The Chosen Universalists: Jewish Philanthropy and Youth Activism in Post-Katrina New Orleans.

by Moshe Gedalyah Kornfeld

Institution: University of Michigan
Department: Anthropology
Degree: PhD
Year: 2015
Keywords: Philanthropy; Post-Katrina New Orleans; Jewish Studies; Youth Activism; Religion and Economy; Inequality Studies; Anthropology and Archaeology; Social Sciences
Record ID: 2059864
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/111433


The Chosen Universalists contributes to our understanding of the sociocultural consequences of growing income inequality. Drawing on ethnographic and archival research on American Jewish philanthropy, service, and activism in post-Katrina New Orleans, my dissertation presents Jewish philanthropy as a crucial discursive field within which American Jewish identity and community are constructed and contested. I develop a series of interlocking arguments about contemporary Jewish social justice activism and its relationship to Jewish philanthropy. Anthropological theories of the gift illuminate the ways in which an awareness of Jewish identity as social privilege can sometimes motivate progressive activism. This emergent sense of Jewish privilege must be understood in relation to initiatives funded by extremely wealthy philanthropists to promote Jewish continuity in the face of concerns about the biosocial reproduction of Jews and Jewish institutions. The Chosen Universalists analyzes how this continuity agenda intersects with intra-Jewish debates related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I argue that while Jewish social justice agencies are de-centered or post-diasporic, the American Jewish Zionist mainstream and Jewish anti-Zionists can be understood as inverted and opposite formulations of a diasporic Jewish identity centered on the State of Israel. Through these investigations, The Chosen Universalists traces the processes whereby religious groups and ideologies are continually reformulated and illustrates the impact of a donor class eager to use wealth to achieve large-scale social projects. My work thus highlights the ways in which class dynamics and growing socioeconomic inequality are shaping and reshaping contemporary American religion. Research completed in support of this dissertation included archival research on the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans as well as interviews with current lay leaders and professionals working for the organization. I also interviewed a number of philanthropists active in New Orleans as well as professional staff working for family foundations. My research of Jewish youth culture included the ethnographic study of a yearlong service corps, an informal Jewish youth activist community, and six service tours to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.