I’ve just finished reading a book called “New York Jews and the Great Depression.” Sounds all too current, I know, but it’s a study of the Jewish community here in the 1930s — how it suffered from and responded to the economic crisis that plunged this country into the depths of destabilization.
Much of the story is frightening, depicting how financial chaos and blatant anti-Semitism (so prevalent at the time that the New York Times routinely published “Christian Only” Help Wanted ads) prevented so many Jews from finding work and kept them on the edge of survival, fearful of the future.
But there is also inspiration in reading how the voluntary network of Jewish social services at the time worked valiantly to sustain
and reinvent itself to meet the increasingly dire needs of the community.
The book was written by Beth Wenger, an assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, where she holds the Kate Family Term Chair in American Jewish history. Although published by Syracuse University Press in 1999, almost a decade before our current crisis, it’s well worth the read for historical insights into the past and sobering lessons for today.
A compilation of extensive research that relies heavily on oral histories, newspaper articles and communal records, Wenger’s work focuses on the struggle of Jewish institutions, including charities and synagogues, to cope with the extraordinary economic, spiritual and social necessities of the almost two million Jews who lived in New York in the ‘30s, making them the largest ethnic group in the city.
I learned of the book from several professional leaders of UJA-Federation of New York who came upon it recently and are recommending it to others. In his most recent weekly message to staff and others, John Ruskay, the CEO and executive vice president of UJA-Federation, highlighted the book and noted the key role that the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies — one of the predecessors of the current federation — played at the time, even mortgaging its own building in an effort to continue the American Jewish bedrock tradition of Jews taking care of their own.
As Wenger notes, that practice in the U.S. began not voluntarily but as a requirement. Before Jews were allowed to settle in New Amsterdam in 1654, Peter Stuyvesant, the governor, forbade their entry. But his superiors, the Dutch West India Company, allowed Jews to settle in the colony “on the condition that ‘the poor among them shall not become a burden … but be supported by their own nation.’”
That obligation became a source of pride over the centuries, and Wenger describes the fierce and emotional debate within the New York Jewish community’s leadership in the ‘30s over whether or not to accept FDR’s New Deal program of public welfare in light of the strong sense of obligation to take care of one’s fellow Jews. The debate was made more complex by the concern that endorsing such aid would undermine the very purpose and future of Jewish charitable organizations, making it more difficult for them to raise funds for other purposes.
In the end, though, the crush of reality was too great for federation and other Jewish charities to bear alone, and they chose to accept government aid, adjusting their focus from direct relief to other areas, like helping Jews find employment. Synagogues expanded their reach from simply being houses of worship to becoming centers for social activities, and later, for promoting Zionism.
One striking parallel to today: almost eight decades ago, the federation and the synagogues, though key institutions working to offset the crisis, were frequently criticized as being too elitist. Both venues were perceived as concentrating on top donors and not caring sufficiently about the masses, whether it be in terms of wealthy men leading the federation board, or synagogues maintaining pay-to-pray policies for the High Holy Days. And both institutions reached only a minority of the Jewish population.
The struggle to broaden and deepen communal involvement continues.
Wenger writes that despite great deprivation, Jews on the whole appear to have suffered less than many other Americans during the Depression, in part because of the efforts of our social service agencies — leading to criticism of the community as “clannish” in Fortune magazine at the time — and the fact that the traditional emphasis within Jewish families on education found many of the children of immigrants able to secure white-collar jobs. (Such positions were more protected than blue-collar ones, in contrast to today, when, as Ruskay points out, “industries with a high percentage of Jews — financial services and real estate, as examples — are the hardest hit by the current economic crisis.”)
Having found that American Jews were able to navigate the delicate balance between adapting to American society while holding on to ethnic identity, Wenger concludes her study, sobering as it is, on a somewhat upbeat note, writing that, “For American Jews the Great Depression was a time of creativity and innovation as well as uneasiness and frustration.”
There are major differences between the Jewish community of the 1930s and of 2009, a period many see as only the beginning of a years-long slide into another Depression. While families remain paramount in helping victims of job loss and other economic woes, it should be noted that the community has tilted heavily toward assimilation in recent decades, with intermarriage accounting for much of the blurring between Jews and other Americans. Some see this as progress, others as a tragedy.
Surely Jews have reached the highest levels of educational, professional and economic status in American life, and open anti-Semitism is negligible. But as social service needs increase and funding for them diminish, we must ask ourselves how we can adjust, recreate and transform our Jewish institutions so that they can, once again, meet the challenge of the day.