The Day the Rabbis Marched on Washington

Four hundred rabbis marched together to bring to President Roosevelt's attention the atrocities being committed by the Nazis in Europe.

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“Clear the way for those rabbis!” It was probably the first time the station master at Washington, D.C.’s Union train station had shouted those words. But then, the crowd before him was unlike any that had ever been seen in the nation’s capital. Four hundred rabbis converged on Washington just before Yom Kippur in 1943, in a stirring display of unity to rescue European Jewry from Nazi extermination.rabbis assembled

The march was the brainchild of 33-year-old Hillel Kook, a Jerusalem-born nephew of Abraham Isaac Kook, former chief rabbi of Palestine. Kook arrived in the United States in 1940 brimming with ideas on how to aid the Jews trapped in Hitler’s Europe. His first step was to change his name to Peter Bergson. He then purchased full-page advertisements in major U.S. newspapers calling for the creation of a Jewish army, criticizing British limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine, and pleading for Allied action to rescue Jews from Hitler. It was quintessential American political activism: utilizing the mass media to arouse the public’s interest and thereby influence the Roosevelt administration to act.

One of Bergson’s most spectacular initiatives was the march of the rabbis. Although a member of a prominent rabbinical family, Bergson himself was not observant, nor was most of the activists in his group. They understood, however, the visual impact of hundreds of Orthodox rabbis, with their beards, black frock coats and black hats converging on the U.S. Capitol.

Gaining access to America’s Orthodox rabbinical leadership was no simple task. The elders of the Orthodox community in America were mostly European-born scholars who still retained their European ways. Many spoke little or no English, were generally unfamiliar with the cultural and political ways of the New World, and had limited contact with non-Orthodox segments of the Jewish community. Bergson and his aides Samuel Merlin and Eri Jabotinsky used their fluent Yiddish and a good dose of name-dropping—that is, the names of Bergson’s prestigious relatives—to gain entree to the leadership circles of the Orthodox rabbinate. Their proposal for a march on Washington found a surprisingly wide range of support from disparate and sometimes conflicting groups such as the largely-hasidic Union of Grand Rabbis and the misnagdim of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis.

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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