An Interview with Rabbi Zevulun Charlop
AC: What do you remember about the Rabbis’ March that your father helped organize to protest the Allies’ inaction regarding the massacre of European Jewry? Do you think that the Jewish community should utilize similar methods of activism to support the causes of other oppressed groups today?
RZC: I remember that there was great excitement at that time. My father was very involved in the Federation of Palestine Jews in America. The Rabbis’ March was organized by Peter Bergson, whose real name was Hillel Kook and was a nephew of Rav Kook. He was an international personality and is quite well-known now – there are plays about him. Ben Hecht, one of the preeminent playwrights and journalists in the middle of the twentieth century, was inspired to a very large degree by his interactions with Peter Bergson. And Bergson developed a relationship with my father because he was very much taken by what was happening in Erets Yisra’el, and he wanted to create a state. He was, by the way, an Irgun man. (There were no Likudniks then, but Irgun was the equivalent of a Likudnik today.)
Bergson thought that it could be a wakeup call for Jews, and possibly Gentiles as well, asleep in America, to have a group of American rabbis stage a protest – there was nothing to lose, and there was no precedent. Interestingly, the march succeeded in garnering significant participation, with five hundred or more rabbis in attendance, but not as successful as it should and could have been, nor was it successful for the task at hand at all, because there were many people who were opposed to this Rabbis’ March for a variety of reasons. The outstanding Jewish leader of that time – outstanding meaning not necessarily the best Jewish leader, but certainly a very formidable figure – was Stephen S. Wise. Stephen S. Wise was the leading Jew in America at that time, and he always played a very dominant role in the American Jewish scene, certainly in the last thirty or forty years of his life. An outstanding orator, he held people in thrall. He had, I think, a little bit of a messiah complex about himself – I don’t think he had enough of a messiah complex about the Jews as he had about himself. I’m sure he wanted to save the Jews, and he was a foremost Zionist, of course. He was certainly the most powerful Jew in America, largely because of his friendship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who probably gave him whatever he wanted. Everyone knew he was very close to the president of the United States, and he told the president what he believed, but he wouldn’t do anything to hurt the president. The president, of course, was a genius of a personality, and he was able to impress many people with his sincerity of purpose. And when the rabbis came down, the president asked Wise, “What should I do?” And had Wise said, ‘these are the most respected rabbis in America, these are the great scholars, talmidei hakhamim, most of them European, you should listen to them,’ Roosevelt might have. But Wise didn’t. Millions of Jews were being killed, and the president knew that they were being killed, because he was certainly privy to all the information that was coming in.
The success of the parade of rabbis, of the protest of rabbis, cannot be underestimated, except in its failure. Meaning, it failed because Wise didn’t allow the president to show any interest in it. When the rabbis went to the White House, they couldn’t get into the White House, they couldn’t get to first base – they were not allowed in the front door or the back door. Many people, we know now, go in through the back door to see the president, and that was true then too. But Roosevelt couldn’t do that; he would have five hundred rabbis coming in. So when the rabbis went to Congress and stood on the steps of the Congress, Vice President Henry Agard Wallace represented the president. And then there were two or three speakers. One of them was my father, who read the rabbis’ proclamation to Wallace.
We now know that President Roosevelt, a month before he died, quietly met on an American battleship with Ibn Saud, who was the king of Saudi Arabia at that time, and promised him that he opposed the State of Israel. This was all at the time when all the Jews voted for him – 98 percent. The Jews were liberal, more or less, always were. This was for good reason, because they wanted to better everyone’s lives. And Roosevelt came in – he was a patrician, he spoke well, with tremendous charisma; it’s hard to imagine anyone with charisma like him today. People were under his spell, and I was already fifteen or sixteen when he died, so I can tell you that it was just incredible. I remember the speech R. Joseph Lookstein gave in Lamport Auditorium when Roosevelt died, citing Walt Whitman: “O captain, my captain…”
I know the model of political activism and protest worked in my day even for the State of Israel, beginning at the establishment of the State of Israel. There were great protest meetings, there were great numbers at rallies in New York – maybe 100,000, 150,000 people came to support the State of Israel during the Six Day War, and in earlier times. The main speakers were Stephen S. Wise, as well as Abba Hillel Silver, who had the silver voice, as Stephen S. Wise did. He was a Republican, and it was important to have a Republican with the stature of Stephen S. Wise.
AC: Can you recount some personal experiences of political activism?
RZC: I founded one protest rally that was extraordinarily successful. In 1971, the Iraqi Jews were being persecuted and killed. At the time, I was already teaching Talmud and American History at Yeshiva but I was also the president of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis, and in that role I used to attend the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. When I went to the conference, someone brought up the question of the Iraqi Jews, and nobody was doing anything. So I got up (I was much younger and I was not as prominent as most of the people there) and I said that we need to stage a protest. Everybody makes protests, and protests work. Many people were against it, but they took a vote, and the consensus was for the protest. They said: if Charlop is willing to do it, we will support it. So we raised some money and very quickly, in less than a week, we put up signs. I asked R. Ahron Soloveichik to be the guest speaker, and I appointed Rabbi Marvin Luban (rabbi of the Young Israel of Forest Hills) to serve as chairman. We put a big ad in the New York Times. Interestingly, we met with a Jewish printer for the Times, and printers often have a lot of say about placement, although you wouldn’t know it. We went to him at midnight and said, “We want to put this in tomorrow.” He read it and was very moved by it. He was very helpful –he got it onto a page with a big story, so everyone would see it. And with just a week to work with, we gathered around 15,000 people, built a platform in front of the United Nations, and had a rally there.
So we had this rally and it was a big hit, but we never knew what happened. We never heard if the Iraqi Jews were saved. Then, I once went down to Texas for whatever reason, and I was picked up at the airport by a taxi man, and I saw his name was Shushan. I asked him, “Are you from the Middle East?” And he said, “Yes, I’m Persian.” And I said, “I was involved with organizing a protest a few years ago when they were killing Jews, and no one seems to know what really happened.” He said, “They all escaped into Iran! The entire thing was hush-hush.” So we saved everyone, and this was verified by an Arab Gentile!
I was also involved with the struggle for Soviet Jewry. Rabbi Luban and I also organized a rally in the great tennis stadium in Forest Hills, where they had the U.S. Open. We filled up that stadium with thousands of people. Every seat was taken. Eventually, the Russians started letting out the Soviet Jews; people called this the Miracle of Return, and that phrase, which became a buzzword for the struggle for Soviet Jewry, was coined for this rally.
So I do think that protests helped, and we see it today. Now AIPAC has become very powerful, as effective as these rallies, and its voice is acknowledged by members of Congress.
AC: Today there are other causes for which people have rallies, such as protesting the genocide in Darfur. Should the Jewish community be involved in political activism to support such causes, and, if so, to what extent?
RZC: I think for a yeshivah student, the most important thing to do is to be a talmid hakham and a yerei shamayim, and also to show much concern for the Jewish community at large, and also concern for the world at large. My grandfather wrote, “The future redemption is the redemption of the entire world, all of Israel and all the nations, and all the animals and plants and inanimate objects, and the whole host of the heavens, all the planets, and all the worlds. All will be redeemed to eternal freedom.”[i] We have to believe in this idea and feel it: ge’ulah (redemption) is not for Jews alone. It’s for the whole world.
Still, overwhelmingly, our obligation is to the Jewish community. There are so many millions of people, so many young Jews who are assimilating, just falling off the ragged cliffs of Jewish heights and eternity, so, to a certain extent, we have to be focused on the Jewish world. Furthermore, in order for us to be involved in the broader world as we are in our yeshivah, we have to have a solid center. Turning a yeshivah into a big tent can be a dangerous thing; if we start lessening our inward Torah focus then we may start neutralizing learning and, rahamana litslan, yir’as shamayim. In order to be able to sustain the multifaceted world that we have here in Yeshiva, we have to be deeper in the core. So long as we know that in this process we may be willy-nilly, lightening the thrust of our Torah learning, then widening the tent cannot be achieved. Rather, we must widen and, indeed, deepen our Torah learning and kiyyum ha-mitsvos at the core. Otherwise, Heaven forfend, we may be sliding down a slippery slope, and who can calculate what would, has ve-shalom, await us there? But if widening the tent will not hinder – if it would indeed enhance the deepening of Torah and shemiras ha-mitsvos – then it can become a nes, not only in the sense of miracle, but nes as a degel, a flag of pride. I know that this is President Joel’s guiding star. Everything he does, I know, is to bring us to that quintessential realization.
In our hearts and minds, we have to be involved in everything. But there is a real question as to how much time we can give to each cause. We have to make sure that the Beis Medrash remains as strong as it is, and even gets stronger, and that, individually, our commitment in time and energy is strong. If the yeshivah is going to be a mediocre yeshivah, then we don’t need the university, the medical school. As President Joel has reminded us time and again, there are other excellent universities and medical schools. But if the yeshivah is a genuine success in spite of all this, living in the world and maintaining a strong Beis Medrash, then it’s a real accomplishment, a desideratum.
Still, we really have to believe the piece I quoted about bringing ge’ulah to everybody. Yiddishkayt is universal.
A: Can you discuss the struggles you encountered as a rabbi and communal leader during the civil rights movement?
RZC: There was a time in the Bronx when we had a wonderful Jewish community, with many Yiddish-speaking homes, and excellent public schools available – Clinton High School, and Bronx High School of Science, which had an overwhelmingly Jewish enrollment. The general community was exceptional as well. It was 25% Jewish, 25% Irish, and a strong Italian and German community as well.
But there were minority populations in adjacent and not-so-adjacent neighborhoods who were economically behind. Their young ones possibly suffered most of all from comparatively poor to abysmal education. In order to ameliorate the situation, the city wanted to start bussing these students into our neighborhood, and the neighborhood was very opposed to the move. There was a very powerful and liberal Jewish communal leader who said we have to show our Jewish liberalism and humanity, and we can’t be opposed to bussing. So we met in my eminent neighbor R. Herschel Schacter’s[ii] shul, the Mosholu Jewish Center, and the two speakers who represented the community were R. Herschel Schacter and me. The place was packed; there must have been three or four hundred people. We started to espouse the liberal position, to say that if we Jews are allowed into schools, how can we keep the blacks out? And then I told a story:
There was a soldier in the Second World War, stationed in Pennsylvania. He had boots that were old and shoddy, and he had to get them repaired. So he went to a small town in Pennsylvania that had a shoemaker and gave his boots to the shoemaker and said, “I’ll come back for them in two days; can you be finished by that time?” The shoemaker said, “Yes,” and he gave the soldier a ticket for his boots. The soldier returned to his base at three o’ clock in the morning only to discover that he was slated to immediately leave Pennsylvania and go to a port in Brooklyn, which he couldn’t tell anybody because “loose lips sink ships.” Eventually, he was sent off to Europe and he remained there for several years. After returning to the U.S. he became a salesman. At some point, twenty to twenty-five years later, his route was changed, and he suddenly realized: His new route passes through the town where he gave in his boots to be repaired! When he came to that area, he rushed to that town and searched for the shoemaker, who was still there! Upon arriving at the shop, the soldier pulled the ticket out of his wallet and gave it to the shoemaker. Without indicating any surprise or anything unusual, the shoemaker went to the back of the store, stayed there for a few minutes, and when he emerged, he said, “I’m sorry, they’re not ready yet. Can you come back tomorrow?”
With that introduction, I said, “We promised the dignity of man. The Founding Fathers who allowed slavery knew it was a cancer, but they didn’t have any other way of getting this country going. Hundreds of thousands of blacks died in the Civil War, the First World War, and the Second World War. We had the Thirteenth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment and the Fifteenth Amendment and then we had the Warren decision… After all of these things, you want us to say to them, ‘come back tomorrow?’”
The frenzy in the eyes and faces of those Jews was indescribable. The rage in their eyes seemed to cry out, “Traitor!” Here I was, a respected member of the community. R. Schacter essentially said the same thing as me, and they wanted to figuratively lynch us! (Not literally, figuratively.) If you saw the frenzy in that crowd – how the Jews felt betrayed…
Within two to three years, Jews were gone from the community, and with them went the Talmud Torahs and Hebrew schools, and much of the social life of the Jews. Synagogues once brimming were emptying. The Jewish flight from the Bronx was in full force! That’s what the battle cost us.
Rabbi Zevulun Charlop is Dean Emeritus of RIETS, Special Advisor to the President on Yeshiva Affairs, and rabbi of the Young Israel of Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx, NY.
Ariel Caplan is a senior at YC majoring in Biology, and is an associate editor for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] R. Yaakov Moshe Charlop, Mei Marom 18, 89. Translation by Ariel Caplan.
[ii] R. Schacter was a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations as well as the rabbi of the Mosholu Jewish Center for over fifty years. He was also previously a chaplain in the U.S. Army, during which service he had famously participated in the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp and the resettling of refugee Holocaust survivors. He is not to be confused with current RIETS rosh kollel Rabbi Hershel Schachter.