Historians have noted the seemingly underwhelming response of the American Jewish community to the Holocaust as it unfolded in Europe. Among the few who were prominent activists was Rabbi Eliezer Silver (1882-1968).
Born in Lithuania, Rabbi Silver came to the United States in 1907, shortly after receiving rabbinic ordination. After a brief period in New York, the Silvers moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Rabbi Silver accepted a rabbinical position.
An early political activist, Rabbi Silver helped circulate a petition against a U.S. treaty with Russia (as a protest against persecution of the Jews) and was active in World War I relief efforts. Between the two World Wars, Rabbi Silver first took a position in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then Cincinnati, Ohio, where he remained for the rest of his life.
In the 1930s, Rabbi Silver started the first American branch of the Agudath Israel, a non-Zionist, Orthodox political organization founded in 1912 in Europe. Agudath Israel became the organization through which Rabbi Silver attempted to organize rescue efforts for European Jewry. In 1939, he formed the Vaad Hatzalah (Rescue Committee). The Vaad Hatzalah raised over $5 million for rescue efforts and organized synagogues to secure 2,000 contracts for rabbinic positions, resulting in numerous emergency visas being issued. The Vaad Hatzalah used all means (preferably legal but if necessary, illegal) to rescue Jews.
One poignant story frequently repeated about Rabbi Silver describes how he and Dayan Grunfeld of England came to a Christian orphanage in Europe after the war looking for hidden Jewish children. The head priest denied knowing whether any of the children were actually Jewish. The rabbis decided to return at bedtime, and, when all the children were gathered together to recite their bedtime prayers, the rabbis loudly recited the Shema in front of the children. Remembering the prayer that had once been part of their bedtime ritual, many children in the room started crying and calling out for their mothers.
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