A friend of mine likes to say the High Holiday season is for pulpit rabbis what the tax season is for accountants. Well, my “tax season” was a bit busier than usual this year. Just days before Rosh Hashanah, I was privileged to be part of the Orthodox Union’s Leadership Mission to Washington, which took place September 14-15.
While in the capital, our group of about a hundred OU rabbis and lay leaders was warmly welcomed and addressed by an array of senior administration officials, senators, and members of congress.
Though my head is still swimming from all that went on during those two busy days, I would like to share one thought that hit me during the mission and has been on my mind ever since.
I cannot get over the contrast between what I saw and experienced in Washington and what another group of Orthodox Jewish leaders experienced in the very same place sixty-six years ago almost to the day.
The year was 1943, and together with its allies the United States was fully engaged in an epic battle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
As Jews, we are all painfully aware that during World War II millions of our people were in the process of being rounded up and slaughtered in the most horrific of fashions.
Although communication in those days was not as instantaneous as it is today, by 1943 the brutal reality of what was happening to European Jewry had become well known in Jewish communities throughout America.
Surprisingly, there were then few figures in the American Jewish Establishment willing to lobby the U.S. government to focus more of its energies on the genocide being committed against our people.
Difficult as it is to believe today, throughout all of World War II there was just one rally held in Washington seeking to raise awareness of our people’s plight. This rally is now known as the Rabbis’ March on Washington and it occurred just three days before Yom Kippur 1943, with some 400 Orthodox rabbis converging on our nation’s capital.
One can find much information and many pictures of that march online. My own shul, Kesher Israel Congregation of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, can be proud of its role in that rally; one of the most prominent figures leading the march was Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the synagogue’s first rabbi. His son, Rabbi David Silver, who led Kesher Israel for more than 50 years, took part as well.
The group was hoping for an audience with President Roosevelt, but FDR was told by a number of his advisers (some of them Jewish) not to meet with the rabbinic mission. As such, just three days before Yom Kippur, those 400 rabbis who had traveled to Washington made it no further than the steps of the U.S. Capitol where they were met by high-ranking members of the administration, plus some senators and congressmen.
On those stairs, they cried and begged their elected officials to take a greater interest in European Jewry before millions more would be slaughtered.
A 22-year-year-old Arthur Hertzberg (who later became a leading intellectual and Conservative rabbi) took part in the march with his elderly father, an Orthodox rabbi. He wrote:
I could not get up to the fence of the White House so I had to look on from the park across the road. Eventually someone came out of the White House. He took a letter from the rabbis to the president, but the president himself never greeted them. We were soon told that several of his Jewish advisers had told FDR that these immigrant rabbis were not the official leaders of the Jewish community…. All of us who had been there that day left feeling very bitter; America was our last great hope. If the president of the United States could not take the lead in this effort, or more precisely, if he chose not to be identified with the kind of activist effort that the rabbis were requesting, where could we now go? Was there some other address for our outcry?
That was October 1943. Fast forward to September 2009.
I was overwhelmed by how much has changed in sixty-six years. Whereas in 1943 the greatest Orthodox rabbis in the country could not gain access to the White House, in 2009 our OU mission was warmly welcomed to the White House campus for a briefing by the most senior officials about matters of concern to the Jewish people. (This has been the norm during the past several presidential administrations as well.)