Judah Magnes' career as a leader in Jewish communal affairs reflected his lifelong drive to serve his people. Born in San Francisco in 1877, Magnes spent most of his professional life in New York. There, he helped found the influential American Jewish Committee in 1906. Magnes was also the guiding force behind the Kehillah of New York city, serving as president from its beginning in 1908 until its end in 1922. The Kehillah was an attempt to form a democratic community for the Jews of New York City.
In addition to dealing with Jewish religious and educational issues, the Kehillah was also involved with labor relations issues. Magnes' charisma played a large role in the success of the Kehillah's mediation, and also helped bridge the gap between America's German and East European Jews. Like Mordechai Kaplan, Magnes attempted to create an organic community in New York City. Despite intense efforts, however, the voluntary nature of American society made this goal elusive.
As a Reform rabbi, Magnes held several pulpits. The views he espoused were quite unconventional, particularly where tradition and Zionist were concerned. Magnes advocated a more traditionalist approach to Judaism, fearing the assimilationist tendencies of his peers. It was a disagreement over this issue that led him to resign from Temple Emanu-el in 1910. Magnes also further dissented from the general Reform attitude towards Zionism by strongly disapproving of the denationalization of Judaism. To him, Jews living in the Diaspora and Jews living in Eretz Israel were of equal importance to the Jewish nation. The renewed Jewish community of Eretz Israel would enhance Jewish life in the Diaspora. Although he himself emigrated to Palestine in 1922, Magnes maintained that aliyah was a matter of individual choice, and did not reflect any kind of "negation of the Diaspora."
In Israel, Magnes became more intimately involved in the establishment of the Hebrew University. He served as chancellor and later as president of the young university. Magnes felt that the university was the ideal place for Jewish and Arab cooperation, and worked tirelessly to further this objective.
Magnes had a long history of activity on behalf of reconciliation with the Arabs. During the pre-state period, Magnes objected to a particularly Jewish state. In his view, Palestine would be neither Jewish nor Arab. Instead, he advocated a binational state in which equal rights would be shared by all. This was the view promoted by the group Berit Shalom, which Magnes helped found in 1925. Berit Shalom was primarily a movement of intellectuals, and lacked a mass following. As a devout pacifist, the principles of compromise and understanding suited Magnes well, and he continued to work towards these goals until his death in 1948.