys and Girls club that exists today to give an after school activity to boys and girls in the community. Lester Jolovitz involved himself in the Rotary and Exchange clubs, both of which were national community service organizations, and even became the president of the Waterville Exchange Club chapter for a number of years. The Parent-Teacher Association became an important organization to join for Jewish parents who had kids still in school.

As with athletics, Jewish families were open to attending all secular social events that family members were a part of. Gordon and Myrtle’s daughter was involved in drama in high school, and as such, the two of them readily went to watch her shows at the high school. Gordon became a member of the Elks Club, like his father, and also the Masonic order in town, and later became a life member of both. Lester Jolovitz became a member of the country club that the Hillson brothers had been a part of during the earlier era.

Waterville's branch of the Federal Trust Bank (image courtesy of Tom Longstaff)

Waterville's branch of the Federal Trust Company (image courtesy of Tom Longstaff)

All male narrators during this era began to get more involved in municipal life. Many narrators, mostly men, began to work politically in Waterville and also throughout the state. After moving back to Waterville in 1951, Burton Shiro involved himself heavily in municipal activities, first becoming a state senator in the late 1950s, becoming a city solicitor in the 1960s, running for Waterville mayor in the late 1960s, and serving as United Way president for a number of years as well. Morton Brody, another Jew trained as a lawyer, was elected city solicitor when he first came, then became a judge for the Maine Superior Court, the Maine Supreme Court, and the Maine Federal Court, while also teaching law classes at Colby. Judy Brody served on the Waterville Public Library’s Board of Trustees for many years as well. Lester Jolovitz became the associate judge of the municipal court in Waterville for 16 years until its elimination in 1965, was appointed to the board of the Federal Trust Company, a major bank in the area, and became the director of the Augusta Holocaust Center. Not only had the Jews in Waterville become accepted in social clubs in the area, but they had now become commonplace within local and state politics as well.

Another theme that is found during this period is that of the “token Jew.” Non-Jewish organizations in Waterville that ordinarily didn’t invite Eastern European Jews into their membership picked one Jew as an experiment of whether or not Jews could be compatible with the particular organization’s agenda. Lester Jolovitz talks about being the token Jew on the board of the Federal Trust Company:

I think I was asked to join some organizations, and I’ll be very frank with you, I think I was asked to be a director at the bank… I know why: there was one of the men, the Hillson fellow, who had a men’s shoe store on Main Street, and he was the one, he and his brother were real, not even Reform Jews, they were Jews in name only.  They wouldn’t deny they were Jews, but they didn’t go around boasting. And anyway, all their friends were non-Jews, and Ike Hillson was a director of a local bank, called the Federal Trust Company.  This was back in the ’30s and ’40s.  And, he retired, in fact he died, in the ’50s–no it was in the ’60s–so there was a vacancy.  And, I found out later that the board of directors felt they should include a Jew on the board because it would be good for the bank to show that… because, you know, a lot of the Jews were their best customers at the bank.  The Levines banked at the Federal Trust, the Sterns banked at the Federal Trust… my parents banked at the Federal Trust.  So, I think I was actually chosen, because I was a young attorney then, to fill a vacancy left open by a Jew. I was the token Jew.

A token Jew or not, Lester stayed on the board and remarked that he didn’t have any trouble actually being a Jew on the board, showing that while he was chosen just for his identity, the Waterville community was still as open and flexible to Jewish involvement in their community organizations.

Learn about why Jews in Waterville joined civic organizations

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