In Commentary – January, 2005:
Jack Wertheimer (October) refers to “the allegedly quietistic posture adopted by American Jewish groups during the Holocaust years, a posture that in retrospect is said to have issued in even greater harm being done to European Jews.” It is not merely in retrospect that this point has been made; it was also made by some leading commentators at the time. For example, Ben Halpern, soon to emerge as one of the most prominent American Jewish historians, wrote in the Jewish Frontier in August 1943 that while the Allies were to blame for doing so little to rescue Jews from the Nazis, “Shame and contrition, because we have not done enough, weigh even more heavily upon the Jews of the free countries. Not only do we have the greater responsibility of kinsmen, but our own weakness may be one of the causes why so little has been done. The history of our times will one day make bitter reading, when it records that some Jews were so morally uncertain that they denied they were obligated to risk their own safety in order to save other Jews who were being done to death abroad.”
One important exception to Halpern’s lament was the small but determined group of student activists at the institution where Dr. Wertheimer is provost and professor, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. In early 1943, these students, led by Noah Golinkin, Jerome Lipnick, and Moshe Sachs, organized an unprecedented Jewish-Christian conference at which hundreds of students and faculty, including representatives of eight Christian seminaries, learned about the plight of European Jewry and discussed possibilities for rescue. The JTS students also successfully lobbied the Synagogue Council of America –the national umbrella group for Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogue– to launch a nationwide publicity campaign about the Nazi genocide, to coincide with the period of semi-mourning between Passover and Shavuot. Numerous synagogues around the country adopted the proposals to recite special prayers for European Jewry, limit “occasions of amusement,” observe partial fast days and moments of silence, and write letters to political officials and Christian religious leaders, and hold memorial protest rallies.
The rallies, which were held around the country on May 2, 1943, in many instances were jointly sponsored by Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis. The Synagogue Council also persuaded the Federal Council of Churches to organize memorial assemblies at churches in numerous cities on the same day, although Christian participation overall was modest. The gatherings received significant coverage in the newspapers and on radio and helped raise American public consciousness about the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry.
The fact that these efforts owe their origins to the initiative of a handful of JTS students makes one wonder how much more might have been accomplished if major Jewish organizations had shown similar spirit and energy. Indeed, Carl Alpert, who was then editor of the leading American Zionist journal, New Palestine, wrote to the students at the time that in view of the “progressiveness, the imagination, and the energetic spirit” they had exhibited, “perhaps it would not be such a bad idea if all leaders of American Jewry were to abdicate and a committee of students from the respective Rabbinical seminaries were to take over for a period of six months.”
Dr. Rafael Medoff
The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies