Home > Adventures in SD History, Uncategorized > Adventures in San Diego Jewish History, September 17, 1954, Part 5

Adventures in San Diego Jewish History, September 17, 1954, Part 5

Compiled by San Diego Jewish World staffSouthwestern Jewish Press, September 17, 1954, pages 8, 13

Tercentenary Gallery: Builders of American Jewry and the Jewish Community Center

By Bernard Postal

That the builders of the American Jewish community, which now begins its Tercentenary year, and the principal founders and leaders of the Jewish Community Center movement, now concluding its Centennial year, were to a striking degree the same people is one of the little noticed facts of American Jewish history.

When the Jewish Community Center was born in 1854, American Jewry was already 200 years old, but the Jewish community, numbering barely more than 60,000, had not yet created any institutions except synagogues and a scattering of benevolent, fraternal, social and burial societies.  Except for B’nai B’rith there was not a single organization of more than local character.

The whole complex of national organizations and institutions had yet to be created, and so a surprisingly large number of the men and women whose place in American Jewish history is secure because of the role they played in building American Jewry’s network of national agencies were actively involved at various times in the development of the Center movement.

From its very inception, the YMHA, as the Jewish Community Center was originally called, attracted to its leadership the top names in “American Jewry.  In 1850, the distinguished Rabbi Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, one of the first spokesmen for the Jewish community, was an active participant in the Young Men’s Hebrew Literary Society, out of which grew the Philadelphia YMHA.  Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Hebrew Union College and the Central Conference of American Rabbis was among the ardent supporters of the Cincinnati Center in the 1860s and 1870s, as was his fellow townsman, Rabbi Max Lilienthal.  The latter, an early advocate of a national union of YMHAs, proposed in 1870 that the YMHAs join forces to create a Hebrew Union of American Hebrew Congregations, B’nai B’rith and the Literary Publications Society.  Simon Wolf, for half a century the Washington spokesman for the American Jewish Committee, founded a society that was the progenitor of the Cleveland Center. In 1869 he urged the formation of a national association of YMHAs.  “Why not rear marble fronts to show our social and intellectual condition as citizens and Israelites,” asked the man who was later to become president of B’nai B’rith.

The founders of the New York (1874) and Philadelphia (1875) YMHAs, the two oldest existing Centers, were virtually a Jewish who’s who of their communities.  Lewis May, first president of the New York Y, had been president of Temple Emanu-El.  The eminent Hebrew scholar and editor, Mayer Sulzberger, was the Philadelphia Y’s first president.  Jacob H. Schiff, whose name is written large in the annals of Jewish learning and philanthropy, was one of the earliest supporters of the Y in New York, and later of the Center movement nationally. 

Between 1870 and 1900 the most notable Jews of the time were in the ranks of those leading the Center movement. In New York the list included, among others, Philip Joachimsen, president of the Board of delegates of American Israelites, the first representative national Jewish body; Myer S. Isaacs, founder of the New York United Hebrew Charities, forerunner of Federation; William Hackenberg, compiler of the first comprehensive statistical survey of American Jewry; Adolph L. Sanger, vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Judge Samuel Greenbaum; Oscar Straus, first president of the American Jewish Historical Society and later Secretary of Commerce and Labor; Henry Leipziger, the eminent educator, and Adolph Lewisohn, the philanthropist.

The Philadelphia YMHA  had among its earliest and youngest leaders such figures as Cyrus Adler, later president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dropsie College, the American Jewish Committee and the National Jewish Welfare Board; the eminent communal worker, Dr. Solomon Solic-Cohen and Cyrus L. Sulzberger, father of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times.

Three of the most distinguished Jewish women of their time were also among the leaders of the YMHAs.  Emma Lazarus, the poetess whose sonnet is affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty, won an essay contest at the New York YMHA and later taught English to immigrant Jewish girls at the New York Educational Alliance.  Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah, was superintendent of the night school at the Baltimore Hebrew Educational Society, one of the several successors of the country’s first YMHA.  When the first YWHA was started in New York in 1888, Julia Richman, later to be one of the country’s great educators and a charter member of the National Council of Jewish Women, became its first president.

In addition to Rabbis Wise and Lilienthal, such rabbinical giants as Benjamin Szold of Baltimore, Gusstav Gottheil and Frederick de Sola Mendes of New York, Marcus Jastrow, Joseph Krauskopf and Sabato Morais of Philadelphia, the first president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, were among the active YMHA leaders. Rabbi Morais was for a time president of the Philadelphia Y.

What was true in New York and Philadelphia was also true elsewhere in the country. Adolphus Solomons, a founder of the American Red Cross and long a leader of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, which did so much for the economic adjustment of Jewish immigrants, and Simon Wolf were president and vice president respectively, when the YMHA was organized in Washington D.C.  Alfred M. Cohen, of Cincinnati, later president of B’nai B’rith and chairman of the board of governors of Hebrew Union College, was a founder and president of the Center in his community.  Chicago’s noted Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch was described as the founder of the Louisville Center.  Julius Rosenwald helped bring into being the predecessor of the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago. Adolph Ochs, later the successful publisher of the New York Times, served simultaneously as secretary and treasurer of the Chattanooga YMHA in 1873.

Many of these personalities helped establish in 1890 the American Hebrew Association, the first national association of Centers.  Daniel Peixotto Hays, one of New York’s prominent Jewish communal figures, was the first president. Among the prime movers of the second national association, the United Young Men’s Hebrew Association of America, which existed from 1890 to 1893, were Rabbi David Philipson, of Cincinnati, the great exponent of Reform Judaism; Rabbi Joseph Silverman and Alfred M. Cohen.  The latter was the Association’s first president.

With this caliber of leadership and support the Center movement gained wide acceptance and grew tremendously by the time the Unite States entered World War I.  The Council, whose army and navy committee had done religious and morale work for Jewish military personnel during the Mexican border trouble in 1916, took the initiative in convening a conference that brought into being the National Jewish Welfare Board as American Jewry’s united agency for serving the religious and welfare needs of Jews in military service.  Many of the same personalities who had been responsible for the growth of the Center movement before the war lent their aid and prestige to the new agency which in 1922 was merged with the Council under the name of JWB.

This Tercentenary gallery of famous builders of American Jewry whose leadership also embraced the Jewish Community Center movement underscores the character of the Center as a distinctive product of the American Jewish scene and a unique organizational contribution of American Jewry to Jewish life.  These men and women in totality represented K’lal Yisrael and contributed to all constructive phases of Jewish life just as the Center to which they gave so much has for a century been committed to positive Jewish survival, to strengthened family life and to the growth of a sound community.

I Am A Happy Jew: The Credo of a Folk-Humorist
Southwestern Jewish Press, September 17, 1954, page 9

By Sam Levenson

I am a happy Jew, free and well-adjusted.  I have cured myself of possible Jewish schizophrenia (a common disease) through identification with my people. I have found that the more deeply I become identified with the values of my own people, the closer do I come to an understanding of the hopes and desires of mankind as a whole.  When in my TV performances I draw from the folklore of my own people, for example, mama’s attitude toward family, children, home, God, bread, I invariably am flooded with mail from non-Jews who ask, “What makes you think your mother was different?  My mother used to be the same way.”

It takes a great deal of education to make a total Jew, a well-integrated Jew, a happy Jew. The philosophy by which I live is the same philosophy which the Jewish Community Center breeds in the kids.  I should like to say a word about the role the Jewish Community Center played in making Sam Levenson a well-integrated Jew.

As a child, I lived near the 92nd ST. YM-YWHA.  I attended the Y Talmud Torah for several years. This happened after a period of having the rebbe come to our house, as was the custom in those days.  At first my father was afraid of the Y Talmud Torah because the teacher spoke English, but his attitude changed when he found out that for the first time in my life I understood in English what I had been repeating verbatim in Hebrew. It wasn’t long after that papa came to see me perform in a play by Israel Zangwill.

The Y also had a music school, a choral group, a symphony orchestra and concerts. I scratched a little on the violin there. I took part in dramatics – and yes, even athletics.  Papa thought that athletics was the first step toward becoming a gangster, but at the Y it was all right – it was kosher. The kids who went down to the Y were the lucky ones. They had things to do there that kept them out of trouble; also they got a bath in warm water.

And I went swimming at the Y. On Friday mornings, the neighborhood kids could swim for 3 cents—2 cents for a towel, a penny for a bar of soap.  A thousand kids would show up.  The catch was, they always emptied the pool on Friday anyway. Wed’s swim while the water went down. A thousand kids flopping around in eight inches of water.  To this day I can only swim over other bodies.

When we moved to Brooklyn I was 12 years of age, but the seed had been planted. In every neighborhood I sought out the Jewish Community Center – the Hebrew Educational Society, the Brooklyn Jewish Center, the Boro Park Y. Even now I go with my son to the Center.

I am always conscious that I am a Jew. I always carry the responsibility of being a Jew. I tell no dialect jokes, no stories that would be offensive to minority groups, no “little Jew” stories.  There were no “little Jews” in the fight for Israel’s independence, there were no “little Jews” in the Warsaw Ghetto, there were no “little Jews” in Okinawa.

There are Jews in my profession who have suggested that I change my name.  “You can get much farther that way,” they say. True.  You can get farther –farther and farther.  But how far away do I care to go?  And if I am not accepted as a Jew, but as a “neutral,” what have I achieved?

When I became a professional humorist, the National Jewish Welfare Board’s (JWB’s) Jewish Center Lecture Bureau sent me to Jewish Community Centers all over the country.  I saw the work being done, and I was proud. In these Centers I found concerts, readings, forums, plays, dance recitals-Jewish culture alive, vibrant, meaningful.  And what is most surprising to me now is the presence in the Center of papa’s group, singing, dancing, enjoying the Jewish environment, and at the other extreme the grandchildren in the nursery schools learning Jewish customs and traditions at the very outset of their lives.

Papa was afraid of assimilation. This is not assimilation. This is integration. We have developed American techniques for strengthening Jewish life.

“Adventures in San Diego Jewish History” is sponsored by Inland Industries Group LP in memory of long-time San Diego Jewish community leader Marie (Mrs. Gabriel) Berg. Our “Adventures in San Diego Jewish History” series will be a regular feature until we run out of history.  To find stories on specific individuals or organizations, type their names in our search box.

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