David Walk

Motor Miracle or Hebrew Hex

In 1927, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic, and a Jewish lawyer from San Francisco, Aaron Leland Sapiro, successfully sued Henry Ford for anti-Semitic editorials under his byline, in the Dearborn Independent, Ford’s privately owned newspaper. The paper was closed in December of that year. Ford was very public with his anti-Jewish bias. This was the big Jewish victory in that ongoing war. 

Henry Ford passed away in 1947, but according to Prof Jeffrey Gurock of Yeshiva University his revenge wasn’t over. Allow me to explain. 

Half a million Jews returned home from WW2, the Big One. Many didn’t return to their inner-city homes. Aided by GI Bill mortgages, they moved straight to the suburbs. One third of these Jews moved to the ‘burbs, four times the rate of the general (read: Gentile) population. 

Most of these returning servicemen and women now thought of themselves as American, in ways never imagined before. Anti-Semitism, at least for two decades, was on the wane. A Jewess, Bess Meyerson (who refused the suggestion to call herself Bess Meredith) was Miss America 1945. We had arrived! 

Americans are very religious. Most Americans go to a house of worship once a week. Jews wanted to follow suit. Here’s the rub: They no longer live within reasonable walking distance to a shul. What’s a Jew to do? 

Well, there were basically two options, the Conservative and the Orthodox.

The Rabbinic Assembly of the Conservative Movement solved the problem by concluding in 1950 that: Where a family resides beyond reasonable walking distance from the synagogue, the use of a motor vehicle for the purpose of synagogue attendance shall in no wise be construed as a violation of the Sabbath but, on the contrary, such attendance shall be deemed an expression of loyalty to our faith. 

The Orthodox parked around the corner.  

The competition was on! And the Orthodox were losing. According to Prof. Zev Eleff, between 1945 and 1965 there were 450 new Conservative synagogues, but only 100 new Orthodox shuls.  

Looking back, many of us thought that the big difference between Orthodox and Conservative was the mechitza, or, as the Conservative movement called it: Family Seating. However, the first shot in that war was really the backfire from the exhaust pipe of a ‘45 Packard sedan. 

So, one might say, Prof. Gurock suggests, that our discomfort was posthumous payback from an old nemesis: the man who made automobiles available to everyone, Henry Ford. 

Sunday: Spotlight on YU

Shabbat Shalom! Stay safe!

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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