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The Legacy of Clarence L. Coleman, Jr. 1903–1997

American Council For Judaism
Winter 1997

Clarence L. Coleman, Jr., long time Chairman of the Board of the American Council for Judaism and a leader from the earliest days of the effort to promote a universal Judaism free of nationalism, died at his winter home in La Quinta, California at the age of 93 on January 11, 1997.  

Mr. Coleman was born on August 31, 1903 in Chicago. He was a 1924 graduate of Princeton University and was the owner of Coleman Floor Coverings for 55 years. For more than 50 years he was a member of the board of directors of the Old Republic Insurance Company. His avocations included poetry and photography. He was on the board of directors of the La Quinta Country Club for more than 25 years and was the official photographer for the City of La Quinta for the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic golf tournament for many years.  

It was his dedication to classical Reform Judaism which, in many ways, represented the most important commitment of his life. He was a founding member of Lakeside Congregation in Highland Park, Illinois and was an active member of the American Council for Judaism almost from its earliest years. He served as President before becoming Chairman of the Board.  

Universal Judaism  

In a speech he delivered in 1959, Coleman declared: "I am an American and a Jew. I am an anti-Zionist. While some find this a negative term, I personally find strong, positive connotations, having to do with my interpretation of the universal, prophetic Judaism which the Council seeks to articulate. I would recognize no ‘Yalu Rivers’ — no limitations on our activities directed to the removal of Zionism and its influences from the lives and the institutions of American Jews, except, as I am able to determine, the danger which may result for the totality of American Jewry because of any specific act or statement of the Council."  

He continued: "I am against every force or influence at work in the lives of American Jews which tends to separate and segregate them, in areas other than their religious beliefs, from their fellow Americans; if this force or influence has its roots in Israel I am willing to pursue the generating power there or elsewhere. To whatever extent it can be clearly established that force or influence seeks to involve Jews in America in the politics of the Middle East, then I conceive it to be the duty of the Council to do with dignity and precision what can be done to rectify this situation, to disengage American Jews from a political involvement not required by their religious faith. I am for every program that will make better understood our meaning of Judaism and will advance the historic process of integration, in the secular and political sense, of American Jews. This is, broadly, the formula which I will attempt to apply to the direction of American Council for Judaism programs in the field of Public Affairs and the other areas of our concern."  

Religious Education  

In 1949, the Council created a Committee on Religious and Synagogue Programs. It was chaired for many years by Bernard Gradwohl and Clarence L. Coleman, Jr., laymen who were particularly interested in religious matters. Beginning its work with an analysis of Reform religious-school textbooks, the committee found that most of them had a pro-Israel and a nationalist orientation. Displeasure with the textbooks convinced the committee of the need to encourage the creation of textbooks free of Jewish nationalist bias and supportive of classical Reform Judaism.  

The first tangible results of the Council’s sponsorship of the production of religious-school textbooks were Elmer Berger’s Partisan History of Judaism in 1951 and Allan Tarshish’s Not By Power in 1952. By 1955, the Council had supported the publication of a number of textbooks, including Abraham Cronbach’s Judaism for Today, Samuel Halevi Baron’s Children’s Devotions, and David Goldberg’s Come Let Us Reason Together and Holidays for American Judaism.  

Discussing the Council’s achievements in the area of religious education during the time of Clarence Coleman’s leading role in this area, Professor Thomas Kolsky, in his book Jews Against Zionism: The American Council for Judaism 1942-1948, reports: "In November 1951, the Council appointed Rabbi Samuel Halevi Baron as full-time director of its religious and synagogue activities. Shortly thereafter, the ACJ began to plan the development of its own religious-education program. In the fall of 1952, the first three Council-sponsored ‘Schools for Judaism’ opened in Westchester, New York, Highland Park, Illinois and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By the end of 1955, ten such schools were in existence. Founded on the principles of classical Reform Judaism, these schools emphasized student participation in worship, avoided identification with such collective concepts as Jewish ‘peoplehood’ or ‘community,’ and sought ‘to make the child’s association with Judaism pleasant and keep it on the level of spiritual experience.’ By the end of 1955, the parents of the students in the three original schools had actually founded religious congregations: the Congregation for Reform Judaism in Westchester, Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, and the Lakeside Congregation for Reform Judaism in Highland Park. Clarence L. Coleman, Jr., founder and leader of the Lakeside Congregation, succeeded Lessing Rosenwald to the presidency of the Council in 1955."  

In Professor Kolsky’s view, "The religious education program . . . was undoubtedly the most successful Council activity . . . By providing religious education devoid of Jewish nationalism, the program attracted new members who were still committed to classical Reform Judaism."  

Funeral Eulogy  

At Clarence Coleman’s funeral, held at the Lakeside Congregation in Highland Park, Illinois on January 17, 1997, his son-in-law, Professor James J. White of the University of Michigan Law School, delivered the eulogy.  

Following is an edited text of Professor White’s talk:  

I am honored that Lillian has asked me to speak at Buddy’s funeral. I will talk today about Buddy’s intellectual side.  

Because he was so quick, so witty, and so filled with humor, it is easy to overlook Buddy’s intellect; his humor and good grace obscured a strong and active intellect. He was a man of careful thought, who having arrived at reasoned conclusions, had the power to stick by them through thick and thin.  

Buddy was a public participant in one of the great debates of modern Jewish life. This debate concerns the status of the Jew in the cultures of the United States, of Europe and elsewhere. Prior to the French Revolution, Jews were at sufferance in every society. Typically they were not regarded as citizens, were denied the right to vote, and their children were excluded from public schools. They had their own language and maintained their own culture that was largely unrelated to the culture of the nation of their residence. After the French Revolution in Europe and from the earliest times in the United States it became possible for Jews to assimilate. They could vote, attend public schools, and otherwise enjoy the benefits of citizenship and of nationality in the particular country where they resided. Those opportunities for conventional membership in the society, of course, presented the dilemma: to assimilate or to remain separate. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that debate has arisen in many ways. It is at the heart of the division between Reform and Orthodox Judaism; it is central to the debate over Zionism, and it is an important part of the questions concerning the non-Israeli Jews’ obligation to the state of Israel.  

Judaism As A Religion  

As one of the original participants in and as the president for eleven years of the American Council for Judaism, Buddy took part in that debate. The Council was unequivocal and explicit in its view that Judaism should be regarded as a religion and nothing more — certainly not a nationality. Originally opposed to the formation of a Jewish state, the Council took the position after Israel became a state that American Jews owed no special allegiance to Israel, at least no more than an American of German descent would owe to Germany or an American of British descent would owe to Britain.  

It is important to reiterate that Buddy’s intellectual attachment to the Council’s principles did not mean a decline in his attachment to Judaism as a religion. As Rabbi Levi has said, Buddy was proud to be a Jew, always identified himself as a practitioner of Judaism, and gave generously to the faith in many ways. As most of you know, he was an important and influential member of this congregation.  

After the state of Israel was founded in 1948, and particularly after Israel’s wars of 1967 and 1973 with neighboring Arab countries, the position of the American Council for Judaism was subject to harsh public criticism. Its principles were increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of understandable sympathy for the Jewish citizens of Israel in their trials with hostile Arab countries. Even in the face of that challenge, Buddy stood his ground. Conceding that Israel was an important friend of the United States and so entitled to the same help and protection we might give to a country such as Britain, he did not find Israel’s difficulties to be a reason for renouncing the Council’s principles.  

Worthy of Emulation  

So we should recognize Buddy Coleman as a great man — a man worthy of our emulation — not just because he was a wonderful father and husband, not just because he was generous, witty and kind, but also because he had the intellectual capacity to think large thoughts and the moral strength to live by them even when they were publicly unpopular and privately in conflict with his own hopes and aspirations.  

High Standards  

Also speaking at the funeral, in behalf of Coleman’s six grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren was his oldest grandchild, James Cobb White. He said, in part, that "He set the high standard in such areas as being a loving, devoted husband and father, desiring and creating unity in the extended family, valuing friendships over politics, mixing golf with work, and mixing a martini. He led by example. He blesses us now with a legacy of a long life’s worth of lessons learned . . . He led a holy life characterized by faith, love, obedience and service."  

Mr. Coleman is survived by his wife of 69 years, Lillian, two daughters, Nancy White and Patricia, and a son, Thomas, as well as his six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.  

His dedication over many years to the work of the American Council for Judaism was extraordinary and the organization could not have played the important role of advancing a universal Judaism free of nationalism in nearly as effective a manner without him. His dedication to religious education, in particular, led to the widespread dissemination of books and teaching materials setting forth the principles of a genuinely spiritual Judaism.  

He remained an active Council participant all of his life. Members of the Board were happy to see him at the annual meeting in Evanston, Illinois in 1995. The members of the Council’s Board of Directors extend condolences to the family upon his loss. His legacy will surely live on.

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