Photo Credit: Jewish Press

An appeal to the U.S. government by B’nai Brith in 1958 resulted in the passage of legislation prohibiting American businesses from participating in the Arab League boycott of Israel. That same year, the New York Sports Lodge of B’nai Brith held its annual Awards Dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel, where several prominent athletes were honored, among them Jackie Robinson and Barney Ross, who autographed the cover of the dinner program exhibited here.

Also present and signing the program were Althea Gibson, Joe DiMaggio, Gil McDougald, Willie Hartack, and Chaplain David Eichhorn, who was a key figure immediately following the liberation of Dachau in 1945. On May 5, 1945, he famously conducted a service for 1,500 survivors, which included reading the weekly sedra from a Torah that had been hidden at Dachau and had also survived the Holocaust.

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The Jackie Robinson (1919-72) story is to Americans what the Passover story is to Jews in that the chronicle of Robinson’s incredible heroism, perseverance, and athletic skill in integrating Major League Baseball continues to be passed down with great reverence from generation to generation.

Not well known, however, is the great breadth of Jewish support for Robinson, including support from Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn was particularly well-received by Brooklyn Dodgers Jewish fans, and he would hear many shouts of encouragement from the stands – in Yiddish – as Jews filling the stands at Ebbets Field would often cheer him using his “Yiddishized” name: “Yankel, Yankel, get a klap” (“Jackie, Jackie, get a hit”).

Many commentators argue convincingly that the great “Jackie Robinson experiment” to integrate Major League Baseball could only have taken place in Brooklyn where the huge Jewish population – more than a third of Brooklyn’s population was Jewish – and general support of minorities and for civil rights was instrumental in generating support for Robinson.

Robinson’s biographer, Arnold Rampersad, noted that Robinson found Jews to be much more socially accepting of him and his wife than other demographic groups, and Robinson’s friendships with Brooklyn Jews was such that he joked that his son was starting to think he was Jewish.

The tale of Robinson’s integration of baseball in 1947 provided Jews with a reference for their own experience of post-WWII assimilation into American society. Jews, who identified with Robinson as a victim of oppression, romanticized him as a heroic figure whose success proclaimed the possibility of an end to all bigotry.

Strong Jewish support for the desegregation of baseball reflected a long-standing Jewish commitment to promoting African-American civil rights, but the prominent role that Jews played in the struggle to eradicate major league baseball’s color line has been almost entirely overlooked – though, to its credit, the African-American press did credit Jewish contributions at the time.

The support and encouragement that Robinson received at a critical point in his rookie year in 1947 from superstar Hank Greenberg – himself the subject of race-hatred and anti-Semitism – underscored the solid backing of the Jewish community for Robinson. Greenberg’s support, which deeply moved Robinson, was widely praised in the black press. In his autobiography, Greenberg emphasized his keen admiration for Robinson and his disgust for the racist behavior of his own teammates, but he was not alone among Jewish major league ballplayers who embraced Robinson.

When Cal Abrams joined the Dodgers two years after Robinson (1949), he physically shielded Robinson with his body to protect him from missiles hurled from the stands. Another Jew who welcomed Robinson from the very beginning was Ralph Branca who, though raised as a devout Catholic, discovered in 2011 that he was the son of a Hungarian Jewish mother much of whose family was murdered at Majdanek and Auschwitz.

Later in his life, Branca became close to several Lubavitcher chassidim, had a bar mitzvah at age 84, and donned tefillin; as one writer beautifully wrote, “His right arm made him famous, but his left arm had allowed him to pray as a Jew, connecting to his Jewish soul deep inside.”

Because few white sportswriters covering sports criticized baseball’s color line, Jewish sportswriters became especially important in bringing Robinson’s case to the American public. Walter Winchell, though not observant, was raised in East Harlem by Russian, Yiddish-speaking parents and had Jewish feelings that ran deep, according to his biographer. He was one of Robinson’s most ardent supporters, and his views had considerable impact because he was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers.

The sports editor of the Washington Post, Shirley Povich – who had been raised as an Orthodox Jew – notably wrote a 15-part feature on the African American contribution to baseball (1953) and not only supported Robinson, but also pressed the baseball establishment to accelerate its pace of desegregation.

Robinson, in turn, broadly and publicly acknowledged the support of his Jewish friends and “went to bat” for the Jewish community. A frequent speaker at benefits and rallies for Jewish causes, he was a vociferous enemy of anti-Semitism and, in particular, he publicly and passionately condemned anti-Semitism in the black community.

In one famous 1962 incident, angry black crowds carrying anti-Semitic posters and chanting racial epithets marched outside Harlem’s Apollo Theater protesting the plan of Frank Schiffman, a Jew, to open a steakhouse. The only black leader to respond to Shiffman’s call for assistance was Robinson, who drew considerable criticism from the black community for comparing the actions of the protesting black nationalists to those of Nazi Germany in his syndicated column. However, Robinson’s principled stance earned support from some black leaders, including particularly Martin Luther King, Jr. and the protests ended.

Later, he wrote in his autobiography that he was “ashamed to see community leaders who were afraid to speak out when blacks were guilty of anti-Semitism” and asked, “How could we stand against anti-black prejudice if we were willing to practice or condone a similar intolerance?”

He continued to defend Jews and to categorically reject black nationalism even when the relationship between the black and Jewish communities began to deteriorate significantly in the late 1960s, and he made a point to include Jews in his efforts to economically empower the black community.

Robinson was the first to call for the removal of a CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) official who publicly announced that Hitler hadn’t murdered enough Jews (1966); he openly sided with American Jews facing employment discrimination from ARAMCO (the Arabian-America Oil Company); and he took on his own people in touting the important role played by Jews in the NAACP. A vocal supporter of the United Jewish Appeal, he raised money for Israel and played a key role in deepening the cooperative relationship between the Anti-Defamation League and black civil rights groups.

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Champion boxer, gunrunner, and war hero; petty thief, runner for Al Capone; and a man who conquered morphine addiction (developed while recovering from war wounds). The Barney Ross (1909-67) story is the stuff of legend. Born Dov-Ber “Beryl” Rasofsky to Isidore – a Talmudic scholar, rabbi, and kohen who immigrated to America from his native Brest-Litovsk after barely surviving a pogrom – he is one of the few boxers in history to earn championships in three boxing divisions: lightweight, junior welterweight, and welterweight.

Known as a smart fighter with great stamina, he was never knocked out in 81 fights and held his title against some of the best competition in the history of the divisions. A symbol of valor and defiance in an anti-Semitic era, he came to personify the dream of Jewish power and might.

Ross’ ambition to become a Talmudic scholar and Hebrew teacher was changed forever when, shortly after his bar mitzvah, he watched his father recite Shema after being shot dead resisting a robbery at his grocery on the West Side of Chicago; saw his grieving mother’s suffering a nervous breakdown; and experienced the dispersal of his siblings to various orphanages. Though he turned his back on his late father’s Orthodoxy in the wake of the tragedy, even marrying a non-Jew, he remained a proud and loyal Jew who never lost sight of his Jewish identity and never abandoned Jewish causes.

Notwithstanding his abandonment of traditional Judaism, he continued to say Kaddish for his father; openly recited the Psalms when fighting Japan during World War II; frequently wore tzitzit under his shirt; and, as the newly-crowned lightweight world champion, was quoted in the September 17, 1933 Jewish Daily Bulletin as boasting that he is “religious.” In his memoir, No Man Stands Alone, he writes that his entire family would travel to be together for Purim, which was his favorite holiday.

After witnessing his father’s murder, Ross began associating with local toughs – including one wayward Jewish ghetto youth later known as Jack Ruby – and developed into a thief and money runner for Al Capone. (He would later testify as a character witness for Ruby in his murder trial for killing Lee Harvey Oswald, and Capone would later financially back his first professional fight.)

His goal was to earn money sufficient to purchase a home so that he could reunite his scattered family. Seeing boxing as his best route to that goal, he began training with his friend Ruby and, after winning amateur bouts, he pawned the awards and set the money aside for his family.

Strong, fast, and possessed of a powerful will, Ross was soon a Golden Gloves champion, and he went on to dominate the lighter divisions as a pro. Claiming that fury at his father’s murder fueled his every fight, he retired with 72 wins (22 by KO), 4 losses, 3 draws, and 2 no-contests.

During the rise of Hitler, Ross took a strong public stand against Germany and the Nazis and, idolized by virtually all Americans and representing the idea of Jews finally fighting back, he was cherished by American Jews as one of their greatest advocates. Understanding that Americans loved their sports heroes and aware that winning boxing matches was displaying a new kind of strength for Jews, he openly embraced his role as a leader of his oppressed people even though he’d lost personal faith in Judaism.

In retirement in his early 30s, Ross, though beyond draft age, decided to fight in World War II and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. The Marines wanted to keep him stateside and use his celebrity status to boost morale, but Ross insisted on fighting for his country. Before being sent overseas, however, he faced a court-martial for assaulting an anti-Semitic NCO, but a high Jewish officer on the panel convinced his colleagues not to convict him.

Ross was sent to Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, one of the most brutal World War II battles, where he was awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart, and a Presidential Citation awarded by FDR in a Rose Garden ceremony for single-handedly fighting and killing two dozen Japanese soldiers and carrying a wounded soldier, the only other survivor of the battle, to safety. He later wrote that he had recited Jewish prayers in Hebrew throughout that night (“there are no atheists in foxholes”).

Before going into battle, Ross would play “My Yiddishe Mama” on his pump organ, which reportedly brought many of his fellow (non-Jewish) soldiers to tears. He helped arrange for Shabbat services while on Guadalcanal and, in April 1943, he was a key participant in a Passover Seder broadcast.

Original March 29, 1948 newspaper photograph showing Ross signing the roll for the “George Washington Legion for Palestine” at the offices of the American League for a Free Palestine.

A passionate Zionist who publicly championed Zionist causes, Ross ran guns to Eretz Yisrael after World War II; offered to lead a brigade of Jewish American war veterans to fight for Israel in its War of Independence; and signed up over 2,000 volunteers to fight for Israel (the State Department ultimately denied them all passports). He also traveled widely, raising money for Israel Bonds and running guns for the Irgun.

Ross also became active in the American League for a Free Palestine, which sought to marshal American support and resources for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael. He spoke frequently at its public rallies and served as leader of its George Washington Legion, which recruited American volunteers to aid the Irgun.

One of the more interesting Zionist rallies at which Ross appeared was a 1947 fundraiser for the American League for a Free Palestine held by a group of St. Louis Jewish gangsters associated with mob boss Mickey Cohen, who agreed to hold the fundraiser only if Ross, “the living symbol of Jewish toughness,” agreed to serve as the keynote speaker. League officials later estimated that, thanks to Ross, the event generated over $100,000 in support for Israel.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.