No More “Business as Usual” for Diaspora Jews

by Rafael Medoff

There are many things that Jews in the Diaspora can do to help Israel in this time of crisis. But the first and most important is psychological: to counteract the natural human tendency to become mired in a business-as-usual frame of mind. A campaign undertaken by rabbinical students in New York City in 1943 offers a model for action.

Even after news of the mass murder of Jews in Europe was confirmed in the United States in late 1942, much of American Jewish communal life proceeded undisturbed. A January 1943 editorial in the Jewish Spectator found it ‘‘shocking and – why mince words? – revolting that at a time like this our organizations, large and small, national and local, continue ‘business as usual’ and sponsor gala affairs, such as sumptuous banquets, luncheons, fashion teas, and what not[.]’’

Advertisements appearing in the leading U.S. Jewish periodicals during the Holocaust years showcased the array of leisure activities one would expect the public to patronize in ordinary times, such as Jewish-oriented resort hotels, concerts, dances, bazaars and carnivals, sea water baths near the Atlantic City boardwalk, and sulphur baths in the Catskills.

A handful of students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical seminary in New York City, set out to change all that. Noah Golinkin, Jerry Lipnick, and Buddy Sachs began by setting their pens to paper.

‘‘We Jews who live in the staid serenity of America have failed to grasp the immensity of the tragedy,’’ they wrote in The Reconstructionist, a leading Jewish magazine, in early 1943. “Most of us, it appears, have already given up on European Jewry in our hearts,’’ they charged. ‘‘[O]thers have acquiesced in their helplessness… “

On the heels of their powerful essay, the JTS students contacted senior leaders of the Synagogue Council of America, the umbrella organization for Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox synagogues. The students presented the Council leadership with a proposal for specific, concrete steps that would rouse the community’s conscience and, hopefully, inspire appeals to the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jewish refugees.

Remarkably, the Synagogue Council leadership embraced the proposal and invited the students to help plan its implementation. It is difficult to imagine mainstream Jewish organizations today taking advice from a group of upstart rabbinical students.

Golinkin, Lipnick, Sachs and the Synagogue Council prepared a detailed plan for a six-week, nationwide campaign to coincide with the weeks of semi-mourning (Sefira) following Passover. An information packet of materials for special programs and prayers was sent to thousands of synagogues around the country.

Many of the steps outlined in the packet were intended to alter Jewish life so that the plight of European Jewry would be uppermost in everyone’s mind. Mondays and Thursdays would be declared ‘‘partial fast days.’’ Strict limits would be placed on “occasions of amusement,” such as the dances and social gatherings that were a mainstay of communal leisure time. Every synagogue would drape its ark in black.  At Golinkin’s suggestion, the packets included a black ribbon, designated as a siman avelus, or mourning symbol, to be worn on one’s lapel throughout the six weeks.

At home, the birkat ha-mazon prayer recited after each meal would include an extra four-stanza section. ‘‘How can we enjoy our food while we know that our brothers perish by famine and sword?,’’ the additional text asked. In addition to appealing for mercy for the Jews in Europe, this prayer also included a request for divine assistance in facilitating greater compassion and activism by American Jews:

“Create in us, O God, a new heart responsive to the agony of our people, the suffering remnants of Israel: May we know of no rest ‘til we have stretched out our hands to them in help. Father of mercy, create in us a spirit of compassion and loving kindness, to share our bread with the starving and to seek rescue for those who can be saved, that they may live because of us.”

If the atmosphere in the community could be changed to recognize the urgency and enormity of the European catastrophe, then hopefully Jews would be moved to protest. Once the ‘‘staid serenity’’ enveloping American Jewry was shattered, then rallies, letters to political leaders, and other types of public action would follow.

    Obviously today’s circumstances are not identical to those of the 1940s. Nonetheless, the rabbinical students created a model for how Diaspora Jews should respond when fellow-Jews are suffering, in any country and at any time. The specifics can be determined according to each situation, and the methods of protest need to be updated for our era. But the principle is unchanged, eighty years later.

(October 2023)