CORE was unique in that more than any other civil rights group it represents White people's contribution to and participation in the movement. Even though SNCC was also a specifically interracial group, SNCC was always mostly Black whereas CORE was mostly up White up until the Freedom Rides. Even by the March on Washington it was still fifty/fifty nationally.
Here in NYC the overwhelming majority of White members were Jewish. Jews were the second largest ethnic group in CORE after Blacks/African Americans. There were more Jewish members than Latino and Asian-American members combined in a city that had a pretty sizeable Puerto Rican and Chinese community. In the case of the college chapters the members were mostly Jewish.
The story of the Jewish members is a vital part of the history of CORE in NYC and demonstrates CORE was not just the story of Blacks and other non-Whites. Exploring their story will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the history.
The story of the Jewish members is perhaps even the other half of the equation.
Who are they, why did they do what they did, and why were there so many of them?
New York City is the home of America's first synagogue, Shearith Israel. The first Jewish settlers in America arrived here when it was still a colony known as New Amsterdam.
By the 1960's, NYC had become to American Jews what Harlem was to American Blacks.
According to the New York State Archives, " New York State is the location of both the oldest and largest Jewish community in North America. With nearly 2 million Jews, New York City alone accounts for over one-third of all Jews in the United States" (1). Eli Lederhendler states in his New York City, the Jews, and "The Urban Experience", "No other city in history, ever, anywhere in the world, had ever contained a Jewish community of this magnitude. Moreover, between 1920 and 1960, Jews represented the single largest ethno religious group in New York."(2)
In a city with a population of approximately 8 million, there were more Jewish people than Blacks (approximately 1.1 million) and Puerto Ricans (approximately 700,000) combined.(3)
The New Jew Revue
First of all, who were the Jewish members in CORE?
Conventional wisdom says the experience of the Nazi Holocaust was primarily the reason for there being so many Jewish members in CORE. Even though there were some members who were survivors of the Holocaust (Rabbi Kurt Flascher, Al Gordon, Henry Schwarzschild), most of the Jewish members here in CORE did not seem to know much about the Holocaust at the time. Jewish members that I interviewed stated they might remember older relatives discussing their experiences at family gatherings, but other than that, it was not something big on their minds. The analogy that is often made is to the connection of today's young African Americans with the history of the civil rights movement.
The Jewish members of CORE in NYC were not from 'the old country'. They identified themselves first and foremost as Americans. As first to third generation Americans, they were products of an immigrant experience but their allegiance was more to baseball, 'apple pie' and rock and roll. They almost always tended to be secular as opposed to religious Jews.
In some cases there were Jewish members who may not have necessarily been Jews, as in the case of Jon Schaeffer and Tom Kahn who were adopted and raised by Jewish parents. There was at least one case of a Jewish member who was not White - Bronx CORE vice chairman Yaphet Kotto.
Class wise, the Jewish members varied as did the Black members. Some came from comfortable middle class backgrounds such as the students in the college chapters at Columbia and other prestigious colleges. Often they came from lower middle class/ upper working class backgrounds. In their own way, many were straight out 'the hood', being tenement dwellers and city kids. As is common in the immigrant experience, many were the first in their families to go to college such as the Freedom Rider Terry Perlman. They were more likely to have a college education as opposed to the Black members.
So What's the Hubbub... Bub?
Murray Friedman argues in What Went Wrong that Blacks and Jews had been working together towards a common end since the beginning of the first civil rights group, the NAACP. Benjamin Ginsburg in Fatal Embrace agrees that helping eliminate discrimination served their own ends in terms of undermining political and social forces that worked against them traditionally. He also argues their participation was part of a Jewish 'moral commitment'(4).