Jews doing good… and fighting evil
By Rabbi Baruch Lederman
SAN DIEGO–The Children of Israel after serving years of bondage, were now out in the world free. Being free, being a Jew out in the world presents its own challenges and opportunities. We have the ability to sanctify G-d’s name or to desecrate it. The following two articles, submitted by ShulWeek readers Getzel Segal and Toby Koch, respectively, give examples of our relationship with the world and with each other. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. Like anything else, it’s complicated but we can learn from it:
In the midst of the overwhelming death and destruction that is Haiti right now, there are Israelis who have come to save lives and offer succor.
On Friday, El Al and IDF planes came into Haiti, carrying 250 medical personnel — doctors, nurses, lab and x-ray technicians and even a psychiatrist — and supplies for the first mobile hospital, including a pharmacy, a surgical unit, and a maternity ward. A young Haitian mother who was the first to deliver in this ward, early this morning, named her baby Israel.
Members of ZAKA, the Israeli ultra-Orthodox volunteer rescue organization, were on the scene as well. Yesterday, on Shabbat, they labored, digging in the rubble of a collapsed multi-story university building, where cries were heard. After hours of effort, they succeeded in pulling eight students from that rubble, alive.
These ZAKA members then took time, in the midst of the chaos, to wrap themselves in their tallitot (prayer shawls) and recite their Shabbat prayers. Undoubtedly most if not all of the Haitians on the scene had never seen such a sight.
When the men had finished praying, a crowd of people gathered around them and kissed their tallitot.
According to one report, head of the ZAKA mission, Mati Goldstein said: “With all going on outside, even when things get bad Judaism says we must take a deep breath and go on to save more people.
“We did everything to save lives. People asked, ‘Why are you here? There are no Jews here’, but we are here because the Torah orders us to save lives.”
At one point, when things were very grim, Goldstein reported that one mission member started to sing, Heveinu Shalom Aleichem (We bring peace to you.) “I had tears in my eyes,” he said.
What is exceedingly important to the mission is making their Israeli identity very clear. And so, in this regard, you can help Israel by sharing this broadly and letting the world know what we are all about.
There is no excuse for the behavior of Jewish gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s. The best known Jewish gangsters – Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Longy Zwillman, Moe Dalitz – were involved in violent criminal racketeering. They were not nice men.
Nonetheless, during the rise of American Nazism in the 1930s they proved staunch defenders of the Jewish people.
The 1930s were a period of rampant anti-Semitism in America, William Pelley of Minneapolis, among others, openly called for Jews to be driven from positions of responsibility, if not from the country itself.
Organized Brown Shirts in New York and Silver Shirts in Minneapolis outraged and terrorized American Jewry. The gangsters were asked to break up American Nazi rallies.
Historian Robert Rockaway writing in the journal of the American Jewish Historical Society, notes that German-American Bund rallies in the New York City area posed a dilemma for mainstream Jewish leaders. They wanted the rallies stopped, but had no legal grounds on which to do so. New York State Judge Nathan Perlman personally contacted Meyer
Lansky to ask him to disrupt the Bund rallies, with the proviso that Lansky’s henchmen stop short of killing any Bundists. Lansky accepted all of Perlman’s terms except one: he would take no money for the work. Lansky later observed, “I was a Jew and felt for those Jews in Europe who were suffering. They were my brothers.”
For months, Lansky’s workmen effectively broke up one Nazi rally after another. As Rockaway notes, “Nazi arms, legs and ribs were broken and skulls were cracked, but no one died.”
Lansky recalled breaking up a Brown Shirt rally in the Yorkville section of Manhattan: “The speakers started ranting. There were only fifteen of us, but we went into action. Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up… We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults.”
In Minneapolis, William Dudley Pelley organized a Silver Shirt Legion to “rescue” America from an imaginary Jewish-Communist conspiracy. In Pelley’s own words, just as “Mussolini and his Black Shirts saved Italy and as Hitler and his Brown Shirts saved Germany,” he would save America from Jewish communists. Minneapolis gambling czar David Berman confronted Pelley’s Silver Shirts on behalf of the Minneapolis Jewish community.
Berman learned that Silver Shirts were mounting a rally at Lodge. When the Nazi leader called for all the Jews in the city to be expelled, or worse, Berman and his associates burst in to the room and started cracking heads. After ten minutes, they had emptied the hall. Berman took the microphone and announced, “This is a warning. Anybody who says
anything against Jews gets the same treatment. Only next time it will be worse.” After Berman broke up two more rallies, there were no more public Silver Shirt meetings in Minneapolis.
No one should paint gangsters as heroes. As historian Rockaway points out in ‘But They Were Good to their Mothers’; whatever good they did does not remove the great evil they perpetrated. We can learn the remarkable nature of the Jewish soul; no matter how low one may sink, the bond to the Jewish people is never totally severed.
Dedicated by Baruch & Miriam Stehley in honor of their children Aaron, Elie, and Talya.
Rabbi Lederman is spiritual leader of Congregation Kehillas Torah in San Diego