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The Legacy of Elmer Berger

Klaus J. Herrmann
Fall 1996

Rabbi Elmer Berger, America’s foremost champion of a Zionism-opposing and universalistically prophetic Reform Judaism has passed into eternity. At his home in Longboat Key, Florida, he died at the age of 88 on October 5.  

Literally to his final days, Elmer Berger remained intellectually alert. His major work, Peace for Palestine, First Lost Opportunity, was published by the University of Florida Press in 1993. He was in the midst of writing an introductory contribution to an American edition of a French book entitled Founding Myths of Israeli Politics when death terminated his ceaseless scholarly, literary and political endeavors.  

Elmer Berger’s immense legacy is inseparable from our American Council for Judaism, much as his demise from the office of executive vice president in the autumn of 1968 became requisite in light of insurmountable political-philosophical disagreements between the Council leadership and Elmer Berger’s perceptions of what the Council’s role should be within the U.S.-Middle East relationship.  

At that time, the greater majority of the Council’s membership supported the position advocated by such leaders as Lessing J. Rosenwald, Richard Korn, Clarence L. Coleman, Jr. and Henry S. Moyer. It was their view that the American Council for Judaism, as standard bearer of a Zionism-free and authentically classical Reform Judaism, not become an organization whose membership and whose message could be viewed as actively engaged in the Middle East conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.  

Split With Council Leaders  

It was an interview with The New York Times in the summer of 1967, just after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, which tore the bond between Elmer Berger and the Council’s lay leadership. In his own words in Memoirs Of An Anti-Zionist Jew (Institute for Palestine Studies, 1978, p. 116-7), Berger noted that, "The New York Times proceeded to catch up on some twenty years of largely ignoring the Council, anti-Zionists in general and me in particular. It was, on the whole, not a bad story. But the headline and Richard Krebs’ (the reporter’s) lead reported me as identifying Israel as the aggressor in the June War. And as the younger generation of a few years ago would have said, ‘That tore it.’ Actually, I do not now, nor did I even a few days after the Krebs conversation, recall having put it quite so plainly. But that Zionism-Israel was the historic aggressor against the Arabs of Palestine had not been one of the ideas which I had stamped top secret. What had been simmering anti-Zionist disaffection in Council ranks now had a focus and a catalytic release. I refused either to retract or to ask The New York Times for a clarification, for in fact Krebs had not misrepresented the substance of what I had said even though my language had probably been more delicate than his journalese."  

Compensating for its failure to provide space to Rabbi Elmer Berger in the past, a substantial obituary article appeared in the Times of October 9, 1996.  

Elmer Berger was born in Cleveland in May 1908. His family had been in America for four generations and was devotedly attached to classic Reform Judaism as preached at the Ansche Chesed Synagogue (Euclid Avenue Temple) first by Rabbi Michael Machol and, as of 1907, more vigorously by the inimitable Louis Wolsey. Elmer’s father, an engineer, saw to it that his children received a thorough grounding in the temple’s religious school and when Rabbi Wolsey left in 1925 for the senior rabbinate of Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom congregation, then 17-year-old Elmer maintained contact.  

Wolsey’s Guidance  

It was under Rabbi Louis Wolsey’s personal guidance that Elmer entered Hebrew Union College and also became a Phi Beta Kappa scholar at the University of Cincinnati. Elmer commenced his rabbinical studies upon completing his undergraduate education in 1929 and was ordained in 1932. His years at Hebrew Union College (HUC) were enlightened by the scholarly eminence of its president, Julian Morgenstern (1881-1976), the historian Jacob Rader Marcus (1896-1995), and Universalist Judaism’s latter day prophet Abraham Cronbach (1882-1965).  

From the essence of their teachings, rabbinical students of those Depression-over-laden days learned the message of an American Reform Judaism cut free from the bondage of ethnocentered-Palestine-oriented nationalist attachments and pseudo-messianic demands.  

The year of Elmer’s ordination as a rabbi in theological Israel coincided with an America devastated economically in consequence of the October 1929 stock market crash. And immediately looking ahead within eight months, Adolf Hitler’s accession to the total leadership of Germany would serve to cast its very real shadows over America’s Jewish population as well.  

Securing pulpits for graduates of HUC in 1932 proved to be a formidable undertaking. There was then no Placement Commission of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) thus saddling President Julian Morgenstern with a sort of obligation to serve as pulpit placement broker. Unsuccessful in being named to temple pulpits in Peoria, Illinois and in Arizona, Elmer was appointed in 1933 as the founding rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob in Pontiac, Michigan. Until Elmer’s arrival, Pontiac’s small Jewish community were without the services of a resident rabbi. His radically classic Reform philosophy of Judaism led to the founding of an Orthodox-affiliated synagogue a year after Elmer’s arrival. Elmer was relentlessly subjected to a barrage of intolerable impositions throughout his ministry. In 1933 he married Seville Schwartz, sister of HUC-classmate Gilbert Schwartz who, during the initial years of the American Council for Judaism, worked as a chapter organizer. The marriage was dissolved by 1946.  

Non-Zionist Committee  

In 1936, Rabbi Berger moved up to a somewhat larger Michigan congregation in Flint. It was to be in Flint where Berger organized the Non-Zionist Committee and organized the "Flint Plan" that would by August 1942 be integrated into the "Statement of Principles by Non-Zionist Rabbis" under the guidance of New York City’s Temple Emanu-El’s Senior Rabbi Samuel Goldenson and signed by 96 Reform rabbis. The Rev. Samuel Goldenson was persuaded by Emanu-El’s president Lewis Lichtenstein Strauss (then 46, subsequently Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy and Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission) to organize opposition to the CCAR’s pro-Zionist resolutions.  

By December 1942, Elmer Berger was summoned to assume the executive directorship of the "Council for American Judaism" that came to be our American Council for Judaism. He performed brilliantly as chief administrator, publicist, chief philosopher and membership organizer, finding time in addition to write his first book, The Jewish Dilemma, whose message served as a rallying point for American Jewish opposition to Zionism or Jewish nationalism  

Discussing The Jewish Dilemma, Rabbi Wolsey declared: "I am deeply impressed with its essentially Jewish point of view and its appraisal of what are Jewish values. Its information on the subject of Jewish secular nationalism is massive and scholarly . . . It is easily the most penetrating criticism of Jewish nationalism I have ever read."  

Reviewing The Jewish Dilemma for The New York Herald Tribune, Frances Witherspoon noted that, "Rabbi Berger’s book is bound to be focal in controversy . . . Stated both with fervor and moderation, his is a persuasive argument for a Jewry which, ceasing to look backward, should take its full part in the slow upward climb toward human freedom."  

Challenging Jewish Nationalism  

Roger Baldwin, the respected civil libertarian, wrote in Free World that, "A militant young rabbi in New York has thrown into the world debate on Palestine a challenge to the whole concept of Jewish nationhood and the existence of a ‘Jewish people.’ His devastating attack on the Zionist solution of ‘homelessness’ proceeds from the assumption that Jews are not a separate people, incapable of complete integration in any country where they may live. To contend that they are incapable of being integrated, he holds, admits the whole case for the anti-Semites . . . the book will be bitterly assailed by what Rabbi Berger calls the monopolists in control of the major Jewish organizations, the professional Zionists and even the appeasers of Zionism. To a non-Jew the arguments make sense, particularly as the book is written with a convincing wealth of historical documentation and, despite its plain-spoken convictions, without bitterness or personal emotion."  

One year after the publication of The Jewish Dilemma, Elmer found time in 1946 to marry Mrs. Ruth Rosenthal of Flint who, until her death in 1979, served as his dedicated helpmate in the task he set out for himself within American Reform Judaism. After her death he was briefly married to Dr. Rose Tekiner, a Middle East scholar of note.  

Following the breakup of his central role in the American Council for Judaism, Rabbi Berger in March 1969 founded the "American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism" whose principal purpose was in projecting into the Israeli-Arab conflict.  

Break With CCAR  

The Central Conference of American Rabbis will be refraining from publishing a "Yiskor" Memorial to its erstwhile member Elmer Berger in its Yearbook. His resignation from the CCAR is of interest as related to me in his letter dated February 5, 1975:  

"I refused to continue payment of my dues when an old friend and then president of the CCAR, Levi Olan (1902-1984) attacked me and misrepresented my position in his Presidential message (1969 Yearbook). I wrote Levi (then senior rabbi of Emanuel in Dallas) and as per bureaucratic arrogance never received a reply. Sometime later when (CCAR Executive Director) Joseph Glaser wrote asking me to pay my dues, I replied I would if at least I received a response to my letter. (Rabbi) Glaser, also bureaucratically pedantically pointed out that the President’s Message is his personal view and does not represent CCAR policy. It is, of course, not quite this way since the message is printed in the Yearbook without any disclaimer."  

"Anyway, I had for years ignored the Israeli Bond buying, the wholesale endorsement of the United Jewish Appeal campaign, the virtual absorption of the CCAR into the whole Zionist apparatus. Furthermore, I ignored the fact that in a number of programs at conventions at which Zionism was discussed from many angles I was never invited to participate. Others, with obviously less competence, were paraded as authorities on ‘non-Zionism,’ whatever that is. The Levi Olan attack was too much to take in return for nothing but a listing of dubious value in the Yearbook and so I simply quit paying dues. I suppose I might have resigned in a more formal manner, but most of the ruling clique is so mediocre and I have so much to do these days I just did not take the time or give them the dignity of further notice."  

Rejected By HUC  

As goes without saying, the Hebrew Union College did not in 1957, the 25th anniversary of Elmer Berger’s ordination, confer the Doctor of Divinity honoris causa on him, an honorary degree which automatically is granted to all HUC-JIR rabbis attaining a quarter century of rabbinical service. With half a dozen books to his credit and an array of literally innumerable articles, scholarly contributions and essays, he had more than earned the doctoral degree and could have attained a Ph.D. degree easily enough had he wanted to apply his extensive writings thereto.  

(It ought to be recalled in that respect that in 1963 Rabbis William H. Fineshriber and Morris S. Lazaron, both founding members of the American Council for Judaism and in their 85th and 75th years respectively, were offered these honorary degrees by then HUC President Nelson Glueck. Thereupon, Maurice N. Eisendrath, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, together with his board of directors, militantly protested the conferral on these two anti-Zionist rabbis. Rabbi Eisendrath’s protest, more likely, arose out of some serious personal-professional rivalry. See Samuel E. Karff: At One Hundred Years, HUC Press, 1976, p. 204.)  

Elmer Berger’s relentless opposition to Zionism, on which subject he had concentrated his life’s work and purpose, could not and did not endear him to the American Jewish public or, more specifically, to those who were in charge of its organizational structures and publications. From the World Jewish Congress to the American Jewish Committee as well as from all of the synagogal unions (excepting perhaps the Satmar-Chassidic and the Naturei Karta groupings) he certainly could never expect to receive accolades or even tolerance. He knew very well that he could not anticipate any kind of recognition from them and therefore charted his own path and associates.  

Wolsey’s Defection  

What did, however, seriously pain him was Rabbi Louis Wolsey’s ("Cardinal Wolsey and his bishops," as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise referred to his antagonist rabbis in the American Council for Judaism in 1942/43) May 1948 desertion from the organization he had called into life. More than that, it was Louis Wolsey, Elmer Berger’s inspiration and mentor since his youth and adolescence, who championed his centrally important role within the newly emergent American Council for Judaism and saw to it that he was appointed its key executive officer. Thus, desertions from the ranks of once firm supporters of the Jewish anti-Zionist league were par for the course to the Council’s principal administrative and religious leader.  

Considerably more hurtful, some three decades later, was the gauntlet which Lessing J. Rosenwald and the Council’s lay leadership, with exceptions to be sure, threw down as of 1968. Elmer Berger was compelled to depart from the organization to which he had dedicated his life and work.  

... There was, however, a genuinely real issue on the table and it was principally nothing less than the American Council for Judaism’s refusal to be seen as an association whose activities might have been and were seen to be supportive of the Arab cause in the continuing Middle East conflict. It was the Council’s position, instead, that religion and nationality were separate and distinct and that questions of U.S. foreign policy were not its proper area of concern. Its goal was to make it clear that Americans of Jewish faith had no particular foreign policy based upon their religious beliefs, quite different from the Zionist understanding.  

With the initiation of the Middle East peace process between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people a new page was turned. Old enmities also within the camp of classic Reform Judaism should also be buried and renewed efforts made to strengthen the message of progressive Reform Judaism that was Elmer Berger’s commitment to his dying days.

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