The Bernard Madoff scandal does not represent the first time that American Jews and their institutions needed to confront such financial challenges. In the 1920s,
Joseph Marcus and Saul Singer successfully operated the Bank of the United States. With the onset of the Great Depression, that bank collapsed in 1930.
Similar to Madoff, these bank officials personally knew thousands of their customers and, as with the current situation, the bank’s operations involved an elaborate series of money schemes, not uncommon to the business culture of the pre-Depression era. But in the end, more than 400,000 depositors, mostly Jewish, lost their life savings, and thousands of Jewish businesses declared bankruptcy.
In the context of understanding both the events surrounding the Depression of 1929 and the current global economic crisis, it may be of value to examine other similar trends, shared challenges and potential opportunities that shaped the lives of America’s Jews and its communal institutions.
Unprecedented synagogue growth accompanied the period of the 1920s. Between 1916 and 1926, for example, the number of congregations in the United States doubled, and numerous congregations prior to the Depression were involved in major building fund efforts. These same patterns of expansion are not dissimilar to the data covering the past number of years, involving the growth of synagogues, the development and expansion of day schools and the establishment of capital campaigns to upgrade facilities.
Based upon a 1936 survey of 456 congregations in the metropolitan New York area, the synagogue community reported a collective debt of $14 million. New York’s Temple Emanu-El witnessed a 44 percent decrease in its membership, while the Brooklyn Jewish Center reported the loss of one-half of its 1,500 families.
While the Jewish community has yet to assemble information on the fallout from this current economic crisis, the loss of congregational members, indications of unbalanced budgets and the necessity of budgetary and program reductions are being cited by synagogues across the country.
The Depression sparked, in fact, a religious renewal in America. In response, synagogues of that period, joining with churches, created a national Drive for Religious Recovery, paralleling the federal government’s National Recovery Act. Congregations created “loyalty days” and an array of activities to galvinize constituencies.
Drawing upon the events of this period, the American rabbinate saw a unique opportunity to inspire and galvanize Jews to engage in volunteer service, not only with reference to the needs of the Jewish community but also in connection with the larger society; to employ for the first time radio broadcasts and newspaper advertisements as a way to reach out to encourage Jewish learning and synagogue involvement and to speak out on behalf of public policy matters and social justice concerns.
Similarly, fundraising on the part of Jewish charities in the 1920s achieved extraordinary results, not dissimilar to the recent success of American Jewish institutions.
As a result of the Depression, Jewish social service agencies saw a 40 percent increase in caseloads of families in crisis, which led them to acknowledge that they could no longer meet the needs of the community’s most vulnerable.
This new reality created a debate over the “Stuyvesant Promise,” dating back to the the time of the first arrivals of Jews to New Amsterdam (New York), when the community had committed itself to the task of caring for its own to the then-Dutch Gov. Peter Stuyvesant.
The onset of the 1930s launched the first partnerships where government agencies working in partnership with Jewish social service institutions provided relief services.
Many other commonalities seem to join this moment in time with the Depression era, among them a shared awareness and concern over anti-Semitism and the downsizing of institutions and the resulting merger of others. The depth of dislocation and loss experienced by families during the Depression depended upon one’s social class or specific financial situation. A similar scenario appears today, as some are more adversely affected by the current economic crisis than others.
The 1930s represented a time of extraordinary experimentation on the part of all sectors of society, just as it challenged Jewish leaders and institutions to rethink how they would respond to both the emerging social and economic crisis. The Depression left its mark on a generation of Jews as it reshaped how organizations would manage their resources in a time of scarcity.
Recalling Jewish life during such difficult timeframes will hopefully offer us some insights and directions for our own personal and collective journeys.