The War That Changed American Jewry


Rabbi Illowy cited passages in the Torah permitting the owning of slaves. Although he acknowledged that Moses was not in favor of slavery among the Israelites, Rabbi Illowy asked, “Why did he not … prohibit the buying and selling of slaves from and to other nations? Where was ever a greater philanthropist than Abraham, and why did he not set free [his] slaves?”

In countering such arguments, Rabbi Einhorn pointed out that the Torah also permitted having more than one wife, yet polygamy was no longer allowed. He also declared: “The 10 Commandments, the first of which is: ‘I am the Lord, thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt — out of the house of bondage’ can by no means want to place slavery of any human being under divine sanction.”

“In context, these rabbis’ words straddled the line between speech and action,” Pinkert said. “They did not take up arms, but their pronouncements were a factor in their congregants’ decision to choose sides and join the fight.”

As a result, America’s Jews, both in the North and in the South, tended as most citizens did, to side with the majority with whom they lived. Slavery was then legal in Maryland, and Baltimore was called “the northernmost Southern city.”

Actual mob violence broke out in Baltimore during the week of April 19-26, 1861, much of it taking place near today’s Lloyd Street Synagogue and along the streets where Lincoln previously had walked that February night. Threats to tar and feather Rabbi Einhorn caused him eventually to flee to Philadelphia. Leopold Blumenberg, president of Har Sinai and a staunch pro-abolitionist, had to barricade himself in his room for three days after learning that some in the mob wanted to hang him.

As told in the exhibit, Blumenberg, born the 21st of 22 children, had served in the Prussian army, rising to first lieutenant. When anti-Semitism in the military denied him a decoration for his service, he left for America, arriving in 1854. He later joined the Union army during the Civil
War and was wounded at the battle of Antietam. Eventually, he became a brigadier general.

To avoid controversy, Rabbi Illowy soon left Baltimore for a pulpit in New Orleans.

Jews Owned Slaves?

That Jews owned slaves, that a rabbi could speak out in favor of slavery, that Jews signed up to fight for the Confederacy (in larger numbers proportionately to those fighting for the Union) is all a part of “Passages Through the Fire.” But the other part is that there were thousands of Jews who sided with the abolitionists and fought for the North to free the slaves.

Indeed, the story of our nation’s Civil War — a war that resulted in more battle deaths than all other U.S. wars combined — is a varied and complex one, especially for Jews.

“The biggest surprise for me working on this exhibit … [was that] we think of Jews as always historically socially liberal, [but] this was not so for many Jews in America at that time,” said Karen Falk, the Jewish Museum’s curator.

Yet, Jews had far fewer slaves in total.

“Since Jews tended to be urban, they might have had two or three house slaves,” Falk said.


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