Why Jews in Waterville joined civic organizations

Update: Jul 3rd, 2011

In understanding all of the data compiled on the participation of Jews in Waterville, we must ask two very relevant questions and finish with a relevant conclusion: Why did Jews join a Jewish civic organization in Waterville? Why did Jews join a non-Jewish organization in Waterville. What do these trends show about Jewish identity in Waterville?

Why did Jews join Jewish civic organizations?

When seeking to understand the reason why the Jews in Waterville decided to join a Jewish civic organization, it is important to understand the ethnic history of the Jews in Waterville. Coming from an Eastern European background, the Waterville Jews had a very strong sense of ethnic consciousness. Lee Shai Weissbach says that the reason why Eastern European Jews had such a strong sense of their ethnic background was because Eastern Europeans were products of an environment in which Orthodoxy was the standard for religious practice and in which a strong Jewish ethnic identity was still the norm. Another important fact was that women ran all three of these Jewish civic organizations except the synagogue (which served as more of a religious center than a civic center until the collapse of Hadassah, B’nai Brith, and the Sisterhood in the ’70s). Historical context plays a very prominent part in why the Jews joined Jewish civic organizations in Waterville.

One reason why women joined B’nai Brith, Hadassah, and the Sisterhod was that these organizations served as a way for women to lead within the Jewish community that was still male-dominated. This male domination was not based out of the thought that women couldn’t lead well, but rather, as Weissbach puts it, it was “a result of [Eastern European Jews’] origins in a traditionalist society where men and women were assigned very distinct roles.” Such a desire was shown quite clearly with the Sisterhood’s creation, where women saw leadership and involvement in the Sisterhood as an opportunity to be a part of the traditionally male-dominated synagogue leadership.

A second and less explicit reason for why women joined Jewish civic organizations was because these organizations were representative of Jewish life within Waterville. When asked why she joined these organizations, Myrtle Wolman exclaimed, “This is what there was to join!” Her husband Gordon Wolman followed up with, “as far as being Jewish is concerned, [Hadassah, B’nai Brith, and the Sisterhood] were the only thing offered.” Joining one of the three Jewish civic organization became a way for Waterville Jews to be and feel Jewish in Waterville.

Another key observation relevant to this topic was that Waterville lacked a formal religious system for a very long time, and as Jacob Schloff notes in his study of Mankato, Minnesota. “Jews seemed to have compensated for the lack of a formal religious structure by shifting from religious to ethnic association.” For Waterville’s Jews, joining ethnic organizations like B’nai Brith and Hadassah provided a way to express their Jewish identity within Waterville.

Within these organizations, the actions and causes the organizations supported also came to define what causes were Jewish. Hadassah supported Zionism and women’s education, and as such, these values became causes that the Jews in Waterville supported through fundraising. B’nai Brith believed in the continuation of Jewish education and the importance of the Jewish family, both of which are inherent in the values of many of the narrators that we used in our study. Thus, the ethnic identity of Jews in Waterville became defined by the organizations they joined, and because, as Phyllis Shiro says, “being Jewish [in Waterville], you were automatically a member of Hadassah and B’nai Brith and the congregation, Beth Israel,” ethnic Judaism for Jews in Waterville as a whole came to be defined by the values these three organizations held true.

Why did Jews join non-Jewish civic organizations?

The Jews of Waterville participated in secular civic organizations to garner their own personal social capital, to benefit from socializing within the community, and to show their commitment to Waterville.

Some informants who owned businesses in Waterville saw involvement in the community by way of organizations as a way to strengthen their personal exposure within the community. Gordon Wolman says that his primary impulse in joining the Elks Club and Masonic order was to gain contacts for his scrap metal business in town: “I joined the Elks and the Masonic order because I was asked to join, and I thought it would help out in business cause there were many people that were involved in the businesses within those organizations.” Lester Jolovitz remarks that when he was a young lawyer, he got involved with a lot of community organizations for the purpose of getting business exposure as well.

Jews also participated in non-Jewish civic organizations in order to give back to their community with the skills they had. Many narrators spoke about charity and volunteer work, and several said that their ability to make a favorable impact on their community with the skills they had garnered drove their impetus behind joining community service organizations. Phyllis Shiro was a school teacher in the Waterville public school system and also took time to tutor kids on the side. She even started a Hebrew school for kids that were Jewish in town. Burton Shiro also told us that he used his skills as a lawyer to help the city, never really relying on social connections to gain favor.

Myrtle Wolman, when asked why she personally volunteered her time back to Waterville, said, “it is important to work together with Christians as a Jewish people, especially in small communities that we’re talking [about.]… In a small town, you participate in what [is] offered.”

Another reason for joining these organizations relates to the willingness of Waterville’s Jews to participate in the Waterville community and the enthusiasm with which the Waterville community embraced participation by these Jews. Jews were more than willing to give back to their community and involve themselves in community functions through sports or the local YMCA because “in very small town, everyone participated in what there was to be offered,” but equally important was the willingness of the community around the Jews to accept them as they were. This seems to be rooted in Hoberman’s conclusion that “rural Jewish New Englanders have thrived because both they and their neighbors have managed to transcend their hesitation and cultivate interaction with each other.” The Jews of Waterville participated in community life because they held a genuine interest living as a Waterville community member, and as the Gentiles of Waterville realized this, the Jews became more and more accepted as Waterville civilians as opposed to the Eastern European immigrants that they were when they came.

Conclusions

The reasons why Jews decided to join both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations point to a larger theme within Jewish acclimation in small-town America. As Peter Rose points out, “the secret of a Jew living in a small town is to assimilate [into the community he is a part of] as soon as possible, but always to remember that he is a Jew.” To what extent a Jew defines his own Judaism is up to him. However, the fact remains that Jewish ethnic organizations seem to define what is Jewish within a small-town life that lacks a distinct Jewish identity, whereas involvement in the broader community rooted in their will to stay in Waterville and create a life here, to “assimilate” as soon as possible.

The Jews of Kennebec County, based on oral history research in the area, seem to fit perfectly into Rose’s conclusion. The Jews of Waterville decided to define their Judaism out of their own personal ethnic connection to the religion through ethnic Jewish organizations like B’nai Brith and Hadassah even when there was a functioning synagogue in town, which was the center for Jewish life in Judaic tradition. On the other hand, Rose says that a precursor to living a satisfying life in rural America is to “feel accepted.” The Jews of Kennebec County had came to stay, and as such had to gain acceptance from the people who lived there, a demand that called for them to acclimate into the lifestyle of Waterville life. As Irene Friedman (of Augusta) said: “The Jewish religion’s a very strong religion. It’s for people who don’t need someone to lean on or something to lean on,” simply because they are able to find their place within their respective community by balancing their identity of what they consider Jewish and what they considered to be a citizen. What does this mean? It means that the Jews in Waterville chose to affiliate themselves with certain civic organizations in order to find acceptance as Jewish citizens of Waterville. Joining a civic organization, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, was one way Jews in Kennebec County could identify as a Jewish citizen of Waterville.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Phyllis Shiro that sums it all up quite well:

I mean, I was a member of all the Jewish groups, but still, I was into everything for the city and people of Waterville. Being Jewish, you were automatically a member of Hadassah and B’nai B’rith and the congregation, Beth Israel. Just basically helping people in different ways no matter who they were or what they were.

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