When historians write about social or political transformation, they often make a distinction between “change from above” and “change from below.” Change from above comes directly from the leadership—Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal is a good example. Change from below is brought about by the efforts of regular people, whether directly from their actions or as a result of pressures brought to bear on those in power. The Civil Rights Movement is an especially compelling example of this. In researching the Jewish history of Louisville, Kentucky, I found a fascinating instance of “change from below” that literally came from above.
Keneseth Israel was created in 1926 from the merger of Louisville’s two oldest Orthodox congregations, both of which had been established by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, a new generation of members had begun to chafe under the requirements of strict Orthodoxy. After World War II, the younger members of the congregation, especially its women, began to push for mixed-gender seating. In 1950, a group of female members, who normally sat in the synagogue balcony, held “sit-down strikes” in the downstairs men’s section during services. During one of these demonstrations, the police were called to restore order, and some members threatened a court injunction to stop the protests. Keneseth Israel’s Rabbi Benjamin Brilliant supported the traditionalists and refused to continue services while women were sitting in the men’s section.
Finally, the board sought to strike a compromise by allowing women to sit on the main floor of the sanctuary separated from the men by a mechitza, though this solution did not satisfy the protestors. Finally, after Rabbi Brilliant left Keneseth Israel in 1952, the congregation voted to institute mixed seating in the middle section of the sanctuary, with separate sections for men and women at the sides. Over the years, the congregation would continue to struggle with how to balance traditional Judaism with the demands of the modern world. Later, Keneseth Israel affiliated with the Conservative Movement and become fully egalitarian.
It’s quite remarkable that thirteen years before Betty Friedan published of The Feminine Mystique, which helped spark the second wave of American feminism, the women of Keneseth Israel decided to challenge the gender inequality of their congregation in such a direct way. Their effort is a perfect example of how most social change comes from pressure from below, even if it actually comes from the balcony!
In celebration of the completion of the Kentucky section of our online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, we bring you another piece of Kentucky Jewish History.
Beginning in the early 20th century, a handful of Jews settled in the coal country of southeast Kentucky. Most of them owned stores that catered to the local coal miners. Over the years, miners squared off against the coal companies in a series of sometimes violent strikes and labor disputes. As these labor struggles became increasingly virulent, Jews were sometimes caught in the middle.
Polish immigrants Harry and Bina Appleman were one of these Jewish families who were drawn to Kentucky’s coal country, opening a general store in Evarts, Kentucky, thirteen miles from Harlan. After many local miners were fired for joining a union in 1931, the Applemans decided to help their families. They would feed 40 to 50 children each day during the standoff. During Passover, the Applemans ran an ad in the local newspaper stating that they would give away a railroad car full of flour to anyone in need “regardless of color and creed.” Each needy family would be given a 24-pound bag of flour. This donation was a significant expense for the Applemans, who had scrimped and saved the money which they now decided to use to help the needy miners. The Black Mountain Coal Corporation did not appreciate the Appleman’s largesse, and swore out a criminal complaint against the couple for criminal syndicalism. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the Applemans were targeted by company thugs, who shot into their home. Because of these threats, the Applemans left Evarts, moving to Brooklyn.
The Applemans’ story reminded me of the civil rights era, when southern Jews were often caught within the larger social turmoil. Many southern Jews tried to stay out of the conflict, but others, like the Applemans had done three decades earlier in Kentucky, made a courageous public stand at great personal risk.
As always, you can visit our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities for more information.
Few places in America are more remote than southeastern Kentucky. Back in the early 20th century, a handful of Jewish families settled in the area, though their numbers never became significant since the area was so hard to get to. No rail connection directly linked the region to any of the eastern ports of immigration. If you settled in Harlan, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, you were willing to live far from the centers of American Jewish life. At the ISJL, we talk a lot about small and isolated Jewish communities. Harlan certainly falls under that category. While Harlan Jews established a congregation, B’nai Sholom, in 1931, the community never had more than 30 or so families, including members from surrounding towns like Pineville, Middlesboro and Evarts.
One might assume that the Jews living in Harlan were cut off from the issues and events that preoccupied Jews living in places like New York. But this would be incorrect. While I was going through the records of the B’nai Sholom at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, I came upon a fascinating discovery. In 1933, the congregation held a Purim event which drew over 100 people. During the program, the congregation adopted a motion “protesting against the Haman-like designs of the German Hitler.” The congregation sent a copy of the resolution to President Franklin Roosevelt and the U.S. Ambassador to Germany. Local Christian ministers also joined the protest statement.
What most struck me about this was the fact that Hitler had only just recently come to power, being appointed chancellor of Germany in January of 1933. Just two months later, Harlan Jews labeled him a “Haman,” and drew parallels between the Purim story and the plight of Jews in Germany.
This incident shows that even though they lived in southeastern Kentucky, Harlan Jews kept up with world events and were deeply concerned about their fellow Jews in other parts of the world. Jews who live in small towns like Harlan get used to hearing the question, “I didn’t know Jews lived in [fill in the blank].” Small-town Jews may rarely cross the minds of Jews who live in larger metropolitan areas, yet these Harlan Jews understood the idea of klal israel, that we are one people.