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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Schenectady’s Jews, Zionism and the Persecuted European Jews

by Harvey Strum of The Sage Colleges
© 2019 All rights reserved by the author.  

The situation in Palestine attracted the attention of Schenectady's Jews. A Zionist movement started in Schenectady with the formation of the Schenectady Zionist District in 1898. A report in the local press in 1903 noted a "mass meeting of Schenectady Zionists"[1] that raised funds for Palestine settlements. The membership indicated the participation of the congregants of Agudas Achim. Schenectady's Jews joined the Sons and Daughters of Zion, fraternal organizations affiliated with the Federation of American Zionists. The groups used dances to attract members and explain the Zionist cause.[2] For those interested in Socialism and creating a Jewish homeland in a location other than Palestine they could follow the leadership of Israel Zangwill and the Jewish Territorial Organization that promoted a Jewish homeland in Uganda. A socialist offshoot of his movement the Socialist Territorialist Labor Party had a Schenectady chapter operating in 1909 combining elements of Socialist Labor Zionism and Zangwill's acceptance of a territorial solution other than Palestine. Another Zionist group, the Mount Moriah Zionist Association formed in 1913. By November 1915 another women's Zionist organization formed a local chapter of Hadassah that developed from the local chapter of Daughters of Zion, as occurred in other parts of the United States. Then, in 1917 a socialist Zionist group Paolei Zion (Workers of Zion) established a local chapter.[3] As early as 1914, representatives of the Moriah Zionists, including Nathan Sahr and P.S Naumoff, attended the June meeting of the Federation of American Zionists, as the Moriah Zionists, like the Sons of Zion affiliated with the FAZ. In December 1917, the chapter of Paolei Zion sent William Siegel to their annual convention.[4] The war stimulated the growth of the Zionist movement in Schenectady. World War I was the catalyst for fundraising to help Jews in Palestine. The war increased support for the restoration of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Immigrants from Eastern Europe embraced the Zionist cause as an escape from Czarist oppression for their co-religionists still in the Russian Empire. The variety of Zionist groups in Schenectady before 1920 suggested the conflicts within the Zionist movement and differences within the local Jewish community. However, it indicated the richness and diversity of Jewish communal organizations from 1900 to 1925. It suggested that the debate over Zionism did not exist solely at the national level or within Zionist groups in Palestine. Even in small upstate New York Jewish communities the debate appeared and divided the immigrant community into factions over which was the best path to creating a Jewish national home.

Support of this cause got a boost in December 1917 when Congressman George Lunn, Schenectady's former mayor, introduced a resolution in Congress endorsing a Jewish national home. Throughout 1918-19, the Chronicle reported on the status of Zionist activities and fundraising in Schenectady. Members of the community attended a capital district Zionist meeting in Albany in March 1919, and the speakers included Rabbi Jasin, formerly of Gates of Heaven, and Father Reilly. In 1919 local Jews formed a chapter of the Zionist Organization of America and contributed to the Palestine Restoration Fund. By February 1919 about $5,000 was raised. Contributions came in from individuals, businesses, and organizations. Funds came in from Benjamin Dulub's bris party, Sam Dworsky's bar mitzvah party, and the Levine-Greenblath wedding party. To further the Zionist cause, Ohab Zedek held a memorial service in July 1919 for Theodore Herzl to honor his death as the founder of Zionism.[5] In May 1920 Jewish residents of Schenectady held a special meeting in support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine at Congregation Agudat Achim. At least four of the rabbis took an active role in the meeting, including Rabbi Kaufman of Gates of Heaven, Rabbi Wolkowitz of Ohab Zedek, Rabbi Hinden of Adath Israel, and Rabbi Bielsky of Ohab Sholom. Later, in 1927, when Chaim Weizmann came to speak in Albany members of Schenectady attended and participated in the meeting to promote the Zionist cause.[6]

This did not mean that everyone in the Schenectady Jewish community endorsed Zionism between the wars. Zionism obtained widespread acceptance in the Capital District Jewish communities from 1916 to 1922, but there were dissenting voices led by Reform Jewish leaders in Albany who signed a dissenting manifesto as the war ended. Reform leaders in Albany rejected Zionism. In Schenectady, it was more complicated. The two Reform rabbis in the war period at Gates of Heaven supported Zionism. Rabbi Jasin emerged as one of the leaders of the Zionist movement in the Capital District using the Tri-City Jewish Chronicle to advocate Zionism and chronicle local Zionist activities. While many Reform rabbis opposed Zionism until World War II the position of Jasin was not unusual since Rabbi Horace Wolf of Reform Temple Brith Kodesh in Rochester endorsed Zionism in the 1920s. Between the wars division arose among Jewish women with the National Council of Jewish Women, based in Gates of Heaven, not identifying with Zionist activities. Many of the members of the Reform congregations in the Capital District, especially Beth Emeth in Albany, opposed Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s until the events of 1938 changed their minds. In the interwar years, Zionist groups found little support from members of Gates of Heaven or other German Reform groups, like the Council of Jewish Women.[7]

Hadassah, based in the Eastern European Jewish community, advocated Zionism. Membership in Hadassah and other Zionist women's groups, like Pioneer Women, remained relatively low from the mid-1920s to late 1930s. Hadassah members frequently met in women's homes using card and garden parties to raise funds for Palestine. Zionist supporters held cooperative Sunday suppers and each family would bring a dish. While the elders played cards, they would contribute a small sum for Jews in Palestine. For example, the local Hadassah raised money for treating trachoma in Palestine by circulating milk boxes for the Jewish children in Palestine, often at meetings in women's kitchens. Zionist supporters came from members of Conservative Agudat Achim and the Orthodox congregations, but Zionist activity generally took place outside of the synagogues. In the 1920s and 1930s, East European and Hungarian Jews in the Conservative and Orthodox congregations expressed interest in Zionism and Palestine while German Jews in Reform Gates of Heaven generally did not. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 raised expectations that remained unrealized in the interwar years. The initial enthusiasm of the World War I period waned as the goal of an independent Jewish homeland seemed a distant objective and the modest incomes of Jews in Schenectady in the interwar years limited the money and time they could contribute.[8]

News of Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938) led to a renewed interest by Schenectady's Jewish community in the plight of their brethren abroad and in Palestine as a refuge for persecuted Jews from Germany. Five hundred people gathered at Union College on 10 November 1938. Jewish residents joined by civic and religious leaders condemned Nazi anti-Semitism and urged the American government to pressure the British to keep open Palestine for Jewish refugees. Dixon Ryan Fox, President of Union College chaired the meeting, and the speakers included Rev. Michele Frasca of the Italian Presbyterian Church, Rabbi Aaron Wise of Agudat Achim, Oswald D. Heck who was speaker of the New York State Assembly and Jewish, Rev. H. Victor Frelick of the State Street Presbyterian Church, Earle Champ who was secretary of the Y.W.C.A. and President Fox. Rabbi David Gruber of Gates of Heaven gave the closing prayer. Each of the speakers denounced German anti-Semitism and several called for opening Palestine. Leaders of the gathering sent telegrams to President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull to pressure the British to allow Jews into Palestine. Kristallnacht brought all Jewish groups together in Schenectady and led to an unusual outpouring of support from Gentile members of the community, especially Protestant religious leaders and local labor leaders.[9]

Events in Germany prompted other actions by both the Jewish and Gentile residents of Schenectady. Jews organized a fundraising effort for the United Jewish Appeal to help Jews in Europe and resettle Jews in Palestine. Joseph E. Grosberg served as chairman and the honorary chairs were Dixon Ryan Fox, Oswald Heck and Mayor Robert Baxter suggesting the active cooperation of non-Jewish leaders of the community in the efforts to alleviate the plight of German Jews. Previously, local German Jews appeared indifferent to Zionism, but in this campaign, the Council of Jewish Women joined with Senior Hadassah to coordinate operations. Gates of Heaven actively participated in the drive as indicated by the role of Rabbi Gruber in the Kristallnacht protest. Students from all Jewish synagogues enlisted in the drive, including the Maccabees Boys Club of Agudat Achim, Temple Gates of Heaven Sunday School, and the Jewish Community Center Sunday School. A total of $26,000 was raised and many of the contributors were not Jewish.

Protestant ministers held a second public protest Nazi Anti-Semitism, and many Protestant churches held prayer services for the persecuted German Jews. Under the auspices of the Schenectady Federation of Churches, Protestant ministers drafted a telegram they sent to President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Hull to pressure Germany to stop religious persecution of Jews and others. The ministers used their Sunday sermons on 13 November to denounce Nazi policies. Rev. Harold Buckland, for example, of the Albany Street Methodist Church, preached that "the movement of intolerance is not just a Jewish question," and Rev. H. Victor Frelick of the State Street Presbyterian Church told his parishioners that they "should do all in their power to end the persecution of the Jews."[10] Unions belonging to the Congress of Industrial Organizations held a special meeting to denounce Nazi persecution of Jews. The Schenectady County chapter of the American Labor Party adopted resolutions denouncing German anti-Semitism. Two Union College students, Frederick Hequembourg and David Yunich, editor of the student newspaper and president of the student council, respectively, persuaded representatives from other area colleges to meet and criticize German policies.[11] In the history of Union College's relationship with the Schenectady Jewish community November 1938 stands out as one of the few examples of Union College administrators and students working with the Jewish community and actively denouncing anti-Semitism.

During World War II, Schenectady's Jews promoted Zionism and held ceremonies for the persecuted Jews of Europe. In December 1942, a local newspaper noted that during Chanukah local Jews commemorated "the persecution of Jews by Hitler." Rabbi Benjamin Miller of Ohab Zedek saw the candle service for the holiday as "symbolic of Jewish hope that their people may be rescued from the oppressive measures of Hitlerism."[12] In April of 1943, Rabbi Aaron Wise of Agudat Achim wrote to Father John Reilly that the area's Jews with the end of Passover would join in a national "six-week period of mourning for the Jewish victims of Nazi barbarism." May 2 was set aside as a special day of prayer and mourning, and the Protestant churches would observe a day of compassion for European Jews. Father Reilly allowed Rabbi Wise to read a statement about the day of compassion on a Catholic radio program. Rabbi Wise chaired a public meeting in early May to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Nazi book burning on 10 May 1933. A variety of individuals and groups, Jewish and Gentile, joined together to support this, including Father Reilly, Union College President Dixon Ryan Fox, Mayor Mills Ten Eyck, National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and the Jewish Community Center.[13] Senior and Junior Hadassah, and the National Council of Jewish Women held meetings to discuss Zionism and brought speakers from New York to promote Palestine as a homeland for the survivors of the Holocaust. Synagogues, like Gates of Heaven and Agudat Achim, held programs about Jewish self-defense organizations and the need to combat anti-Semitism at home and abroad with Palestine as a refuge for the persecuted Jews of Europe.[14]

After the war, Schenectady's Jews aided the survivors of the Holocaust and supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In May 1948, for example, Jewish groups organized a campaign for food and clothing for overseas survivors. Julia Goldman chaired the drive sponsored by the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Community Council. Each of the twenty-two Jewish organizations in the city cooperated in this effort. Money, food, and clothing went to Jewish survivors in camps in Europe and to Jews who reached Palestine. Seventy-three refugee families resettled in the Schenectady area from 1940-1952. The Schenectady Jewish Community Council administered the resettlement. In the late 1940s, both Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women invited speakers advocating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Gentile supporters of Zionism voiced their support for a Jewish homeland. Members of the Capital District Christian Palestine Committee urged the British to open Palestine for the survivors of the Holocaust. Oswald Heck, Speaker of the New York State Assembly chaired the committee. The executive board included Herbert Merrill, Secretary of the Schenectady Federation of Labor. Representatives of Schenectady unions sent telegrams to British Prime Minister Clement Atlee in October 1945 asking for the admission of additional Jews into Palestine and petitioned President Harry Truman in 1945 and 1946 to pressure the British to allow Jewish refugees and survivors into Palestine.[15]

Some members of the Schenectady Jewish community, along with co-religionists in Albany and Troy, raised funds for arms, medical supplies, and defense equipment, like searchlights, to send to Jews in Palestine. Until the creation of Israel, active Zionists remained a minority in the Jewish community. Only a small number of Jews participated in sending money and supplies to the Jewish forces in Palestine and to protect Jewish settlements. Bandages and medical supplies shipped by truck to New York City took about six to eight weeks to reach Palestine. Arms purchased at sporting goods stores went by an agent of Haganah for shipment via Montreal or New York to Palestine. World War II veterans had captured German weapons that they gave up to protect Jewish settlements from Arab attacks in Palestine. A few non-Jews contributed weapons, including one priest who donated a machine gun. Money raised went to Zionist groups who purchased arms in Czechoslovakia, and several gold bricks got sent to purchase weapons. The Czechs preferred gold so Zionist supporters asked jewelers to contribute. Searchlights were purchased at the Scotia Navy Depot and other electrical equipment could be purchased from General Electric or electrical supply stores. Zionist supporters purchased surplus military supplies from local depots. People in the Capital District contributed funds to purchase Hudson River day liners that got converted into vessels that smuggled Jews into Palestine from Europe. These activities were done quietly and semi-secretly since the F.B.I. raided warehouses in New York looking for illegally smuggled weapons. Local Jews did not leave a written record of these activities since smuggling arms violated American neutrality laws. Two training camps in the Capital District allowed American Jews to experience life on a kibbutz and a few Schenectady Jews opted to move to Israel because of going through the Aliyah camps.[16]

Upon learning of the declaration of Israeli independence, eight hundred people attended a mass rally, held at the Jewish Community Center on 20 May 1948, under the auspices of the Schenectady chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah, and the Jewish Community Council. Many Jewish businesses contributed to the advertisements in the local press for the mass meeting, including Graubart Jewelers Samuel Garbowitz and Son, Breslaw Brothers, and Philip Gold and Son. Prominent local Zionists delivered speeches including the founder of the original Zionist association in the city, Joseph E. Grosberg, who in 1898 organized the first Zionist group in Schenectady. Several prominent Gentile leaders including Father John Finn of St. John's Church (continuing the tradition of the late Father Reilly) and Mayor Owen Begley participated. The speakers expressed their hope and expectation that Israel would win its war of independence against its Arab enemies. Rabbi Louis Hait of Congregation Ohab Sholom-Bnai Abraham gave the opening prayer, and Rabbi Benjamin Miller of Ohab Zedek delivered the benediction, both rabbis of Orthodox congregations.[17] The creation of Israel solidified Schenectady's identification with Zionism and the Jewish state. Schenectady's political, religious, and labor leaders endorsed the independence of Israel, and support for Zionism dramatically increased within the Jewish community once the Israelis declared independence.

When Israel appeared endangered in 1967 and 1973, local Jews rallied to the cause of the Jewish homeland. Seven hundred people gathered at the Jewish Community Center and pledged $100,000 for the Israeli Emergency Fund on 5 June 1967. Samuel Soifer, JCC director, and Robert Ludwig, president of the Jewish Community Council, addressed the audience and called on support for Israel and financial aid to Israeli civilians. Also, a group of eighty local scientists called upon President Lyndon Johnson to ensure the territorial integrity of Israel. The Jewish community appeared united in support of Israel during the Six Day War.[18] In October 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, once again local Jews supported Israel. Three hundred residents attended a meeting on 7 October at the Jewish Community Center, and Dr. Israel Jacobs, Harold Lawn, and Mrs. Siegfried Aftergut, gave the major speeches at the meeting to rally support for Israel.19 They circulated a petition of support to the assembled crowd. Jewish students and faculty at Union College rallied for Israel and started their own fundraising drive for the Jewish state. Students organized several meetings in support of Israel, and the magnitude of support at Union "can be characterized at the most significant response of Jewish students and faculty to a Jewish issue in Union College history."[20] These events suggest that when Israel appeared endangered local Jews came out to give proof of their moral and financial backing of the state of Israel [20] For once, the actions of Jewish students and faculty at Union College coincided with the behavior of the Schenectady Jewish community as both town and gown focused on supporting Israel in its time of need.

Even in a time of relative peace, Jewish residents showed their support for Israel. As an example, a group of Jewish professionals working at General Electric met at the home of Alexis Pincus in September 1958 to collect donations for the relocation of Hebrew University.[21] The Jewish Community Council backed this effort. The 1950s/early 1960s was a period of peak membership for the local chapters of Hadassah, and the National Council of Jewish Women supported Israel. During the 1970s and 1980s, Schenectady's Jews participated in protests the Soviet treatment of Jews. In the 1990s, the Jewish community demonstrated its support for the plight of brethren abroad by accepting the placement of Soviet Jewish refugees in the community. From 1859 to the present, the Jewish community identified with the plight of Jews abroad and remained open to the resettlement of Jews fleeing persecution abroad. This was symbolized in May 2005 when some Russian Jews gathered at the Bnai Brith House in Niskayuna to celebrate the 60th anniversary of VE Day.[22]

About the author: Harvey Strum is a professor of history and political science at the Sage Colleges. His most recent publications include American aid to Ireland during the Civil War in New York Irish History. 2016 and impact of World War I on the Jews of the Capital District, HRVR, Spring 2016.


End Notes

1 "Mass Meeting of Schenectady Zionists,' Schenectady Gazette, 2 January 1903.

2 "Sons and Daughters of Zion Gave Dance," Schenectady Daily Union, 3 April 1911.

3 Arthur Mann, "Schenectady Jewry" 19-21, Tri-City Jewish Chronicle, December 1917; Report forms of the Schenectady chapter of Hadassah, 1916-27 and Hadassah Bulletin, November 1915, June 1916, Hadassah Archives, New York City.

4 Miss Bertha Pool, Seventeenth Annual Convention of American Zionists, 28-30 June 1914, The Maccabean, 25.

5 Tri-City Jewish Chronicle, January 1918, 5; Schenectady Gazette, 26 July 1919. New Jewish Chronicle, February-July 1919.

6 Schenectady Gazette, 6 May 1920, 5 March 1921; 6 November 1919; Albany Knickerbocker  Press, 17 January 1927.

7 Peter Eisenstadt, Affirming the Covenant, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999), 105 118, 120-21.

8 Based on tapes of interviews at Jewish Historical Society of Northeastern New York,
 loaned from Anita Merims, for exhibition on Albany Jewish Community, 2002. This included audiotapes and a videotape on Zionism and the Capital District at a meeting of the Jewish Historical Society, April 1998. Comments from Sadie Schneider, Bertha Lasdon, Shirley Cohen, Anita Merims, Nahum Lewis included comments on Zionist activity in Albany, Amsterdam, Schenectady, and Troy.

9 Schenectady Union-Star, 10-11 November 1938; Schenectady Gazette, 11, 15-16, 21 November 1938. Dixon Ryan Fox to Beatrice Buchman, 27 December 1938, Dixon Ryan Fox Papers, Collections of the Schaffer Library, Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.

10 Schenectady Union Star, 14 November 1938. FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York failed to find any record of these resolutions in their collections. The National Archives also failed to find a copy of the resolutions.

11 Ibid, 18 November 1938.  The proposal for action came from two Union College students and the inter-college student group condemned Nazi policy but could not agree on doing anything more substantial. Troy Record, 22 November 1938. Labor Party, Schenectady Union-Star, 18 November 1938. Unions in Ibid, 17 November 1938; For Union College, see Concordiensis, November 1938 issues. (college newspaper)

12 Schenectady Gazette, 3 December 1942.

13 Ibid, 24-26 April, 4, 6, 10-11 May 1943; Rabbi Aaron Wise, to Father John Reilly,
27 April 1943, Files of Father Reilly, Archives of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, Pastoral Center, Albany, New York.

14 Mrs. Isaac Abeles to Jewish Labor Committee, 17 December 1942 (Agudas Achim),
Rabbi David Gruber, Congregation Gates of Heaven to Issiah Minkoff, 30 October 1941, folder 19, box 27, roll 71, Jewish Labor Committee, Robert Wagner Archives, New York University; Rabbi Stephen Wise to Rabbi David Gruber, 6 October 1944, Rabbi Gruber Papers, AJA. Wise congratulated Gruber for his ten years of service and suggested the reach of Gruber with national Jewish leaders and self-defense organizations.

15 Herbert Merrill to Max Zaritsky, 11 October 1945; Schenectady Federation of Labor to President Harry Truman, 13 June 1946; Oswald D. Heck to Herbert Merrill, 27 September 1945; Herbert Merrill to American Palestine Committee, 11 October 1945, Reel 1, Schenectady Area Central Labor Council, M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, State University of New York at Albany.

16 Based on comments made on the videotape of Zionism and the Capital District, April 1998, Jewish Historical Society of Northeastern New York. Due to the controversial nature of some of these actions I have omitted the names of the individuals I listened to or saw on the audio and video tapes.  I had discussions with two the individuals on the tape later in 2003 and 2005 confirming comments made about weapons.

17 Schenectady Union Star, 17, 19-21 May 1948; Schenectady Gazette, 14, 17, 20 May 1948, 12 February 1949; Schenectady Union Star, 13 November 1947.

18 Schenectady Gazette, 6 June 1967; Schenectady Union Star, 8 June 1967; Albany Times Union, 6 June 1967.

19 Schenectady Gazette, 8-11 October 1973.

20 Wayne Somers, ed., Encyclopedia of Union College History (Schenectady: Union College Press, 2003), 418.

21 Alexis Pincus to Fellow G. Eer, 9 September 1958, Jewish Community Council of Schenectady, Archives, Schenectady JCC.

22 Schenectady Gazette, 10 May 2005.

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