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refugeeIn 1938, a poll showed two-thirds of Americans believed the country should not admit Jews fleeing the Nazis. Fewer than 5 percent believed immigration quotas should be raised to help those fleeing persecution.

There was at least one place in the country where that poll would likely have produced different results: Rochester, New York.

In 2012, Mary Posman detailed our community’s remarkable interfaith and cross-cultural efforts to help Jewish refugees before and after World War II. She writes:

At a time when the nation seemed generally unmoved (at best) or anti-Semitic (at worst), supporters here pulled together to form a variety of organizations to combat hatred, advocate for changes in immigration policy, and ease the assimilation of refugees. During the 1930s and 1940s, the concern and activism of the Rochester community facilitated the successful immigration of nearly 1,000 Jews escaping Nazi tyranny. Although this number may seem small for a city whose population averaged over 300,000, it reflects a substantial effort from Rochesterians on behalf of Europe’s Jews, belying the claim that Americans were largely indifferent to their plight.

Why was Rochester different? In addition to having a long history of progressiveness and a strong tradition of helping immigrants, Rochesterians were better informed about the atrocities in Europe. That’s thanks to Rabbi Philip Bernstein, as well as the Jewish Ledger newspaper.

Rabbi Bernstein photographing children at a displaced persons camp in Europe.

Rabbi Bernstein photographing children at a displaced persons camp in Europe.

Rabbi Bernstein was the son of Lithuanian immigrants who settled in Rochester. He became chief rabbi at Temple B’Roth Kodesh. He was extremely active in current events and civil rights, and advocated for Jewish causes in Rochester and around the world. He traveled to Germany multiple times in the run-up to the war and brought home horror stories of what was happening to Jews. He launched a campaign to get Rochester and the nation to listen.

Posman writes:

Rabbi Bernstein understood people’s doubts and acknowledged his own initial disbelief at the hateful turn that the culturally rich nation of Germany had taken. “I could not believe it,” he admitted in a sermon, “for I did not want to believe it.”

Rabbi Bernstein found an engaged audience in Rochester. Posner writes:

…members of the Rochester community, both Jews and non-Jews alike, contacted him to discover ways they could support his efforts in Europe. For example the Purdys, a local Christian family, wrote to Bernstein in the spring of 1946, hoping he could connect them with a European Jewish family that they could help. “The fact that a specific family in America wishes the Jewish family well,” they hoped, “could help a little to restore their faith in humanity.”

In the 1930s, the United States had a policy that required refugees to prove they had a way to make a living. The only way to get around this requirement was to have friends or family to say they would support them. Rochester became one of the first cities in the country to come up with an ingenious plan: An entire community –  backed by the Jewish Welfare Council – would pledge to financially support the applicants. Once here, numerous interfaith groups helped the refugees get on their feet.

Posman writes that Rochester was not immune from anti-Semitism. The University of Rochester had quotas on Jewish students. Kodak was suspected of discriminating against Jewish applicants, as it had no Jews on the payroll until the late 1920s. There were anti-Semitic pamphlets that were:

…spreading derogatory lies about Jews and encouraging non-Jews to unite against the threat they allegedly posed. One such pamphlet was entitled “Why are Jews Persecuted for their Religion?” This document, the origins of which remain mysterious, pulled passages of Jewish scriptures out of context, twisted them, and then used them to “prove” that “Jewish people are not to be trusted” and should be denied the ability to become citizens or hold public office.

Posman’s summary is very relevant to the debate over refugees entering America today:

Within this context of national hostility to Jewish immigrants, Rochester serves as an example of how a community can pull together to overcome adversity. In a time of isolationism and hyper-nationalism, it is indeed impressive that so many Rochesterians were able to look beyond their city’s limits and reach out to those in need. Led in large part by Rabbi Philip Bernstein, the community proved its ability to work within the limitations of federal policy to facilitate the arrival and assimilation of hundreds of Jewish refugees. If nothing else, this effort illustrates how in a dark moment of terror, apathy, and accusations, there was still light, hope, and people willing to help one another.


Links of the Day:

City of Rochester Communications Burear

City of Rochester Communications Burear


As the nation debates the fate of child immigrant detainees and immigration reform, let’s look at immigrants in the Rochester area.

The following data comes from the U.S. Census 2012 American Community Survey.

– Monroe County had 61,247 foreign-born residents in 2012. This means they were not U.S. citizens at birth.

– Monroe County has a smaller share of immigrants than the state and nation. In the United States, 13 percent of residents are foreign-born. Forty-six percent of them are naturalized citizens. In New York State, 23 percent of people are foreign-born and 53 percent of them are naturalized citizens. In the City of Rochester, 10 percent of residents are foreign-born, with 42 percent being naturalized citizens. In Monroe County, 8 percent of residents are foreign-born, with 52 being naturalized citizens.

– The largest share of local immigrants comes from Asia – 38 percent. Twenty-one percent hail from Latin America, 30 percent from Europe, 8 percent from Africa and 4 percent from North America.

– The vast majority – 87 percent – of Monroe County immigrants speak English at home.

– Immigrants are older than the rest of the population. The median age of foreign-born people in Monroe County is 43, compared to 38 for the population as a whole. The median age for naturalized citizens is 53. The median age for non-naturalized citizens is 33. These trends are similar to the nation and state.

– The largest group of foreign-born individuals in Monroe County  – 42 percent – arrived in the U.S. before 1990. Four in five people in this group have become naturalized citizens. The next largest group of immigrants – 29 percent of Monroe County’s foreign-born residents – came in the 2000s. One in five is now a citizen. Eighteen percent of Monroe County’s residents born outside of the country arrived in the 1990s. Seventy percent of them are now citizens. Since 2010, more than 6,700 immigrants have arrived.

– The neighborhoods surrounding Rochester’s two largest colleges have the highest rate of foreign-born residents.

– Foreign-born adults in Monroe County have a higher rate of educational attainment than the population as a whole. Thirty-eight percent of immigrants had a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 34 percent of the rest of the population.

– Historical footnote: In 1855, 44 percent of Rochester’s residents were immigrants. Between 1890 and World War I, the percentage of immigrants plus the children of immigrants hovered around 70 percent.

Update: Several people are asking on Facebook if this data includes unauthorized immigrants and refugees. The census does not break them out as a separate group, so if these individuals agreed to be counted, they are included in the data. A recent study estimated there are 750,000 illegal immigrants in New York State, with most being in New York City.


Links of the Day:


– This story in the Buffalo News clearly shows there’s limited economic impact from the Bills and a new Bills stadium. So why do we give these teams the upper hand – and tons of tax dollars?

– Why do we allow government to cut pensions while funding new sports stadiums? Only one is a true economic activity generator.

– Is Bon Jovi really lying about keeping the Bills in Buffalo?

The Albany Times Union editorial board says the governor owes an explanation and apology.

– The New York Times editorial board comes out in favor of legalized pot.

– Carl Paladino calls Scott Congel’s West Seneca development a con job and ripoff.

– NSA-like: Monroe County has 3,765,555 license plate tracker hits in storage. We all might be in there.

– The list of businesses getting Start-Up New York tax breaks in Binghamton is not impressive. An audio-visual firm that is creating 11 jobs?

– A lawsuit challenging teacher tenure in New York will be filed Monday.

“Pieces of other people’s lives haunt their own.”

– College offers plenty of opportunities to meet new people. Why do colleges insist your roommate has to be one of them?

– The Seneca Park Zoo went undercover to survey Rochester wetlands.

– Beer is Americans’ adult beverage of choice.

Skyline - featured 220X165Monroe County was one of the few Upstate that gained population over the last two years, according to the U.S. Census.  Its population grew .5 percent to 747,813, a gain of 3,469 people.

A closer look at the numbers reveals more people moved out of Monroe County than moved in. New births combined with immigrants and returning service members largely made up the population gain. Census figures show most immigrants settle around Rochester’s colleges. Syracuse is among many cities banking on immigrants to lift the economy.

Between 2010 and 2012, there were 19,087 births in Monroe County and 14,104 deaths. There were 4,392 people from other countries who moved in, a figure that includes armed forces. There were 5,738 people who moved out of Monroe County.

While it’s good news the population went up in Monroe County, it’s clear there’s more work to be done to stem the tide of people leaving.

Links of the Day:

– Reuters tells visitors what they can do in 48 hours in Rochester. Focusing on the trendy, it leaves out a garbage plates and only briefly mentions Wegmans by suggesting a trip to the Food Bar.

Xerox has sold its downtown Rochester office building. The Bausch + Lomb building is still for sale.

– Buffalo has high hopes for the “hockey palace” planned by Sabres owner Terry Pegula.

State workers are muzzled.

– A Republican senator from Ohio writes about why he now favors gay marriage.

– First it was R News. Now it’s YNN. Another name change may be in store for Time Warner Cable’s local news outlets.