The War That Changed American Jewry

October 3, 2013
BY M. Hirsh Goldberg
Jewish Museum of Maryland’s new exhibit highlights Civil War’s challenges for Jews

The museum’s exhibit offers other stories, with accompanying memorabilia and photographs, depicting how the Civil War helped solidify Jewish participation in American life. For instance, in the North, rabbis were successful in working to overturn legislation that barred Jews from the military chaplaincy. And in the South, Confederate President Jefferson Davis worked closely with Judah Benjamin, a Jew who had served in the U.S. Senate. Davis appointed Benjamin secretary of state, and he became so influential that he was termed “the brains of the Confederacy.” Money issued by the Confederacy, printed with Benjamin’s picture, is on display.

The Civil War also changed the stereotype and self-image of Jews. Carl Berenholtz, a retired attorney now living in Pikesville, is a descendant of a  veteran.

“My ancestor, Michael Nusbaum, was a gunner in the Texas 4th Field Artillery Battery and survived five major battles, handling various kinds of artillery for the Confederate army,” said Berenholtz, who has been a Civil War re-enactor for a number of years.

“My relative came to America through Galveston, Texas, along with a large influx of Jewish people just prior to the war. He enlisted at the age of 37 and later became a blacksmith, a skill he learned in the army.”

Asked why his relative fought for the South, Berenholtz replied: “My ancestor came from a small town in Europe and naturally gravitated to agrarian states. He left his country because the Jews there couldn’t go to schools or own land — they were poorer than poor. He enlisted because, in his eyes, states’ rights would give him the right to go to school, own land, hold public office and vote.”

A Changed Nation

The aftermath of the Civil War continued to influence changes in society. To counter anti-Semitic charges that Jews did not fight in the war in sufficient numbers, Jewish veterans of the fighting eventually formed the Jewish War Veterans of the United Sates. The JWV is the nation’s first and oldest veterans’ organization.

With the war’s end, Jews in Europe became increasingly attracted to living in a land without government-inspired discrimination and restrictions. Rabbi Dovid Katz, spiritual leader of Baltimore’s Congregation Beth Abraham (Orthodox) and a Jewish history instructor at Johns Hopkins University, pointed out that the post-Civil War era became a time when “capitalism became supreme.”

“Jews and others came here knowing that there would be no government interference, you could be what you make yourself. This attracted those who wanted unlimited opportunity,” he said.

The Jewish social consciousness changed as well. In the late 1860s, the American Jewish community joined President Grant to campaign against human rights violations in Russia in contrast to Jewish
silence or acquiescence about slavery in the United States during the war.

In noting this, Pinkert said, “This is what I want people who see the exhibit and take the tour to walk away with — the American Jewish world we know today, committed to social justice, defenders of human rights at home and abroad, accepting of Jewish pluralism, active participants in the American political landscape … this Jewish world is forged [from] the Civil War.”

Five days after the official end of the Civil War and four years after that February night in Baltimore, President Lincoln was assassinated. His death — and life — marked a critical time when this nation struggled to be true to its founding principle that “all men are created equal.”

The aftermath of the bloody conflict between the North and South preserved a nation that has become a welcoming home of social and religious freedom. Although it resulted in great loss of life, the Civil War was an event that positively moved America — and American Jewry — forward.

M. Hirsh Goldberg, a Baltimore native, is an award-winning author of five nationally published books. His most recent book is “It All Started With A Deli: The Attmans of Lombard Street.”

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