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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.

 

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