Author Archives: Norman H. Finkelstein

Norman H. Finkelstein

About Norman H. Finkelstein

Norman H. Finkelstein is a writer, editor and teacher. A former school librarian in the Brookline, Massachusetts Public Schools, he has been teaching children's literature and history courses at Hebrew College for over twenty-five years. He is the series editor for the JPS Guides series published by the Jewish Publication Society.

The Damascus Blood Libel & the Mortara Affair

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to American Jewish History (Jewish Publication Society).

The early 19th-century Jews of the United States were less than cohesive in presenting a uniform national image. Divided by geographic, linguistic, and cultural origins, their lives revolved around family and local community. It took events thousands of miles away to bring the nascent national Jewish community to life.

The Damascus Blood Libel

The mysterious disappearance of a Catholic monk in Syria in 1840 reawakened the medieval anti-Jewish blood libel. A number of Jews were arrested and tortured. People around the world were shocked. In America, Jewish communities organized public meetings and sent petitions of protest to President Van Buren, who issued an official denunciation of the affair. This marked the first time that the Jews of the United States interested themselves and enlisted the interest of the government in the cause of suffering Jews in another part of the world.

When an American Jewish merchant was expelled from Switzerland in 1857, Isaac Leeser and Isaac M. Wise joined forces. Using their respective newspapers, they organized Jewish delegations from around the country to go to Washington and lobby government officials. American Jews discovered that their voices did matter and that a united front gained them access to the national centers of political power.

Edgardo Mortara

Edgardo Mortara as an adult and Augustine Order priest (right) and his mother


The Mortara Affair

The next year, another anti-Jewish act, this time in Italy, galvanized the world Jewish community. A young child, Edgar Mortara, secretly baptized by his devout Catholic nurse as an infant, was kidnapped by Vatican agents. His involuntary baptism was enough to make the little boy a Catholic in the eyes of the Church. Vatican officials removed the boy from his home to be raised as a Catholic.

The feelings of Edgar’s Jewish parents can scarcely be imagined. Jews and non-Jews everywhere were outraged, but pleas from around the world fell on deaf ears in the Vatican. Edgar was raised as a Catholic and grew up to become a priest.

Jewish Communal Organizations: The Early Years

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to American Jewish History (Jewish Publication Society).

The period from 1881 to the outbreak of World War I marked a period of organization in general for the Jews in America. The sheer increase in Jewish population, with unprecedented social, religious, and economic needs, required a new model of communal leadership. The European autocratic model of community leadership would not work in a democratic society. The fragmented delivery of social services to the ballooning immigrant community led to duplication and contention.

Serving Communal Needs

With the turn of the century, aid came from a large number of philanthropic agencies, at first from those set up by wealthy, established Jews and later by Eastern Europeans who had begun to succeed in America. Once they felt established and comfortable in their new homeland, they united to help their newly arrived brethren. They created their own institutions in New York, including the Hebrew Sheltering Home and Beth Israel Hospital.

Outside New York, debates about servicing the needs of immigrants consumed Jewish communities throughout the country. To what extent were existing Jewish communal organizations responsible for the needs of newcomers? In Boston, the ability of the United Hebrew Benevolent Association to provide meaningful financial aid was quickly exceeded by the number of immigrants, which by 1900 had nearly tripled the city’s Jewish population.

Working together, the established German Jewish population and earlier landed Eastern Europeans established agencies that cooperated with one another to aid new arrivals. The growing fundraising and coordination needs of disparate aid agencies led to the formation of the Jewish Federation movement in Boston (in 1895) and in other cities.

Helping Immigrants

The most prominent of the self-help organizations was founded in 1909. Branches of the organization opened in major cities, with HIAS representatives at the docks and train stations to welcome immigrants and guide them through the often confusing and sometimes dangerous bureaucracy.

David Alpert, the Boston BIAS director, cultivated good relations with the immigration officials, and in one year, 1913, reported that of 5,386 Jewish immigrants to Boston only 148 were excluded. The society provided safe temporary shelter, a kosher meal, and more importantly, the ability to represent newcomers before immigration authorities.

In New York, Reform rabbi Judah Magnes led the fight to "develop a real Jewish community." The name of the umbrella organization that eventually emerged was the Kehillah (the community), based on the kehillah model of many Eastern European Jewish communities familiar to recent immigrants. This attempt joined uptowners and downtowners in an uneasy alliance to provide a governance structure for the New York Jewish community.

Of prime concern at the time was the frightful condition of newly arrived indigent Jews from Europe, who came to America with dreams of better lives but found themselves instead in situations that imperiled not only their health, but their very survival. In 1917, after some initial success, particularly in reforming education and fighting crime, the Kehillah was absorbed into the Federation for the Support of Jewish Philanthropic Societies of New York.

Defining Jewish Identity

It was in the area of Jewish education that the Kehillah left a lasting mark by hiring educator Samson Benderly to direct its Bureau of Jewish Education. "What we want in this country," declared Benderly, "is not Jews who can successfully keep up their Jewishness in a few large ghettos, but men and women who have grown up in freedom and can assert themselves where they are."

Supporting the nearly universal view of the uptown founders of the Kehillah, Benderly urged parents to support the public schools and to consider day schools as a detriment to strengthening the Jewish experience in America.

In some ways, the New York Kehillah had drawn on the American model of Jewish community federations first organized in Boston. The purpose was to provide a single fundraising agency in each community to eliminate the duplication of efforts by disparate charitable and cultural organizations that had arisen over the years. The local federation not only reduced the fundraising costs of individual charities, but also led to the formation of an umbrella organization to coordinate the good works of separate groups.

All the local federations that formed throughout the country could do what no single agency could do; they could jointly examine the requirements and assess the services of all the participating agencies and assign the funds where the needs were most urgent and where the greatest impact could be made.

Early Federation leaders developed unique fundraising methods that relied on personal solicitation by friends and business colleagues–methods still in use today. Within decades, federations had become the "central addresses" for their respective Jewish communities.

Jews in the Civil War

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to American Jewish History (Jewish Publication Society).

The Civil War divided Jews as it did all Americans. Southern Jews supported the Confederacy; Northern Jews favored the Union. Prior to the war, Jews as a group never took a public stand on slavery. Although many shared antislavery opinions, they viewed the Christian-oriented abolitionist movement with suspicion. A report to the 1853 meeting of a leading antislavery society accurately described Jewish attitudes:

The Jews of the United States have never taken any steps whatever with regard to the Slavery question. As citizens, they deem it their policy “to have everyone choose whichever side he may deem best to promote his own interests and the welfare of his country.”

The objects of so much mean prejudice and unrighteous oppression as the Jews have been for ages, surely they, it would seem, more than any other denomination, ought to be enemies of caste, and friends of universal freedom.Civil War

Jewish Views of Slavery

Two vocal Jewish abolitionists were Ernestine Rose and Rabbi David Einhorn. Rose, a Polish immigrant, was a popular speaker and an outspoken advocate of women’s rights. “Emancipation from every kind of bondage is my principle,” she exclaimed. Einhorn, who had brought about American Judaism’s first major reforms at Baltimore’s Congregation Har Sinai, used his pulpit and his journal, Sinai, to preach, “It is the duty of Jews to fight bigotry since, for thousands of years, Jews have consciously or unconsciously fought for freedom of conscience.”

Yet some Jews held other views of the slavery issue. Rabbi Morris Raphall of New York’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun was a dramatic orator and writer who had the distinction of being the first Jewish clergyman to deliver an opening prayer for a session of the United States Congress (February 1, 1860).

On National Fast Day he delivered a widely reprinted sermon, “A Bible View of Slavery.” In the North, many were disappointed with his words; Southerners viewed it with satisfaction. “Slavery has existed since the earliest time,” the rabbi wrote. “Slave holding is no sin,” he declared, since “slave property is expressly placed under the protection of the Ten Commandments.” Rabbi Einhorn was aghast and forcefully rebutted Raphall’s words in Sinai.

The Revolutionary War and the Jews

Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to American Jewish History (Jewish Publication Society).

The role of Jews in the events leading up to the American Revolution is largely unrecognized, given that they represented only a tiny percent of the overall population. Like other colonial Americans, their loyalties were divided, with a sizable majority favoring the Patriot vision of an independent America.

When revolutionary fervor grew after Britain’s imposition of the onerous Stamp Act in 1765, Jewish merchants’ signatures appeared on the various non-importation resolutions adopted by individual colonies. Like other Americans, they opposed the power of the British Parliament to tax the colonies. But some Jews probably had mixed feelings, given the freedoms they enjoyed under British rule.

jews in revolutionary warThose who Served and Sacrificed

A number of Jews fought in the Revolution, probably about 100. The first Jew to die fighting for American independence was, ironically, also the first Jew elected to public office in them colonies: Francis Salvador.

Mordecai Sheftall of Savannah, Georgia, was the head of the local revolutionary committee and was responsible for provisioning soldiers. In 1778, he was appointed Deputy Commissary General for Federal troops, but before Congress could approve, the British captured and imprisoned him and his son in December 1778. Both were taken to a notorious British prison ship, the Nancy, where they were treated poorly. Eventually paroled to a town under British supervision where local Tories beat and killed Patriots as British troops evacuated under fire from American forces, both Sheftalls escaped by sea, only to be recaptured and sent to Antigua. They were freed in 1780 and made their way to Philadelphia to rejoin their family.

Reuben Etting of Baltimore enlisted the moment he heard about the Battle of Lexington and headed north to Massachusetts. He was taken prisoner by the British who, when they discovered he was Jewish, gave him only pork, which he refused to eat. He was able to survive on scraps of permitted food from fellow prisoners. Weakened by such treatment, he died shortly after his release. A cousin bearing the same name, born in 1762, also fought in the war and was appointed as a United States marshal in 1801 by President Thomas Jefferson.