Personality, Politics, and the Price of Justice: Ephraim Frisch, San Antonio's "Radical" Rabbi
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Personality, Politics, and the Price of Justice:
Ephraim Frisch, San Antonio’s “Radical” Rabbi

On Tuesday, 29 June 1937, 15 uniformed and plainclothes officers of the San Antonio police department descended on the headquarters of the Workers’ Alliance, a Communist-led group that promoted labor interests. According to one participant, the police brought axes and “liberally and enthusiastically” destroyed everything. 1 They smashed all the dishes in the kitchen, kicked over the stove, chopped up the piano, hammered chairs and benches to pieces, tore up fiags, ripped posters and charts from the walls, smashed the typewriter and duplicating machine, seized armfuls of political literature, and arrested seven members of the alliance. An observer disclosed that the police used clubs made from the butt end of pool cues weighted with lead. 2

The police raid and the controversial response by San Antonio’s Rabbi Ephraim Frisch provided a high-profile vignette of the larger issues of the day—unemployment, labor unrest, nativism, the emergence of religious fundamentalism and anti-Semitism, and the specter of Nazism in Germany, and similar movements in other parts of Europe and in the United States. The story of Ephraim Frisch, Reform rabbi at San Antonio’s Temple Beth-El from 1923 to 1942, is particularly poignant. Frisch was a liberal social activist whose board of directors and some members of his congregation wrongly branded “radical.” At a time of growing anti-Semitism and reaction to New Deal liberalism, conservatives and extremists used the term widely to discredit liberal critics.

American Jews were vulnerable to the charges of being radicals or Communists because popular perception often failed to distinguish between New Deal liberalism, democratic socialism, and repressive Soviet-style Communism. San Antonio’s Reform Jews were no exception. Jews were sometimes drawn to conservatives, even those who were anti-Semitic, partly because of their desire to reassure non-Jews that they were not socialists, Communists, or otherwise un-American. 3 [End Page 263]

Even Frisch was not immune from the fear of association with socialists. In December 1936 he replied to a request from socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas to establish a Jewish Bureau for the Socialist Party. Frisch’s response was an unequivocal no. “I do hope you will abandon this project in your activities,” he wrote to Thomas. “We have so many troubles from anti-Semites and from ignorant people in general on the subject of our alleged political and economic associations, that we certainly would like to be spared being exposed to a new charge.” 4 In fact, because some Jews came to believe that their own were purveyors of socialism or Communism, they viewed their liberal rabbis with suspicion.

Frisch’s experience was a case in point. Rabbi Ephraim Frisch embraced with particular zeal the role of social activist. He supported labor interests, advocated for the poor, defended freedom of speech even for Communists, championed the teaching of Darwinism in public schools, eschewed the notion of a Christian America, reviled the profit motive, and played a particularly dramatic role in the standoff between conservatives and liberals at a time when religious and political ideologies were becoming polarized and unforgiving. 5

How Frisch came to these views is unclear. Although the Reform movement and its training inculcated liberal thinking in its rabbinate, in many cases this only reinforced existing views. His early school years in Minnesota may have nurtured the young Frisch’s incipient liberal tendencies. Certainly the Reform movement would not have attracted Frisch had he not already inclined to liberal thinking. Frisch’s father was an Orthodox rabbi, yet for reasons unknown he encouraged his son to enter the Reform rabbinate. 6 Frisch received his ordination from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1903. [End Page 264]

Frisch’s role as a supporter of liberal causes and social justice was an integral part of his self-perception as a rabbi. Early on, and throughout his career, Frisch spoke and wrote forcefully about philanthropy and social action. During the early part of the century, when liberal Protestant churches espoused the social gospel, Frisch urged the religious community to make practical application of its teachings. He had worked with Horace J...