The Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest was founded in 1984 to tell the stories of Jews who settled in this region. These stories, many about immigrants from Eastern Europe, are instructive today as our country wrestles once again with issues of immigration.
The first Jews are believed to have arrived in Minnesota in 1849. We have had our ups and downs ever since. One notable low point occurred in 1946, when Minneapolis was dubbed the anti-Semitism capital of the U.S. by Carey McWilliams, a lawyer and author. This indignity was conferred because, at that time, Jews were excluded from many organizations, faced discrimination when seeking employment, restrictive covenants when seeking housing, and were subject to quotas when seeking admission to institutions of higher education. Barred from membership in organizations such as the Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary and Toastmasters, Minneapolis Jews were only permitted to join the local American Automobile Association in the 1960s.
Today’s Jewish community in the Twin Cities is quite stable and successful overall. Open an annual report for any community nonprofit organization, and members of the Jewish community will be very well represented.
The Jewish community, here and in much of America, descends from immigrants, many of them poor, who were peddlers and small-shop owners. A good number arrived here during the large wave of immigration from Eastern Europe beginning in the early 1880s and continuing until the Immigration Act of 1924 significantly limited Jewish immigration from that region. While some in the Twin Cities Jewish community are descended from German Jews who arrived in the mid-1800s, it would be difficult to locate a community member who can trace their U.S. ancestry to earlier than 1850, unless their forbears came to another part of the country with an earlier established Jewish community and their own migration to Minnesota was more recent.
As the grandchild of four of these Eastern European Jewish immigrants to Minnesota, it has been disheartening to watch an unfortunate combination of ingredients come together and nurse a backlash against immigrants. Renewed xenophobia by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants is seeking to narrow, if not close completely, that golden door contemplated in the famous poem by Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
But, the news of the last couple of days has given me hope in the America I have known my entire life.
When a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was desecrated by vandals, two Muslim Americans, Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi, sought to raise $20,000 for repairs. Last count, the pair had raised more than $136,000. Unfortunately, another Jewish cemetery, this one in Philadelphia, had hundreds of headstones knocked over just Tuesday.
When a University of Minnesota student, an Eagle Scout from my own son’s Boy Scout troop, returned to find a swastika and rendering of a concentration camp on his dormitory white board, the university reacted quickly and compassionately. Other recent anti-Semitic events on campus have also received a rapid response, and this gives me hope.
In the past six weeks, many Jewish Community Centers around the country have received bomb threats, with 11 receiving threats on Tuesday. The Sabes JCC in St. Louis Park was targeted just a couple of weeks ago, and the St. Paul JCC in Highland Park just days ago, hitting very close to home. The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) has offered a monetary reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible.
Muslim Americans who deal daily with fear and hatred are stepping up to support my community, and this also gives me hope. The book of Leviticus commands: “When strangers sojourn in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The principle of welcoming the stranger is repeated 35 times in the Torah, more than any other commandment.
Minnesota, the Upper Midwest and the entire United States have been shaped by the rich histories of the immigrants who came here to make better lives for their families. In doing so, they have also contributed greatly to this country. We must choose not to be fearful and continue to welcome the stranger.
Robin Doroshow is executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest.