This article examines the Reform movement's attempts to initiate a missionary program from the 1920s through the 1950s. Although the missionary movement never became a dominant strand in American Judaism, the discussion about a missionary Judaism in America crystallized around changing ideas about universalism, ethnicity,and the American religious landscape. In the face of explaining who Jews were to America, in short, the goal of the missionary experiment, Reform rabbis re-created their identities and started to articulate an American Jewish ethnicity, as much for the Jew as the non-Jew. Mission theology, a component of Reform ideology since its development in nineteenth-century Germany, offered Jews in America a language to identify something special within Judaism, while asserting that their religion and beliefs compelled them to live among the world and not apart from it. In the 1920s, the dream of a Jewish mission represented the intellectual puzzling of some rabbis about the universality of Judaism, the non-biological basis for being Jewish, and the possibilities offered by America. By the 1950s, the Jewish mission leapt into the realm of practical possibility because what a cohort of Reform rabbis called the Jewish mission echoed what a number of postwar thinkers defined as postwar religious tolerance and ecumenism. Confidence in American liberalism and tolerance——the two concepts that propelled the missionary ideas of America——eventually undermined the mission idea. Judaism, by the 1950s, had not won the souls of Americans. Jews had, however, in concert with shifts in American liberalism and economic opportunities, won the intellectual respect of many, although certainly not all, Americans. Jews thrived in post-World War II America because they had learned, through a variety of means, to explain themselves, their practices, beliefs, and identities to non-Jews.
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