Politics from the bimah? A qualitative study of reform and conservative Jews in Fort Worth, Texas
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Many modern democracies have a hard time dealing with religion. The question of how much religious identity should be respected by government is one that America has spent a great deal of time and intellectual effort on. Because this paper looks at Jewish political communities, it first looks at what kind of religiously-rooted political activism is desirable. It finds that both groups of Jews in this study meet Amy Gutmann’s strict criteria for healthy religious and political entanglement. For the empirical part of this study, Jews have long been of interest to political scientists because their partisan ties are stronger and more uniform than most other groups. This paper looks at how Jewish political identity is shaped by Jewish elite messages in the forum of worship. Earlier studies have shown empirically that there are not substantive systematic differences in the political views of Conservative and Reform Jews. This earlier research has not addressed the issue of differences in Jewish denomination and elite political messages. Specifically, this paper explores the differences in the political tenor of the messages of the leaders in a Conservative Congregation and those of leaders in a Reform Congregation in Fort Worth, Texas. Based on the data collected in nine in-depth interviews with Rabbis, board members, Jewish Federation Executive Directors, and other active community members, this paper looks at how elites express their political views in their respective congregational settings. It finds that elites in the Jewish Reform movement in Fort Worth are more overt in their combination of worship and politics, while Jewish Conservative elites feel less comfortable with politicizing the bimah.