Conversation With… Dr. Yehuda Ben-Meir

Former Knesset Member remembers his father – the Hartford rabbi who marched to the White House
By Rafael Medoff

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Jewish rallies outside the White House may be commonplace in our generation, but during the Holocaust years, there was only one demonstration in Washington, D.C. for rescuing Jews from the Nazis. In 1943, three days before Yom Kippur, more than four hundred rabbis from around the country marched to the White House to plead for rescue. And Hartford’s leading rabbi was among them.
I. Solomon Rosenberg, longtime spiritual leader of Hartford’s Garden Street Shul, took part in that historic march. Now his son, veteran Israeli political leader Yehuda Ben-Meir, has taken up the cause of publicizing this little-known but significant protest rally.
Dr. Ben-Meir is a former Knesset Member and Deputy Foreign Minister. He was the keynote speaker at a recent conference sponsored by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and held at Bar Ilan University, focusing on the involvement of religious Zionists in the campaign for Holocaust rescue.
After the conference, I spoke with him about his father and the march.

RM: You’re actually the descendant of not one, but two generations of rabbis who took part in the 1943 march.
Ben-Meir: Yes, my father, Rabbi I. Solomon Rosenberg, went to the march together with my maternal grandfather -that is, his father-in-law- Rabbi Eliezer Predmesky. They were accompanied by another one of Rabbi Predmesky’s sons-in-law, Jacob Hecht, who was an attorney in New York City.
The famous Lithuanian sage Rabbi Chaim Ozer sent my grandfather to the United States in 1920 to serve as executive director of the Agudas HaRabbonim, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis.

RM: I understand your father originally did not intend to become a pulpit rabbi.
Ben-Meir: His family came from Poland when he was a child, around 1920. After he married in 1936, my parents lived in New York City. My father earned s’micha [rabbinical ordination] but also enrolled at the New York University law school. He excelled there, served as the editor of the law review journal, and was planning a career as an attorney.

RM: Why did he leave New York and the legal profession?
Ben-Meir: His father, Rabbi Meyer Joshua Rosenberg, who was the rabbi of Hartford’s Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, better known as the Garden Street Shul, passed away suddenly in 1940, at age 52. My father felt a strong sense of responsibility for the shul and the Hartford Jewish community. It must have been that same feeling of responsibility for the Jewish people that moved him to take part in the march to Washington three years later.

RM: What did you mean when you said, in your speech at the Bar Ilan University conference, that the march was “an impressive moment of Jewish unity?”
Ben-Meir: In the photos of the march, you see hundreds of rabbis in black hats and long black coats. They don’t look like the type who would be involved in Zionism. But many of them were. My father and grandfather were very active in Mizrachi, the religious Zionist movement. In fact, my father was the founder of the Hartford chapter of Mizrachi. They marched to the White House side-by-side with Hasidic rebbes who were certainly not ZIonists. That kind of unity was not always evident during the Holocaust. Sadly, what was more typical was the problem of American Jews quarreling over their religious and political differences instead of focusing on what was happening to the Jews in Europe.

RM: The Bergson Group, which organized the march along with the Agudas HaRabbonim, decided to hold it three days before Yom Kippur, which increased the dramatic effect but must have made it especially difficult for the participants.
Ben-Meir: The days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are probably the busiest of the year for most pulpit rabbis. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for either my father or my grandfather, who had a large shul in the Bronx, to take part. And traveling from Hartford to Washington, D.C. was undoubtedly a lot more complicated and time-consuming than it is today.
Still, they did not let these obstacles stop them. They really felt the pain of Europe’s Jews and they had to do something. You once mentioned to me that during the war, a rabbi in Brooklyn [Baruch David Weitzmann -RM] forbade his congregants from having public wedding celebrations, so they would remember the suffering of the Jews in Europe. My father did something similar-I remember that on Simchas Torah, all the members of shul used to come to our house for “hakafot,” dancing with the Torah scrolls. But when the news of the killings in Europe reached us, the dancing was canceled.

RM: When did you first learn that your father and grandfather took part in the march?
Ben-Meir: They never mentioned it to me. I only found out about it when the Wyman Institute contacted me in 2006 and showed me a list of rabbis who took part. I was very proud to know of their involvement, but not necessarily surprised. They were activists; they had deeply-held convictions, and they acted upon them.

RM: Several of the rabbis who took part in the march, and whom I have interviewed, told me they didn’t speak about the march in later years because they felt it had been a failure.
Ben-Meir: I can understand why they felt that way. They wanted to deliver their petition to President Roosevelt, and he refused to meet with them. I saw that one Yiddish newspaper columnist at the time wrote that if four hundred priests and nuns had come to the White House to plead for the rescue of persecuted Catholics, there’s no way the president would have ignored them.

RM: We now know that the march helped galvanize members of Congress to push for a resolution urging Roosevelt to create a refugee rescue agency. The pressure from Congress and activists like the Bergson Group helped convince FDR, in early 1944, to establish the War Refugee Board. And historians estimate that the War Refugee Board played a key role in rescuing about 200,000 Jews during 1944-1945.
Ben-Meir: That’s a remarkable accomplishment. I wish my father and grandfather had known that.

RM: What did your father do after the war?
Ben-Meir: He accompanied Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the famous Jewish activist and rabbinical leader, to Europe in 1945 as part of a United Nations mission to help Holocaust survivors. There he saw for himself the horrors that he had been protesting from thousands of miles away.
When Israel was established, my parents immediately began making plans for aliya. I know it was very difficult for him to leave the Hartford Jewish community, but he was convinced Israel was at the heart of the destiny of the Jewish people, and he had to be part of that. We moved to Israel in 1950, when I was eleven years old. My parents Hebraicized our family name to Ben-Meir, which was the trend in those days. My father became one of the leaders of the National Religious Party. He was a Knesset member for nearly twenty years, and served as Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Deputy Minister of the Interior, among other roles.

RM: What lessons do you think your father would have wanted our generation to learn from the march?
Ben-Meir: The need to speak the truth to power, even if that means marching right up to the gates of the White House. And the need for Jewish unity-to set aside relatively small differences and focus our attention on the threats that the Jewish people face.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org

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