Personality, politics and the price of justice: Ephraim Frisch, San Antonio's "radical" rabbi.

Author:Preuss, Karl
Position:Special Issue: Directions in Southern Jewish History, Part One

On Tuesday, 29 June 1937, 15 uniformed and plainclothes officers of the San Antonio police department descended on the headquarters of the Workers' Alliance, a Communist-led group that promoted labor interests. According to one participant, the police brought axes and "liberally and enthusiastically" destroyed everything.(1) They smashed all the dishes in the kitchen, kicked over the stove, chopped up the piano, hammered chairs and benches to pieces, tore up flags, ripped posters and charts from the walls, smashed the typewriter and duplicating machine, seized armfuls of political literature, and arrested seven members of the alliance. An observer disclosed that the police used clubs made from the butt end of pool cues weighted with lead.(2)

The police raid and the controversial response by San Antonio's Rabbi Ephraim Frisch provided a high-profile vignette of the larger issues of the day--unemployment, labor unrest, nativism, the emergence of religious fundamentalism and anti-Semitism, and the specter of Nazism in Germany, and similar movements in other parts of Europe and in the United States. The story of Ephraim Frisch, Reform rabbi at San Antonio's Temple Beth-El from 1923 to 1942, is particularly poignant. Frisch was a liberal social activist whose board of directors and some members of his congregation wrongly branded "radical." At a time of growing anti-Semitism and reaction to New Deal liberalism, conservatives and extremists used the term widely to discredit liberal critics.

American Jews were vulnerable to the charges of being radicals or Communists because popular perception often failed to distinguish between New Deal liberalism, democratic socialism, and repressive Soviet-style Communism. San Antonio's Reform Jews were no exception. Jews were sometimes drawn to conservatives, even those who were anti-Semitic, partly because of their desire to reassure non-Jews that they were not socialists, Communists, or otherwise un-American.(3)

Even Frisch was not immune from the fear of association with socialists. In December 1936 he replied to a request from socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas to establish a Jewish Bureau for the Socialist Party. Frisch's response was an unequivocal no. "I do hope you will abandon this project in your activities," he wrote to Thomas. "We have so many troubles from anti-Semites and from ignorant people in general on the subject of our alleged political and economic associations, that we certainly would like to be spared being exposed to a new charge."(4) In fact, because some Jews came to believe that their own were purveyors of socialism or Communism, they viewed their liberal rabbis with suspicion.

Frisch's experience was a case in point. Rabbi Ephraim Frisch embraced with particular zeal the role of social activist. He supported labor interests, advocated for the poor, defended freedom of speech even for Communists, championed the teaching of Darwinism in public schools, eschewed the notion of a Christian America, reviled the profit motive, and played a particularly dramatic role in the standoff between conservatives and liberals at a time when religious and political ideologies were becoming polarized and unforgiving.(5)

How Frisch came to these views is unclear. Although the Reform movement and its training inculcated liberal thinking in its rabbinate, in many cases this only reinforced existing views. His early school years in Minnesota may have nurtured the young Frisch's incipient liberal tendencies. Certainly the Reform movement would not have attracted Frisch had he not already inclined to liberal thinking. Frisch's father was an Orthodox rabbi, yet for reasons unknown he encouraged his son to enter the Reform rabbinate.(6) Frisch received his ordination from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1903.

Frisch's role as a supporter of liberal causes and social justice was an integral part of his self-perception as a rabbi. Early on, and throughout his career, Frisch spoke and wrote forcefully about philanthropy and social action. During the early part of the century, when liberal Protestant churches espoused the social gospel, Frisch urged the religious community to make practical application of its teachings. He had worked with Horace J. Wolf, a fellow Reform rabbi, to establish the Social justice Commission of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and from 1926 Frisch served as its second chairman.(7) Frisch lost no chance to express his views.

As a guest speaker in synagogues and in churches, in radio broadcasts, newspaper editorials, magazine articles, and public forums he advanced the cause for social justice with seemingly inexhaustible energy. In his support of immigration Frisch took a stand unpopular with American nativists and even some Jews, who looked down on their poorer and less sophisticated cousins fleeing the pogroms of eastern Europe.

An immigrant himself, Frisch was born in 1880 in the village of Subacius, just west of the city of Panevzys in north-central Lithuania. At that time Lithuania was under the control of imperial Russia, and Tsar Alexander III, his government, and the local populace promoted repressive measures against Jews. After 1895 Nicholas II continued his father's policies. Recurring pogroms and widespread discrimination forced Jewish refugees into western Europe and the United States.

It is unclear if Frisch as a child suffered from poverty and discrimination either in Europe or after his arrival in the United States at age seven or eight.(8) He was, however, exquisitely sensitive to these problems and strove to combat them. For example, years later, at confirmation services at Temple Beth-El Frisch prohibited his confirmands; from wearing jewelry or watches given to them as confirmation gifts. He disliked the message that wearing jewelry gave to those who were less fortunate.(9)

After receiving his ordination Frisch served as rabbi at Temple Anshe Emeth in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. In 1906 he became embroiled in a controversy with a local minister over whether the United States ought to be considered a Christian nation. According to Frisch the idea violated the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.(10)

Frisch also found himself unwelcome among some members of Pine Bluff's white community because he had become an outspoken supporter of Isaac Fisher, a black educator and graduate from the Tuskegee Institute. As principal of Branch Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), Fisher sought to introduce reforms in the face of stiff resistance from some members of the white community. One of Fisher's detractors was Arkansas Governor Jeff Davis, who railed against "nigger domination."(11)

From Pine Bluff Frisch moved in 1912 to Temple Israel in Far Rockaway, New York. Three years later he founded the New Synagogue at the request of summer members of Temple Israel who lived in Manhattan.(12) He remained there until departing for San Antonio and Temple Beth-El in 1923. By this time Frisch had married Ruth Cohen, daughter of Henry Cohen, a prominent and influential rabbi in Galveston with whom Frisch had developed an amiable working relationship. As part of the Galveston Movement Cohen cooperated with philanthropist Jacob Schiff around 1910 to encourage immigration of European Jews through the port of Galveston. Cohen and his coworkers found homes for them in hospitable Jewish communities. Frisch, still in Pine Bluff in 1910, had been a receptive host.(13)

Frisch's relationship with the Cohens remained cordial and enduring. judging from Frisch's correspondence with his father-in-law, both men shared liberal views characteristic of most Classical Reform rabbis, many of whom, like Frisch and Cohen (who had emigrated from England), did not come from the South or even the United States. At the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 Frisch and Cohen were opposed to a Jewish homeland. Their anti-Zionism derived from their perception that the United States rather than a prospective Jewish state should serve as the ultimate home for American Jews. That view prevailed in the Reform rabbinate, although there were important exceptions.(14) Beyond sharing social and religious views Frisch appears to have nurtured a high regard for his father-in-law. One may presume that Cohen felt the same about his son-in-law. Owing to a lack of information it is difficult to know what Rabbi Cohen thought of Frisch's sometimes irascible personality and how it affected his controversial tenure at San Antonio's Temple Beth-El. Even after his wife's death in August 1934 after a long illness Frisch maintained close ties to the Cohen family in Galveston.

In San Antonio Frisch's board of directors at Temple Beth-El felt leery when their rabbi promoted liberal political causes. The board and many members of San Antonio's Reform community were successful, assimilated businessmen who were also part of the social and civic establishment. A number of urban leaders, Jewish and non-Jewish, had emerged from German families who made important contributions to their city and state as they worked their way up the social ladder. These prominent men defended themselves vigorously against challenges to their conservative values.

Reform rabbis often emerged from a different social milieu and approached life from a different philosophical perspective than their communities' conservative business and civic leaders. And when race or ethnicity was at issue, as with Mexicans in Texas or with blacks in Texas and other parts of the South, tension often developed between liberal rabbis and their more constrained congregants. Even when in principle congregants may have agreed with their rabbis' position they were often reluctant to offer support out of fear of alienating others in their synagogues or in the non-Jewish community.

Some Jewish congregants engaged in what historian Albert Vorspan describes as a popular indoor...

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