In Jewish history, freedom is often associated with a migration from a life under oppression to one in a better place. Yet a closer examination of the experiences of Jews who emigrated to the United States during the long nineteenth century reveals more complex, dialectical understandings of freedom. For most migrants, freedom meant the absence of restrictions. They could settle where they wished, purchase land, and establish their own businesses. Yet individual freedom constituted an institutional challenge for Jewish organizations. At a time when most Jews in Europe could only sever ties to the Jewish community by converting out of Judaism, Jews in the United States faced no restrictions in the religious sphere. They were free to join a Jewish congregation or association, to split and form a new congregation, or simply to walk away from Jewish communal organizations. Few immigrants who arrived in the United States before 1880 from central and eastern Europe actually converted to Christianity. A majority, however, did not formally affiliate with a Jewish congregation. American freedom thus produced Jewish communities that were more loosely organized and less hierarchical than their European counterparts.
Freedom also had implications for Jews in the United States beyond their own communities. By moving to America, Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe took their emancipation into their own hands. Yet Jews, like others who praised America as land of freedom before the Civil War, struggled to come to terms with "unfreedom" in the American South. Slavery had a special resonance in Jewish history, and some Jewish immigrants vowed that as self-emancipated new Americans they had a special obligation to fight for the emancipation of black slaves in the South.
A fine example of the conflict between concrete and idealistic concepts of freedom is the Jewish "Off to America" movement of the nineteenth century. After a wave of violent anti-Jewish riots in Bohemia and Moravia in the wake of the 1848 revolution, Prague journalist and writer Leopold Kompert published a powerful call for Bohemian Jews to immediately leave for America in May 1848. Kompert expressed great disappointment over the failure of the rioters to grasp the revolution's "spirit of freedom." Pointing to the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, the Spanish Inquisition, and Columbus's discovery of America, he drew a sharp contrast between oppression in Europe and freedom in America. Only a few Bohemian Jews appear to have considered Kompert's call, even though Jewish migration to America from Bohemia and neighboring regions was strong throughout the 1840s. Overwhelmingly, however, these migrants were looking for better economic opportunities. In 1845 Prague journalist and writer Ignaz Schulhof openly deplored the migrants' materialistic motives. For Schulhof, only the pursuit of pure freedom justified immigrating to America. He suggested Jews should remain in Bohemia, spreading America's "cosmopolitan" Enlightenment vision at home. Tellingly, Kompert was not concerned with practical considerations, explicitly refusing to discuss what Bohemian Jews should actually do in America: "What you will do in America is not to be discussed in this call." In a later article Kompert responded to the question of how Jewish immigrants could "make a living of freedom" by emphatically stating, "only when you are free, will you live."
Moravian rabbi Abraham Schmiedl criticized Kompert's call for all Jews to leave for America as naïve. Schmiedl acknowledged that some Jews had good reasons to move to America, but in his eyes Kompert's "Off to America" campaign undermined the struggle for Jewish emancipation in Bohemia. He thus urged Jews to stay and continue to fight for freedom at home, as, indeed, in the summer months of 1848, full Jewish emancipation appeared to be within reach. Other Jews critiqued Kompert on the basis of the American reality, citing the institution of slavery in the United States. Journalist Isidor Busch conceded that slavery was indeed a "badge of shame" and vowed to fight for its abolition. Unlike Kompert, however, Busch moved to America, albeit only after the failure of the revolution in October 1848. After settling in St. Louis (and Americanizing his name), Isidor Bush became a successful businessman. Like many other central Europeans who found asylum in the United States after the failed 1848 revolution Bush was an abolitionist who supported the Union during the Civil War. In St. Louis, Bush is still remembered for his contributions to the Jewish community.
Bush quickly realized that American freedom was not without drawbacks. Immigrants like Bush who invested much time and effort to build Jewish communities faced numerous obstacles, including institutional conflicts. After 1840, more Jews were arriving from different parts of Europe with different cultural backgrounds, establishing separate congregations and associations. Many men started out as peddlers and were constantly on the move. Existing and newly founded Jewish communities experienced a high degree of fluctuation. During the 1850s a growing number of Jews identified with the Reform movement, leading to clashes with more traditionally minded Jews. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati led the attempt to unite American Jews across the religious spectrum under the roof of a single denomination. During his extensive travels, Wise promoted the benefits of a Jewish "synod" (under his leadership). Several Reform rabbis opposed Wise's project, not least of all the outspoken Baltimore rabbi David Einhorn. Recognizing the advantages of religious pluralism and freedom in the United States, Einhorn and his supporters defended the sovereignty of their Reform congregations. In a small pamphlet published in 1859 in Chicago, "Kol Kore Bamidbar — Ueber jüdische Reform — Ein Wort an die Freunde derselben" (A voice in the wilderness — on Jewish Reform — a message to its friends), Bernhard Felsenthal, a recently immigrated religion teacher from the Palatinate region in southwestern Germany and a friend of Einhorn, explicitly called on Reform Jews in Chicago to secede from an existing congregation. Instead of continuing to fight with their traditionalminded opponents, Reform Jews should form their own congregation because, unlike in the German states, they could. "Do you—and we speak to American Israelites—do you want to dictate to others how they have to pray to their God? Let us not fight, we are brothers! Let us separate!" Immigrant reformers like Felsenthal emphasized the close relationship between the universal Enlightenment ideals expressed in the American Constitution and those in their vision of modern Judaism. The founding of Chicago's first Reform congregation coincided with the Civil War.
The Civil War challenged recent Jewish immigrants to reflect on the meanings of freedom that American citizenship entailed. As they stepped onto American soil, most Jewish migrants had literally emancipated themselves. The war raised the question of slave emancipation. Some Jews, especially in the South and in states along the North-South border, defended the status quo and slavery. Others, invoking the Jewish experience in Egypt, spoke strongly in favor of abolition. David Einhorn famously had to flee from Baltimore to Philadelphia in 1861 because he refused to back down from his fiercely abolitionist position. In many northern cities Jews expressed strong support for the Union. Jewish community leader Henry Greenebaum reminded a large crowd (in German) that Jewish immigrants "owe the Union loyalty, because it gave them social and political freedom, freedom they did not enjoy in Europe." A famous non-Jewish veteran of the 1848 revolution made this point even more poignantly. Colonel Friedrich Hecker, the leader of the Eighty-Second Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, explicitly thanked the Jewish community in Chicago for raising and equipping an all-Jewish company that would join his regiment. In his German address, Hecker drew an intriguing parallel between the struggle for Jewish emancipation in the German states and the duty to emancipate black slaves in the South. Thanking a group of Jewish women who presented him with the regiment's flag, he said: "What I could do in my former home-country to defend the [civil] rights of Jews against intolerance and race-hatred is being repaid today [by you]. Just as emancipation was inscribed on our flags then, this flag will be the symbol of emancipation." It is worthwhile to point out that no Jew had been fully emancipated in the German states until 1862. In that year Baden, the home state of Hecker and several of the Jews present at his Chicago war meeting, became the first German state to fully emancipate its Jewish population.
Two decades later, as part of a fundraising effort for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus wrote her famous poem "The New Colossus," which reflects her distress over the 1881 pogroms in the Russian Empire. As immigration historian John Higham has pointed out, Lazarus's poem and the statue only became widely associated with freedom and immigration during the late 1930s, as thousands of German Jewish emigrants desperately waited—often in vain—for US immigration visas. Already after the US Congress passed restrictive immigration laws in 1921 and 1924, the land of freedom was out of reach for many European Jews desperate to escape persecution in eastern Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. In hindsight the proximity of the Statue of Liberty to the federal immigration station on Ellis Island highlights the ambivalence of American freedom. The function of Ellis Island changed already by 1917. Instead of serving as a gateway for immigrants it became a detention center for enemy aliens and other unwanted persons. Jews were among the migrants detained at Ellis Island. Some awaited deportation because they had violated US immigration laws; others were stripped of US citizenship, such as anarchist Emma Goldman. Even before 1918 and throughout the 1920s the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) arranged Passover seders for Jewish detainees at Ellis Island. The Ellis Island seders were sad affairs—many participants faced a passage in reverse from the "promised land" to an unknown future.
Before the United States entered World War II in December 1941, State Department officials used Ellis Island to screen groups of Jewish emigrants from Germany and Austria en route to destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean to make sure none were Nazi spies. The restrictive US policy toward refugees was not liberalized until the mid-1950s. Until his death in 1954, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick McCarran, a fierce anti-Communist and antisemite, successfully undermined attempts to bring larger groups of refugees and displaced persons from refugee camps in Europe and East Asia to the United States. After the war, Jewish survivors and displaced persons were suspected as Communist sympathizers. American immigration restrictions contradicted the ideal of freedom as it was expressed in Emma Lazarus's poem and America's founding documents, because they deprived large numbers of deserving Jewish and other refugees from oppression of access to the "land of freedom."
The Jewish immigrant experience in the United States highlights the dialectics of freedom. Individual freedom, the separation of church and state, and the increasingly diverse backgrounds of American Jews led to the formation of loosely organized communities that are not imposed and regulated by the state but shaped by voluntarism. The history of slavery and the restrictive US immigration policy of the twentieth century show that American freedom remained an unfulfilled promise for many. Yet American history is also marked by remarkable attempts to overcome these limitations and expand the promise of freedom to all. Jewish immigrants played a role in these struggles. One was Newark rabbi Joachim Prinz. When he spoke just before Martin Luther King Jr. to the huge March on Washington audience in August 28, 1963, Prinz pointed to the Jewish experience of slavery and segregation and his experiences as a Jew in Nazi Germany, stressing that modern Jewish history began "with a proclamation of emancipation."