The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Russian Jew in New York*
by David M. Bressler

* - From "The Immigrant Jew in America"-- issued by the National Liberal Immigration League, New York City, 1907.
Also included in earlier
1905 edition of "The Russian Jew in the United States."

A consideration of the status of any people would be incomplete without determining the effect of their geographical situation. This is particularly applicable to the Jews, because of their remarkable adaptability to environment. The Jew in America is still a stranger in a strange land. True, there are a few who can boast of two or three generations in this country, but they are largely in the minority.

There is only one noteworthy tendency that can be observed in the distribution of the Jews in this country that is different from the tendencies in other large classes of immigrants. Scandinavian immigrants, for instance, are largely found in one section of the country, in the wheatfields of the Northwest. Italians are where there is need for laborers in gangs or for what might be termed itinerant labor. The Slavs from Russia and Austria are in the mining districts. These three large classes of immigrants move along simple, well-defined lines. The distribution of the Jews, though not so well defined on the surface, is due to tendencies that are peculiar to himself. Having been a city-dweller for centuries, the love for city life is strong within him. We cannot therefore expect to find him on the prairies of the West, in the coal mines of the East or the plantations of the South. We see him in the larger cities of the country, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, San Francisco and others nearly as large; and wherever he is found in the smaller towns and villages, the original settlement, we can rest assured, was made by those whose headquarters had first been a large city in the vicinity.

This being practically the only phenomenon to be observed in the distribution of the Jew in America, how meager was our knowledge of the situation, and how unsatisfactory and discouraging to those who realized that the peculiar conditions attendant upon the large influx of Jews and their consequent congestion in the sea-port towns
made it necessary that they be distributed. Either the courage of those who undertook the enterprise must be commended or the pressing need deplored, or, perhaps, both. Artificial distribution was begun four years ago and the movement, self-styled "Industrial Removal," has become known in every city and town in the country where Jews are to be found. Whether this stimulated distribution will show results markedly different from those consequent upon a more natural distribution cannot, of course, be accurately determined for some time. Be that as it may, however, the movement itself is most interesting and the results thus far obtained will be instructive in throwing some little light upon the question as a whole.

In consequence of the many restrictive laws of Roumania, there began in the year 1900 a large influx of Roumanian Jews into this country. The normal Jewish immigration then averaged about 45,000 annually, the majority of whom remained in New York, which city already at that time contained over 500,000. This large immigration has been going on since 1881; over 70 per cent of those who arrived in the United States remained in New York. One of the results of this movement was the gradual congestion of the immigrant population in one part of the city, called the East Side. So much has been published of the conditions prevailing in the so-called New York Ghetto that it is not necessary here to dwell upon them.

Those who were actively interested in the question of Jewish immigration realized that, though the conditions in Roumania demanded the continuance of this immigration, it was essential to divert the stream away from New York. They understood, too, that the problem of Jewish immigration to the United States was not local merely because the vast majority of ocean steamships disembarked their human cargoes in the harbor of New York. They argued that these people do not come to New York; they come to America, and so the question of immigration is of national interest; that is to say, it was incumbent on Jews all over the country to help bear the burden of caring for these friendless refugees and making them self-supporting. The plan to be pursued, therefore, must be one by which the immigrants were to be distributed all over the country, in towns where economic and industrial conditions are better than in the metropolis.

The question that arose in the minds of these men was how to arouse the Jewish communities to a sense of their duty in accepting as many as they had reasonable assurance of placing in self-supporting positions. What agency could be employed that would effectively reach these communities? The answer to this query was the Independent Order B'nai B'rith. It was peculiarly fitted to undertake the stupendous task of distributing these immigrants upon their arrival by virtue of its character as a strong and comprehensive organization, represented in most important towns and cities in the Union. The Executive Committee of the B'nai B'rith issued bulletins to the various lodges in the West and South, explaining the situation, earnestly requesting them to organize in such a way as to make it possible to effect the purpose in view. As a result of the encouraging assurance of co-operation on the part of these lodges, a committee was organized in New York for the purpose of handling the situation in systematic fashion. This committee established a local office, whose business it became to open communication with the lodges which had responded, and to prosecute the work of distribution practically.

In a short time it was discovered that there were many difficulties in the way of conducting this work successfully, by no means the least of which was the necessity of overcoming the unwillingness of the newly-arrived Roumanians to leave New York after they had found friends and relatives there. Owing to this difficulty, and also to the fact that there were many Jews in New York from other countries who were also out of work, the subject acquired a new aspect. The conviction forced itself upon the minds of the committee that in order not to augment the congestion in New York, particularly in view of the fact that in addition to the Roumanians, there were thousands of Russians and Galicians constantly coming, it was necessary that a process of clearing the way should be put into execution. The number of Roumanians sent away was so small as hardly to affect the conditions here; and, as these conditions were not improving, it was decided to extend the privilege to all of our co-religionists who were out of work and who showed promise of becoming self-supporting. This conviction showed itself in a practical manner in the establishment of the Industrial Removal Office in February of 1901.

Removal work was undertaken with well-defined purposes in view. On the one hand it was to assist in making self-supporting those unemployed Jews of New York who were willing to go West or South. On the other hand these persons were to become the centres of attraction for others in Europe who were destined for the United States. That is to say, they were to become a means to divert those immigrants from New York to various points in the interior who would under any circumstances come to this country, and who would otherwise take up their domicile in New York. As far as the former function is concerned, the Industrial Removal Office is a philanthropic institution seeking to better the social and economic conditions of New York Jews. The other purpose it is seeking to carry out is broader and has as its motive the desire to establish a permanent plan of relief for thousands of Jews, who in the aggregate present a serious problem to American Jewry. The movement in its conception is thoroughly rational and scientific, because it is, so to speak, cleansing and inoculating the entire body by local treatment, and in so doing it is at the same time helping to relieve the local distress.1

Hon. Frank P. Sargent, Commissioner General of Immigration,2 stated: "In my judgment the smallest part of the duty to be discharged in successfully handling alien immigrants with a view to the protection of the people and institutions of this country is that part now provided for by law. Its importance, though undeniable, is relatively of secondary moment. It cannot, for example, compare in practical value with, nor can it take the place of measures to insure the distribution of the many thousands who come in ignorance of the industrial needs and opportunities of this country, and, by a more potent law than that of supply and demand, which speaks to them here in an unknown tongue, colonizes alien communities in our great cities. Such colonies are a menace to the physical, moral and political security of the country. They are hotbeds for the propagation and growth of those false ideas of political and personal freedom, whose germs have been vitalized by ages of oppression under unequal and partial laws, which find their first concrete expression in resistance to the constituted authority, even occasionally in the assassination of the lawful agents of that authority. They are the breeding grounds, also, of moral depravity; the centres of propagation of physical disease. Above all, they are the congested places in the industrial body which check the free circulation of labor to those parts where it is most needed and where it can be most benefited. Do away with them and the greatest peril of immigration will be removed."

The Commissioner's official recommendation was anticipated when the Removal Office was established; that is to say, artificial distribution is of itself one of the strongest advocates of unrestricted immigration and will continue to be so as long as it is effective. Whether the Removal Office has been effective in carrying out its objects can be judged by the actual results thus far obtained. Though four years seem a very short time in which to paw upon the results of the work, it is not excessive enthusiasm that prompts those engaged in it to say that it has evolved out of its experimental stage and has shown its necessity for continuing, so long as large members of Jews emigrate. Of course the movement must be judged in its two aspects. As a philanthropic undertaking it has assisted over 16,000 persons to become self-supporting, who before were on the verge of dependency. So far as its second function is concerned, the results, though not quite so definite, are still encouraging to a surprising degree, as those results were not expected to be seen for years to come. The percentage of those Jewish immigrants who remained in the city in the years 1898 and 1899 was 79.9 per cent and 79.2 per cent respectively. These, it should be noted, are the two years preceding the establishment of the Removal Office. In the year 1903, two years thereafter, the percentage of immigrants who remained in New York was 71.9 per cent, showing that about 8 per cent more left for the interior in that year than in 1898 and 1899. Though this is not conclusive evidence that the diversion of Jewish immigration has been effected so quickly, yet this discrepancy is due in a large degree to this artificial distribution. The records of the Removal Bureau also show a large number of persons that went into the interior directly from Europe to persons originally sent away by the Bureau from New York, who for the most part would have come to the seaport metropolis had their relatives remained there.

The results could have been much more imposing were it not for a two-fold obstacle that has largely hampered the activities of the Bureau. It has taxed the energies of the management to the utmost to adjust and reconcile in every practical and legitimate manner the prejudice and timidity of the immigrant with the same qualities--in a different form--as the majority of the people of the interior communities. It has been a process mainly of gaining the confidence of the beneficiary on the one hand and of the benefactor on the other. The interior communities, realizing in a large degree the extreme and pressing necessity for the work, still failed at the beginning to thoroughly grasp the situation; there was a sentimental desire on their part to help the refugees from Eastern European oppression, but when they found that the practical manner of helping them along the lines of the Removal Office meant not only sacrifice of time and money, but real annoyance and disagreeable experiences, then their charitable sentiment received a shock, from which some have not recovered to this day. Industrial conditions all over the country have also been such as to force restrictions upon orders for people and prevented the removal of some deserving persons who have been so unfortunate as not to come within the requirements demanded by the communities of the interior. All this has been the great difficulty on the one side. The obstacle to be met with in New York, on the other, has been the unwillingness on the part of the majority of the people to leave the city. Not merely have the attractions of the wonderful seaport metropolis held them back, but ignorance and consequent fear of the unknown and mysterious have largely deterred them from applying at the Bureau. Only such as have been possessed of a comparatively fearless and independent character, or who have received encouraging reports from friends or relatives in the interior have had the courage to ask that they be sent away. This forced selection, artificial in a large measure, will probably show results different from that brought about by a natural distribution. What this difference will be is hard to conjecture.

The Bureau has attempted to settle some of the more promising men in the small towns of the South and the West where few or no Jews are found. In a number of cases such settlement has been permanent, but better success can be obtained in settling the people in the smaller towns when such towns are within a reasonable distance of some large city. The Bureau's experience has shown that the best results can be obtained where the artificial distribution observes as closely as possible the natural law of distribution mentioned before. Indeed, of late the exigencies of the work have also helped to gradually develop a system of agencies in the large cities, which already have begun to place a portion of those sent them to the small towns and villages in their immediate vicinities.

Though this law of distribution is practically the only definite phenomenon that has appeared, it cannot be doubted that the movement contains far-reaching possibilities. What the effect of this distribution will be ethnically, what it will be religiously, as well as what it will be economically are questions of intense interest, which unfortunately cannot be answered at the present time.
Then, too, the question can be viewed from the subjective standpoint; that is, not merely as to the effect upon those removed, but what will it be upon those who are good enough to receive them? Among the many communities that have been enlisted in the cause of removal and who co-operate with warmth and sympathy with the Bureau are such as were practically altogether isolated from the rest of American Jewry until after the visit of the Bureau's representative. Such a visit not only succeeded in arousing their interest in removal work, but encouraged interest in other Jewish questions. In other words "removal " has already shown itself to be a factor in arousing among our country cousins what is commonly called, in the pulpit, a Jewish consciousness.

It is too obvious to require comment that a great many dependents apply at charitable institutions who are out of employment because there is no work to be found in their peculiar line. However, there may be a demand for workmen of just such trades in other cities in the Union. That is to say, much poverty is caused by the immobility of labor, and "inter-removal," so to speak, is a method of reducing this evil. For the present, of course, no such general scheme of removal would be justifiable in view of the pressing needs of the seaport metropolis, which is laboring under the enormous burden of a stupendous immigration. But should the happy time come when the stream of immigration is successfully diverted from New York to many points in the interior, then such a scheme would undoubtedly be instrumental in helping a great many poor, deserving persons and families in becoming self-supporting, and in a manner containing elements of smaller danger than any other form of charity.

The immigration of nearly one million Jews to this country since 1881 has made necessary various plans for their welfare, of which that for their distribution throughout the country should receive hearty encouragement.


1 For detailed information of the actual results of removal work see reports of Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society for 1901, 1902 and 1908. See also paper read before Jewish Chautauqua Summer Assembly in 1908 and paper read before the Third Conference of Jewish Charities in the United States, New York, 1904.
2 Annual Report of the Commissioner General of Immigration, 1903, p. 60.







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