An Important Day in Baltimore Jewish History

An Important Day in Baltimore Jewish History
April 22, 2011

One hundred fifty years ago this very day, April 22, 1861, Rabbi David Einhorn, the controversial rabbi of Har Sinai, fled Baltimore and took refuge in Philadelphia. Rabbi Einhorn, a radical Reformer and a fervent abolitionist, was the leading Jewish abolitionist propagandist in the Union. Most Jews in those days, including Oheb Shalom’s Rabbi Benjamin Szold, were moderate on the issue of slavery. Einhorn was one of the few rabbis to speak out openly against it. While some Jews in the South were slave holders and even slave dealers, the vast majority of Jews in both North and South were recent immigrants who wanted to work hard and become Americans. As tensions grew, Jews, like most Americans, became drawn into the conflict that divided this country and plunged us into Civil War. Over ten thousand Jews served in the military during the Civil War, many with distinction.

It was quite risky to be an abolitionist in Baltimore at the brink of the Civil War. Maryland was on the verge of succession from the Union. Baltimore was a pro-Southern and slave holding city. Just a few days earlier, on April 19, 1861, Baltimore Southern sympathizers attacked the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment as it was transferring on horse drawn cars from President Street Station to the Camden Street Station. On its way to Washington, D.C., the Sixth Massachusetts was desperately needed to reinforce the capital. Known as the first blood shed in the Civil War, “An angry crowd of secessionists tried to keep the regiment from reaching Washington, blocking several of the transports, breaking windows, and finally forcing the soldiers to get out and march through the streets. The throng followed in close pursuit. What had now become a mob surrounded and jeered the regiment, then started throwing bricks and stones. Panicking, several soldiers fired randomly into the crowd, and mayhem ensued as the regiment scrambled to the railroad station. The police managed to hold the crowd back at the terminal, allowing the infantrymen to board their train and escape, leaving behind much of their equipment as well as their marching band. Four soldiers and twelve civilians were killed, and scores were injured. Maryland officials demanded that no more Federal troops be sent through the state, while Baltimore’s mayor and police chief authorized the destruction of key rail bridges to prevent Union troops from entering the city. Secessionist groups, meanwhile, tore down telegraph wires to Washington, temporarily cutting the capital off from the rest of the nation. The North was outraged; referring to Baltimore as “Mob town,” New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley even called for Baltimore to be burned to the ground.

On May 13, Federal troops, including members of the Massachusetts regiment attacked in the previous month’s riot, occupied the city and martial law was declared, squelching most subsequent pro-Confederate activities. Union artillery based on Federal Hill was ready to bombard the city. The Mayor of Baltimore, George William Brown, its police chief, several commissioners, and a number of citizens were arrested for their alleged participation in the riot, and suspected secessionists, including Francis Scott Key’s grandson and a number of state legislators, were held without charges and spent the war imprisoned at Ft. McHenry. Federal forces continued to maintain an occupying presence in Baltimore for the remainder of the war.”

During the anti-Union rioting that took place beginning on April 19, many Union sympathizers were beaten and their homes and businesses destroyed. The press that printed Rabbi Einhorn’s periodical, Sinai, was burned to the ground. “Soldiers came to him with proof that his name was listed among those proscribed by the secessionist instigators of the riots. Rabbi Einhorn refused to leave Baltimore. A group of young men of his congregation, armed for guard duty, set up a cordon around his home to protect him and his family. Finally, on the fourth day of the rioting, April 22, he consented to leave, for his family’s sake, proposing to return as soon as law and order were restored in the city. He never did return. Har Sinai was so riddled by political differences and so many members were so thoroughly frightened by the violence of the rioters, that the only condition on which they would consent to the their rabbi’s return was that he promise to refrain from political controversy. On May 13, the same day on which Federal troops occupied Baltimore, Har Sinai’s Board of Trustees directed that Rabbi Einhorn be written: “it would be very desirable, for your own safety, as well as out of consideration for the members of your congregation, if in the future there would be no comment in the pulpit on the excitable issues of the day.”

Rabbi Einhorn immediately refused, knowing it was impossible for him to refrain from speaking his conscience. He was immediately engaged by Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Philadelphia where he served until 1866 and then at Congregation Adath Israel in New York from which he retired with great distinction. Einhorn, who died in 1879, did not live to see the prayer book he wrote for Har Sinai, Olat Tamid, become the template for the Union Prayer Book which was first published in 1892. His son-in-law, Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, drafted the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. Rabbi Einhorn through his siddur and his theology influenced the course of American Reform Judaism for the next one hundred years.

Baltimore’s importance as a port and industrial city continued to grow. Along with it grew one of North America’s great Jewish communities. Rabbi Einhorn and Rabbi Szold of Oheb Shalom were two of American Jewry’s luminaries in the middle to late 19th century. It is to them that we pay homage on this historic day in Baltimore Jewish history.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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