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Cooperatives: The (Jewish) World’s Best-Kept Secret

April 24, 2012

Blending Commercial Practicality and Community Benefit

by Noémi Giszpenc

The United Nations has declared 2012 the “International Year of Cooperatives,” to “serve as a reminder to the international community,” said General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, “that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility.” In the U.S. alone, there are now some twenty-nine thousand functioning cooperatives in the fields of housing, food (growing and distributing), tourism, marketing, manufacturing, and much more. Internationally, over one hundred million jobs are provided, and the lives of three billion people are affected, by cooperatives.

In agriculture, farmers use co-ops to obtain supplies and equipment at better terms and prices, and to market their products competitively. Well-known co-op brands in the U.S. include Land O’Lakes, Florida’s Natural, Welch’s, Ocean Spray, Organic Valley, Cabot Cheese, and Blue Diamond almonds. Internationally, distinctive brands such as Parmeggiano Reggiano and French Champagne are also produced by farmer-owned cooperatives.

In finance, credit unions and cooperative banks (such as the Amalgamated, founded in 1923 by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union), as well as mutual insurance co-ops (the first of which, a fire insurance co-op, was founded by a group headed by Benjamin Franklin in 1751), enable members to access credit and other financial needs within a community context — often in neighborhoods that are denied credit or favorable terms by mainstream banks. The National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, founded in the 1970s, today lists two hundred and thirty-five credit unions as members, many of them church-based and serving poor or marginalized communities. Jewish involvement in the movement to build community development financial institutions was promoted in the 1990s by Jeffrey Dekro,* founder of The Shefa Fund, who coaxed Jewish federations, synagogues, and organizations to join Christian investors.

In the tourism field, Best Western, the world’s largest hotel chain, is a non-profit membership association, with each independent hotel owner voting as a member of a marketing cooperative. In retail, Ace and True Value hardware stores, as well as Shoprite supermarkets, are independently owned while using cooperative distribution centers and marketing campaigns.

The Associated Press is a cooperative owned by newspapers, radios, and television stations. Red Sun Press, the Boston-based printer of Jewish Currents, is a worker-run co-op. To see how cooperatives are telling their stories in this International Year of Cooperatives, visit for a daily inspiration from all over the world.

What sets co-ops apart from other forms of organization? Modern capitalist philosophy promotes self-interest as the motor force of society’s prosperity. Communist philosophy counters that altruism is needed, that people must subordinate their self-interest to the needs of the collective. In contrast to both of these viewpoints, cooperativism posits the central role of reciprocity and mutuality in economic life. In a co-op, the self-interest of individuals is served through a structure and spirit of interdependence and reciprocity. Co-ops flourish when they successfully meet a real economic need, give members a measure of control over an important aspect of their lives, and foster community based not only on idealism but on shared experience. As my friend Micha Josephy puts it, “The why is lofty, but the how is daily.”

The modern American and European cooperative movements were rooted in the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and the 19th centuries, which forced larger and larger numbers of independent farmers and artisans into becoming “wage slaves.” John Curl, in For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Co-operation, Cooperative Movements, and Communalism in America (2009), writes that people formed three kinds of protective associations in response: cooperatives, unions, and political parties. Co-ops provided access to raw materials and tools, credit, and consumption goods — all things necessary to meet people’s economic needs. Various forms of co-operation dominated in various countries, from consumer co-ops in Britain, to producer co-ops in France, to credit co-ops in Germany, to worker co-ops in Italy. They shared certain features and ideals, but clashed on others.

Jewish cooperatives followed the spread of co-ops generally, beginning during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Eastern Europe, they focused mostly on the needs of artisan traders and producers; in Palestine, on survival and economic development, with co-ops coming to play a dominant role in agriculture, industry, and consumption in Israel.

In the U.S., the best-known examples of Jewish co-ops were the housing developments fostered by labor unions and the communist movement in New York City, and the many mutual aid and Hebrew free loan societies formed by immigrants. According to John Curl, it was a Jewish salesman named Hyman Cohn who founded the Cooperative League on the Lower East Side in 1909. This became a precursor to the Cooperative League of America, founded in 1916, which sought to group together all the scattered co-ops and promote consumer co-operation. The Cooperative League of America has become what is today the National Cooperative Business Association, the major umbrella organization of all U.S. cooperatives.

Today, the three drivers of participation in cooperatives — economic need, desire for control, and sense of community — may be less present in the lives of most American Jews than they were in the past. Broadly speaking, we’re economically better off, have more choices in the marketplace, and have social networks galore. Yet many Jews who considered their middle-class way of life secure are now struggling with unexpected downward mobility. The general level of anger at the failures of our financial institutions and political leaders to ensure broad-based well-being, which erupted into the Occupy Wall Street and related demonstrations, may be enough to shake us all into questioning the dominance of unaccountable corporations. These factors, combined with the Jewish propensity to participate in social justice movements, may herald a renewal and increase in Jewish involvement in cooperatives.

I spoke with a number of Jewish colleagues about their involvement with cooperatives and how they connect their work to their Jewish identity. The themes of social justice, liberation, and practical benefit to individuals and communities ring strong.

Micha Josephy works for the Cooperative Fund of New England (CFNE), which has been making loans to cooperatives and community-based nonprofits in the region since 1975. “It’s my dream job,” he says, “because we get to work with all different co-ops, with anyone who needs our financial services. I came up through the housing co-ops — in high school I had a fantasy of founding a kibbutz in the U.S. — but at Oberlin my hands-on experience was participating in the kosher-halal co-op, a student-controlled dining hall. I fell in love with the community, the shared kitchen, the shared responsibility of feeding each other. Later, as a young organizer living in Boston, I sought a co-op to continue to eat well — it’s a lot easier to do when you are responsible for feeding others — but rents were rising so rapidly in the late ’90s and early ’00s that I became involved in helping my co-op purchase a building. CFNE gave us a loan and supported a campaign to raise loan funds from friends and families. Now, not only do I help do that for other co-ops, but I can also participate in a broader strategic conversation of where the regional cooperative economy currently exists, where it could be a few years down the line, and what steps we can take to get there.

“I had a pretty complete Jewish education,” Micha continues, “but it wasn’t as if I read a book in the Torah that said God wanted me to form co-ops, or that my elders had participated in the labor movement so I should too. It was more a cultural thing — you can’t have a full religious ceremony without ten people, you can’t live a full Jewish life without community. I’m not living religiously now, but I took that communal imperative and made it a little more universal and a little more political.”

CFNE is directed by Rebecca Dunn, who sees the work as “redistributing the wealth of America. In my family, we are all economists, we were brought up with a sense of social justice, and we read Marx. Cooperatives are a good way to democratize the distribution and ownership of businesses and capital. A lot of the investment dollars we get, that we use to lend out, are from faith-based sources, Jewish and others — like manna from heaven!

“We went to the White House [in May, 2012] for a major informational session with key administration officials,” Rebecca continues, describing a meeting of some hundred and fifty people from across the co-op community. “It was very exciting how open the administration is to hearing about all the different forms of co-ops, what we’re doing and how they can work with us.”

Richard Dines is in a prime spot to observe changing perceptions of the cooperative movement. He works at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), managing relations with state-level credit union leagues. “Ever since the start of the financial crisis in 2007,” he says, “and especially since the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Bank Transfer Day/Move Your Money campaigns, the spotlight has been on credit unions as a strong alternative to the too-big-to-fail, risky-casino financial players. And credit unions have been ‘rediscovering’ their cooperative nature — I help them reach out to other types of co-ops.

“My first co-op experience was in a two-month program on a kibbutz, where I first heard a factory worker say, ‘There is no boss!’ In college at the University of Michigan, I lived in a housing co-op and fell in love with the idea of co-ops. Over the years, I’ve worked on low-equity housing co-ops as a form of community economic development, for the National Cooperative Business Association with all of their members, and the National Cooperative Bank, focusing on food co-ops.

“My experience in Israel,” Richard adds, “contributed to my getting involved with cooperatives, but so did the general orientation that my parents had, and the social justice values that they instilled. Because we were Jewish we had to work for a better world — I had never heard of ‘tikkun olam,’ but that was just how we saw being Jewish.”

Jenny Silverman echoes that sentiment: “My whole connection to a Jewish identity is to social justice. I’m non-religious but strongly Jewish identified, and what’s important to me is the historical connection to making the world a better place.

“After college, I became interested in graphic design and also wanted to work in the movement for social change, so Red Sun Press seemed an ideal place to work. Over the course of twenty-two years there, I gained experience in what it means to run a worker co-op business, got connected to the universe of co-ops, and became interested in the model itself as an alternative. I’m now working to bring a food co-op to my community of Dorchester [a Boston neighborhood]. Because of my experience in a worker co-op, we’ve committed our store to being a ‘hybrid,’ owned by workers as well as consumers, which is rare in the food co-op world. For this very diverse neighborhood, it’s part of the point to create good, community-owned jobs and promote economic development.

“The co-op movement,” Jenny concludes, “is a really powerful way to organize business that benefits society and doesn’t set up the traditional antagonisms between owners and workers. It’s a business model, not a social service model, and is set up to be sustainable and self-supporting. The food co-op will be a way for people creatively to take charge of their situation, create wealth for the community, and bring healthy food to a neighborhood that suffers from the highest obesity rates and diabetes rates in the city.”

Yoni Landau and Danny Spitzberg are taking the message of food justice and co-operation to campus groups across the nation, as part of the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED). “With CoFED, we’re looking to create a new generation of leaders that have the opportunity to be leaders in the co-op movement through food,” Yoni says. “Food helps to create culture: three times a day, every time you sit down with friends, it’s really intimate, but it’s also a political act. Becoming aware imbues that act with significance, a sense of interdependence among yourself, farmworkers, the soil, your community. Cooperatives are an economic way of articulating that sense of interdependence.”

For Yoni, the co-op piece goes “straight back to Theodor Herzl. At 10, I started going to a socialist Zionist utopian radical camp associated with the Habonim Dror youth movement. We cooked, cleaned, and served food on rotation; we shared everything as a community, and focused on caring and empathy. At the time I didn’t see that as particularly Jewish, just who we were and who I was. I think now that Jews have a real propensity for investing in these concepts of interdependence and creating a structured, economic way of being interdependent — this small-scale anarcho-syndicalist socialism.”

Danny, meantime, struggled to match the modern, mainstream way that “tikkun olam” was being handled by his classmates with his sense that “an Alternative with a capital A was needed . . . Nearly everybody in my high school was set on becoming a doctor or lawyer,” he says. “The idea was that whatever we did as successful individuals, tikkun olam would happen. Instead of ‘follow your passion and let the money follow,’ the message was ‘follow success and you’re working for the greater good.’ Looking up to my grandfather, the town doctor and co-founder of the congregation I belonged to, I saw that social consciousness didn’t just happen, and being a pious careerist wouldn’t be enough. The thing about Judaism is that we ask questions, particularly when we are trying to live ethically. The issues are complex — how can we have kashrut in an exploitative, unsustainable food system? We need bigger answers than before. Individual piety is not an answer. The best solutions I see come from acting cooperatively.”

Deanne Dworski-Riggs, an intern with the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the ICA Group may be the newest entrant to the cooperative movement with whom I spoke, but co-operation has been part of her identity all along: “Growing up, I belonged to congregation Kehilat Chaverim, which has no rabbi — it’s all run cooperatively, by committee,” she reports. “My mom was on the Sunday school committee to plan lessons, then on the Shabbat committee to plan music; someone else would plan talks and sermons. That’s a big part of what Judaism means to me — everyone’s welcome to come build those relationships and a space to think about what your values are.

“Structurally, I saw the value of unions in addressing workplace issues in my first job out of college, as an RA [dormitory supervisor] at UMass Boston,” Deanne continues, “but I also started thinking about workplace democracy, how workers could contribute to creating the best organization, beyond basic things like a living wage and benefits. Worker cooperatives are about having a voice in how organizations are run. This is a really exciting time for worker co-ops — community groups are launching new projects, union folks are learning how people can be a member of a union and a worker-owner, how unions and co-ops can work together more, and people are starting to think about networks of co-ops that can support each other so they are all more sustainable.”

Speaking for myself, I have been working with cooperatives of all different types for about a decade, and there is always more to learn about them. I am drawn to co-ops because they combine the tough business reality of meeting economic needs with the ideal of democratic participation — which often elevates a sense of responsibility for social and environmental impact from a side-issue to a core operating principle. On a practical note, cooperatives helped my family survive: After World War II, my grandfather Chaim Giszpenc founded a series of cooperatives in the Silesia region of Poland to employ disabled veterans (he had lost his right arm on the front), starting with a bakery and including a machine shop and weaving shop. In Warsaw, my grandmother Leia Kotlarz received training as a seamstress and employment in a cooperative with support from World ORT.

At around the same time that I agreed to write this article on Jews in the cooperative movement, a friend gave me a 1999 collection of stories by Grace Paley, Just as I Thought, and the rabbi at my synagogue suggested that we read To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility (2005) by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The combination of books really got me thinking about the connections between Jewish identity and the work of building a cooperative economy. The very first story I read in Paley’s book was “Like All the Other Nations,” in which she wrote,

They say, “Why should Jews be better?”

. . . I had this idea that Jews were supposed to be better. I’m not saying they were, but they were supposed to be; and it seemed to me on my block that they often were. I don’t see any reason in being in this world actually if you can’t in some way be better, repair it somehow . . . So to be like all the other nations seems to me a waste of nationhood, a waste of statehood, a waste of energy, and a waste of life.

Rabbi Sachs echoes this in his book: Jews, he writes, are called on to be better, and being responsible means responding to that call. In the Jewish tradition, Sachs believes, it is more desirable to be heavily involved in one’s community and society rather than to achieve solitary religious exaltation. Ultimately, however, he seems to limit the meaning of acting ethically to being loving and considerate of those around you. It’s easier, though, to be compassionate and generous when your own needs are met and your voice is heard. And as Danny Spitzberg points out, when our globalized world causes your daily actions (and inactions) to affect thousands of people whom you’ll never meet, a less personal, more collective response seems called for.

Many Jews have responded to that call by participating in labor and social change movements, and in the last two issues of Jewish Currents, the editor has been trying to explain why (“Sons and Daughters of the Revolution”). I’d like to suggest that the tension between capitalist dynamism and socialist compassion and idealism that he is exploring can be resolved by the synthesis of cooperativism. In any case, I believe that the cooperative movement is powerful tool that Jews can use to help make the world a better place.

Noémi Giszpenc is executive drector of the Cooperative Development Institute (CDI), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to building a cooperative economy in New England and New York. She can be reached at ngiszpenc At cdi dot coop, or 413-665-1271.