Jewish Philanthropy and Enlightenment in Late-Tsarist Russia.
Brian Horowitz's book is the first comprehensive history of the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among the Jews of Russia (OPE), one of the most prominent Jewish philanthropic organizations of the late-tsarist era. Founded in 1863 in St. Petersburg by Evzel Gintsburg, a wealthy member of the rising urban commercial elite, the OPE originated as a middle-class intellectual association with the aim of establishing a "program to strengthen secular Jewish cultural and educational institutions" as the primary means of integrating Russian Jews within the accelerating political, economic, and social modernization of the tsarist empire (p. 7). Believing that secular educational reform was the best instrument to achieve this end, the OPE marshalled the financial support of the cosmopolitan Jewish bourgeoisie, particularly the oligarchies of St. Petersburg and Odessa, in an effort to end the political and economic isolation of the empire's Jews from the mainstream of Russian national life. By 1890 the OPE had twenty-nine branches and 5,800 members. By 1912 it oversaw an annual budget of approximately one million rubles that subsidized private Jewish primary and secondary education.
The OPE's founders believed that the advance of Jewish political and civil rights, the preservation of Jewish religious and cultural identity, and the establishment of a secure place in the process of Russian modernization, required a carefully calibrated approach to assimilation as a means of integration. Horowitz identifies an ongoing tension between advocacy for a secular pedagogy combined with a practical Russian-language curriculum with the desire to foster a strong Jewish identity through traditional religious instruction. Previous scholarship on the OPE has been inclined to dismiss the organization as being more or less complicit in the Russification of the empire's Jews and thus another symbol of the Jew's powerlessness. Horowitz successfully challenges this judgment in an intellectual history of an ideologically inclusive philanthropic agenda that attempted to carve out a viable space in the public sphere for Russia's Jews while protecting communal identity from the threats of political disenfranchisement, cultural marginalization, and the siren song of diaspora nationalism.
The history of philanthropy is a relatively new field and that of lay religious philanthropies even more nascent. This state of affairs is reflected in this book's lack of theoretical or conceptual engagement with the larger question of how organizations whose mission involves the delivery of social services based on a set of religiously defined obligations navigate the conflict between religious and secular imperatives. Religious philanthropies must compete for resources and influence in the public sphere with secular ideas, such as racism, nationalism, capitalism, and socialism (to name but a few), which are emerging as dynamics in civic activism. If religious philanthropy can be seen as a pious act, a form of exemplary action, what moral choices are involved in asserting the connection between a spiritually mandated charitable mission and a relevant identity within the modern national community? In her study of Jewish philanthropy in Wilhelmine Germany, Simone Lassig examines charitable giving as a means of wielding influence through a calculated distribution of financial and social capital. Diane Winston, in her work on the Salvation Army, sees social action in the secular realm as a form of practical "witnessing through action," in which explicit appeals to religious identity eventually become muted. In an otherwise illuminating narrative of the rise of Jewish cultural nationalism in imperial Russia, Horowitz avoids an essential question: what happens when religion is instrumentalized to achieve secular aires?
The leadership of the OPE, the Jews of the modernizing urban Russia outside the Pale, envisioned the organization as the promoter of an alternative Jewish identity to the stereotype of the "unproductive Jew" that legitimated segregation (p. 30). Cautiously and avowedly apolitical, the OPE focused on secular education reform that would offer Jews a practical education within a modern curriculum that emphasized the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy, the tools of progress. This program also came to embrace the necessity of teaching Jewish history outside the bounds of the Torah, taking as a model Heinrich Graetz's Volkstumliche Geschichte der Juden (1888), in which, Horowitz points out, "Jews were primarily defined by cultural accomplishment" (p. 162). Such a "historical-ethnographic" definition of Jewish identity would, it was hoped, advance the cause of integration and assimilation by removing the dark veil of mystery that surrounded Jewish life. Unfortunately, as Horowitz observes, "'St. Petersburg's Jewish elite was better at diagnosing problems than finding solutions" (p. 156).
The pogroms of 1881-1882 discredited the OPE's assumption that "the modernization and integration of the Jews [would] normalize relations with the native peoples" (p. 72). A reorientation of the organization's mission followed. Driven by the pragmatic merchant and professional classes in Odessa, this new direction focused on Jewish "self-help" and promoted a comprehensive agenda of pedagogical innovation based on a year-long curriculum (including vocational instruction), modern school design, and advanced pedagogical science and teacher training that would, in the words of one of the OPE pedagogues, result in the "productivization of the Jews" (p. 123). In 1907, pushed by the Bundist and Zionist ethos of working with the "'Jewish masses," the OPE established a pedagogical institute in Grodno. Created in the wake of the short-lived post-1905 liberalization, this represented the high-water mark of the OPE's efforts at educational reform. The 1917 Russian Revolution brought a form of modernization that the pious liberals of the OPE could hOt encompass. The Communists closed all Jewish religious schools in 1924 and the OPE in 1929, by which it had been reduced to a "scholarly center" built on its magnificent library of Judaica, manuscripts, and Russian Jewish history. It is in this collection, which survived World War II, that Horowitz believes the most lasting legacy of the OPE resides: the dissemination of "an ethic, a type of Jewish modernity, in which the struggle for national rights was combined with a strong view of Jewish, identity" (p. 227).
Kevin C. Cramer
Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis
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|Author:||Cramer, Kevin C.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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