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May 22: A Reform Jewish Giant

May 21, 2016

220px-EmilGHirschRabbi Emil G. Hirsch, who headed Chicago’s Sinai Congregation for forty-two years and led Reform Judaism into the Progressive movement and down social justice pathways, was born in Luxemburg on this date in 1852. One of several Jews involved in founding the NAACP, Hirsch was married to the daughter of abolitionist rabbi David Einhorn and served in his father-in-law’s former pulpit in Baltimore before moving to Louisville, Kentucky and then Chicago. He was professor of rabbinical literature and philosophy at the University of Chicago in 1892, active in the Republican Party, and editor of several influential Jewish publications. “Hirsch and his congregants struggled to come to terms with the large number of Jewish immigrants who moved to Chicago after 1880 boosting the Jewish community from about 10,000 in 1880 to over 300,000 in 1920,” writes Tobias Brinkmann. “For the established Jews represented by Sinai, the Jewish ‘Ghetto’ — the immigrant neighborhood on the city’s West Side — appeared to represent a world apart and a sharp contrast to Sinai’s radical and inclusive reform agenda: a highly visible expression of Jewish ethnicity and traditional Judaism which Reform Jews associated with isolation, discrimination and exclusion.” Nevertheless, during the 1890s “Hirsch spoke up against the deplorable condition of Jews in the Russian Empire and reached out to West Side residents. His support for workers’ rights also won him much support among Jewish immigrants who overwhelmingly belonged to the working class.”

“Hirsch worked closely with Jane Addams and other members of the Hull House circle. In 1908 Hirsch and Addams were among the co-founders of the NAACP. Hirsch inspired several members of Sinai congregation: Sears and Roebuck president and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald was one of Hirsch’s closest associates, so was legal scholar Julian Mack who presided over a widely noted juvenile court in Chicago in the first decade of the 20th century. Hannah Solomon was one of the founders of the organized Jewish women’s movement in the United States. Joseph Schaffner and Harry Hart were the leading partner of the clothing manufacturer Hart Schaffner & Marx, one of Chicago’s largest employers. Influenced by Hirsch’s social theology Schaffner and Hart settled with their workers during the 1910-1911 clothing strike, recognizing their right to form a union.” —Tobias Brinkmann