‘A Jewish Thomas Paine’: The Toronto rabbi who fought fascism

Maurice Eisendrath spoke out against the Nazis and marched with Martin Luther King Jr., becoming known as the “head of the progressive Jewish movement in North America”
By Daniel Panneton - Published on Apr 07, 2021
A photo of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath from the Holy Blossom Temple dedication book, 1938. (Courtesy of the Ontario Jewish Archives)

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Although Toronto was stodgy and conservative when Chicago-born Maurice Eisendrath arrived in 1929, the young rabbi was anything but. The 27-year-old, recognized as a rising talent within the world of organized Judaism, had moved from West Virginia to become the rabbi of Holy Blossom Synagogue — Ontario’s oldest Jewish congregation.

Eisendrath quickly became known for his passionate oratory and willingness to speak out on controversial issues, from both the pulpit and the pages of the Canadian Jewish Review. Even before his first sermon, there were calls for his dismissal: he wrote an editorial about the 1929 Hebron Massacre in which he condemned calls for an armed response. He survived the controversy with the support of Holy Blossom, which committed to providing the rabbi with a “free pulpit.”

According to historians Richard Menkins and Harold Troper, Eisendrath “never met a lectern he didn’t like” and regularly involved himself in social struggles. In March 1930, after between 50 and 75 hooded Ku Klux Klansmen burned a cross on the Oakville lawn of the aunt of a white woman engaged to a Black man, Eisendrath forcefully spoke out against the pseudoscientific racial categories employed by the bigots — and the internal threat that the Canadian KKK posed to “this wondrously cosmopolitan land.”

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Eisendrath was an early and notable critic of fascism, travelling in 1933 with his wife Rosa to Nazi Germany to investigate rumours of antisemitic violence. The pre-war antifascist consensus had not yet consolidated, and opposition to Hitler and to Mussolini’s regime was primarily confined to Jewish, Italian, and left-wing circles. When they returned, Eisendrath lectured to 5,000 at the Royal York Hotel, describing the Nazi regime as “a dictatorship which made once-courageous men afraid of their very shadows” and an “inferno” that he’d been all too happy to leave.

four black and white headshots from men in a newspaper
From the September 14, 1933, edition of the Toronto Daily Star.

Eisendrath was a committed pacifist: during the First World War, he criticized what he saw as growing indifference toward armed conflict. However, by the time of the Second World War, he — like many Canadian progressives during the 1930s — had come to believe that action was necessary against the fascist threat.

In 1933, Eisendrath was recruited by the Canadian Jewish Congress to lead anti-defamation work in Ontario. His criticism of Nazi Germany continued in late 1935, after he’d returned from another visit, and it had become clear that Canada would not boycott the Berlin Olympics. Eisendrath reminded Toronto audiences that the Nazis were on their best behaviour and pointed out that the lack of brownshirts in the streets of Olympic Berlin didn’t mean that antisemitism was subsiding.

Eisendrath was central to promoting positive Jewish-Christian relations in Canada and helped build crucial alliances through pulpit exchanges and joint Bible studies with bodies such as the Jewish-Gentile Continuation Committee. He was by no means a radical — Holy Blossom was one of the largest synagogues in Canada, and at various points in his career he spoke to establishment organizations like the Masonic Order and the Empire Club.

Still, to unite against the fascist threat, he was willing to work with front organizations — such as the Canadian League Against War and Fascism — that he knew were run by the Communist Party of Canada. In the early 1930s, he denounced the Toronto police’s suppression of communist speakers at Queen’s Park, publicly challenging the chief to a debate on free speech at a time when antisemitism was running rampant.

In 1937, Eisendrath issued a call for a national inquest into domestic fascist activity. Soon after, a funeral crepe with a swastika badge pinned to it was nailed to the front door of his family home. Eisendrath doubled down, demanding the probe be extended.

Eisendrath supported Dorothea Palmer and her efforts to spread education about birth control, and corresponded with Toronto-based anarchists about coordinating antifascist activity. His perspectives won him the respect of seculars on the left; the communist Peter Hunter notes in his memoir that even his “anti-clerical” father would regularly tune into Eisendrath’s radio programs.

two men in a black and white newspaper photo
From the April 27, 1957, edition of the Toronto
​​​​​​​Daily Star.

In 1943, Eisendrath moved back to the United States to serve as the executive director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congressional arm of Reform Judaism in North America. Three years later, he became president, a position he went on to hold for the next 30 years.

Back in the United States, he threw himself into ongoing struggles for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

In 1965, Eisendrath took part in the final of the three Selma-to-Montgomery marches, demonstrating alongside Martin Luther King Jr. He marched with King again in 1968, carrying the Torah as part of an anti-war protest that culminated at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at Arlington National Cemetery. He also worked to support Cesar Chavez's organizing of farm labourers and spoke out in support of the imprisoned anti-war Berrigan brothers

In 1967, Temple Emanu-el in New York City — the largest Reform congregation in the United States — broke away from UAHC because of Eisendrath’s consistent criticism of President Lyndon Johnson and the war.

Eisendrath died in 1973, moments before giving his retirement speech at a UAHC meeting. Outspoken to the end, he had planned to condemn the “heinously immoral cesspool” of the Nixon administration and its conduct during the Watergate scandal.

After news of Eisendrath’s death broke, the Globe and Mail described him as the “head of the progressive Jewish movement in North America”; the Union for Reform Judaism established the Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award, the highest honour bestowed by the Reform Movement. The New York Times described his “strong social conscience,” noting that a friend had once called him “a Jewish Thomas Paine” for his outspokenness on divisive issues.

Eisendrath’s antifascist work in the 1930s and his pro-civil rights and anti-war activism in the 1960s drew from the same well of motivation. He believed that successful struggles against fascism, racism, and war required intersectional alliances and that communities and causes needed to speak in defence of one another.

In 1967, after Eisendrath had formed the peace action group Negotiation Now with Martin Luther King Jr. and other community leaders, he wrote a letter to King arguing that the anti-Vietnam war cause, the civil rights movement, and the Anti-Poverty Program were “inseparably interwoven into a seamless web.” After Eisendrath announced that the UAHC would support the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, he responded to criticism about his not being from the South by pointing out that “one did not have to live in Nazi Germany to be certain that our brethren were bestially butchered.”

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