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Conferences

CONFERENCES

Intercommunal consultation started early in the history of Diaspora Jewry. The dispersion on the one hand and an intense feeling of solidarity on the other combined to make the holding of conferences of Jewish leaders and representatives an acutely felt need and hence a relatively frequent occurrence.

In the Middle Ages

It is often difficult to differentiate between intercommunal conferences and predominantly rabbinical synods. A responsum of *Gershom b. Judah (c. 965–1028) relates that "the communities which were gathered there [at a certain commerical center] … framed ordinances under oath" relating to certain matters (ed. by S. Eidelberg, no. 67, p. 155). The early 12th-century chronicler of the massacres of 1096 during the First Crusade describes how in the 11th century "all the communities used to come to Cologne thrice yearly for the fairs" and that "as the heads of the communities would start to speak" at their meeting at the Cologne synagogue, the head of the host community would lead and dominate the deliberations (Sefer Gezerot Ashkenaz ve-Ẓarefat, ed. by A.M. Habermann (1945), 47).

In Spain few conferences are recorded. Each cluster of Aragonese communities organized as a collecta for tax purposes transacted its business through regular consultation. On occasion, the king assembled delegates from Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia, and other provinces to reapportion a total tax. A large assembly met in Barcelona in 1354 under the impact of the *Black Death massacres to elect an executive committee for the purpose of conducting the common affairs of the Aragonese communities and to deliberate other matters. In 1432 Don Abraham *Benveniste convoked the trustees and scholars of Castile in the city of Valladolid, aiming to restore, through detailed takkanot, the social and cultural life of Castilian Jewry to the high level it had attained before the catastrophe of the persecutions of 1391.

A conference held in *Mainz around 1307 sought to raise funds to settle Jewish refugees from France in Germany. Just as in England a "Jewish parliament" was called by the king in 1241 in Worcester for no other reason than to extort money, so the German emperors convoked four meetings of delegates from many communities between 1431 and 1471 for the sole purpose of collecting tax. A number of Jewish gatherings were held during the 16th century (1513, 1530, 1562, 1582, and 1603) which attempted to deal with social, legal, and moral problems in Germany (see also *Synods).

In Italian-speaking areas the first known Jewish gathering was held in 1238 on the island of Crete. On the peninsula the earliest recorded conference seems to have taken place in Rimini in 1399 to apportion taxes among the communities. Jewish delegates from the Papal States, Tuscany, Padua, and Ferrara met in Bologna in 1416, electing at the conference a vigilance committee which met two years later at Forlì. In addition to deliberations on a serious defense problem, the meeting adopted a set of takkanot partly dealing with sumptuary laws. The group seems to have met again in Perugia in 1423 and once again in 1428. Rabbinical assemblies in Tivoli and Ravenna sought revocation of a hostile bull issued by Pope *Eugenius iv in 1442. In Sicily all the communities met in 1447 and resolved to remove the chief judge. Royal privileges were confirmed at the request of an assembly four years later. In 1459 further privileges were obtained; yet another conference in 1466 was granted permission to establish a central Jewish college. In 1469 and again in 1488 meetings were held by order of the viceroy to allocate taxes. A year later the viceroy again convened in Palermo a meeting of one or two delegates from each community to request funds for a substantial contribution to the king for the expedition against Granada. A similar convention in 1492 sent envoys to Spain to plead for revocation of the expulsion order. Failing that, they proceeded to help plan an orderly exodus. These Sicilian "parliaments" had their own elected permanent officers, with a treasurer empowered to pay the expenses of the delegates. The northern and central Italian communities also sought amicable agreements on tax quotas at loosely organized conferences. The *Councils of the Lands in Poland-Lithuania represent a successful combination of intercommunal conference and synod.

In Bohemia, the Jewish council leadership of Prague and its chief rabbi spread their hegemony over the entire province. Around 1659 the provincial communities established a separate council of ten elders who joined the Prague community in assessing taxes (see *Landesjudenschaften). Though the earliest extant records of a session of the council of *Moravia date from 1653, the council must have operated much earlier. Along with the chief rabbi, the council regulated Jewish communal life in the area. The Landesjudenschaften of Germany often held their own conferences, frequently to ensure efficient taxation and general obedience to state regulations (see also *Cleves). The *Consistory introduced in Napoleonic France can be viewed as a continuation of this type of conference.

Modern Times

In the era of individualization, assimilation, emancipation, and greater use of communication, conferences and congresses – regional, national, and international – became increasingly feasible and acceptable as units of organization and a means of working for Jewish causes and interests. The general tendency in Europe and America to act through conventions and gatherings facilitated this development. Thus in modern times a diversified and variegated Jewish society found the conference most suitable for expression of its involvement with or hesitations about Jewish identity, solidarity, and self-help. Relief work, Zionism, the Jewish socialist as well as the Orthodox movement, utilize the manifold forms of conference as vehicles for unification, activity, and continuity. The form of synod remained reserved for rabbinical gatherings, in particular those in search of an authority on which to base reform and change.

The numerous organizations participating in representative conferences include the *Board of Delegates of American Israelites (established 1859), the *Alliance Israélite Universelle in France (1860), the *American Jewish Committee (1906), the *American (1918) and *World (1936) Jewish Congress, the U.S. *Jewish Labor Committee (1933), and *cojo – Conference of Jewish Organizations. In England the *Board of Deputies of British Jews has a committee on foreign affairs. Especially active after World War i was the Conjoint Foreign Committee formed by this organization and the *Anglo-Jewish Association (1871). In its time the *Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden (1901) was especially active in defense and relief. So was the Israelitische *Allianz of Vienna. As examples of the tremendous communal energy involved in bringing together divergent groups for international action, the evolution of the American Jewish Congress and the struggle for *minority rights are briefly outlined here.

Years before World War i, proposals for a democratic representative assembly of American Jewry were made. The first practical step was taken at an extraordinary conference of American Zionists held in New York on Aug. 30, 1914, which resolved to organize a convention to consider world Jewish problems that might result from the war. Negotiations were begun with the American Jewish Committee, which offered to cooperate. After a number of meetings by sympathetic groups, a Jewish Congress Organization Committee was formed in 1915. After many conferences and with the support of Zionist groups, the first meeting of the American Jewish Congress took place from December 15 to 18. The two major items on the agenda were Palestine and minority rights, then the focus of attention of every major Jewish group throughout the world.

Most active were the various parties in existence during and after World War i. Demands for national rights for minorities were made by groups in many countries. A Russian Jewish Congress held a preliminary conference in Petrograd (Leningrad) in July 1917. Elections were held the following winter, but the unsettled conditions caused the organization to be dissolved. In its place a Jewish National Council was formed in 1918. In the Ukraine a Jewish National Council was formed on Oct. 1, 1917. In Kiev a Ukrainian Jewish Provisional National Assembly met in November 1918. A national council of Jewish national parties of German Austria was formed in Vienna in 1918. Representatives of Hungarian communities met at Temesvar on Dec. 15, 1918. In the same month a preliminary conference of Polish Jewish communal and city councils, meeting in Warsaw, decided to convene a congress in March 1919. A council commenced operation in Lithuania early that year. In Poznan a council was formed on Nov. 11, 1918. The *Canadian Jewish Congress, like all the abovementioned, adopted a strongly national resolution at its convention in March 1919. In Paris the Jewish delegations sent from various countries to the Peace Conference were unified after many meetings on March 25, 1919.

Fund raising and relief organizations sought to alleviate the suffering caused by Russian pogroms, the two world wars, the Nazi Holocaust, and the rebuilding of a national home-land. A host of other welfare, religious, civic, and educational organizations came into being. Foremost among the fund-raising agencies was the *United Jewish Appeal (1939) which in the United States combined the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (1914), the United Israel Appeal, and the New York Association for New Americans.

Another field of unprecedented conference activity is the Zionist movement, with its many factions and groups. After the First Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897 and the biennial congresses which followed several annual meetings, the movement proliferated into a complex array of organizations. There were differences along ideological lines, i.e., secularism versus religion, socialism of many varieties versus capitalism; many non-Zionist or anti-Zionist leanings emerged. Most countries have continued supporting branches of international or Israel-based agencies.

bibliography:

Finkelstein, Middle Ages; O. Janowsky, Jews and Minority Rights (1933); Baron, Community, index, s.v.Councils; Elbogen, Century; Halpern, Pinkas; idem, Takkanot Medinat Mehrin (1952); M. Epstein, Jewish Labor in U.S.A. (1950); S. Federbush, World Jewry Today (1959); H.H. Ben-Sasson (ed.), Toledot Am Yisrael, 3 vols. (1969), index, s.v.Asefot; jyb; ajyb.

[Isaac Levitats]

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