restricted access The Immigration Clause that Transformed Orthodox Judaism in the United States
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The Immigration Clause that Transformed Orthodox Judaism in the United States

The 1921 Emergency Quota Act, Jeffrey Gurock has shown, ended “a century of constant unrestricted Jewish immigration” and inaugurated an era of “crisis and compromise” in American Orthodoxy. In the wake of drastic restrictions, directed especially at immigrants from Eastern Europe, the flow of Orthodox Jews into the United States slowed to a trickle. As a result, Gurock argues, the children of Orthodox immigrants (the “second generation”) came into their own, “with ears deaf to calls to return to tradition.”1 The numbers seem to bear out Gurock’s argument. Between 1903 and 1914, according to standard accounts, some 115,000 Jews immigrated annually into the United States. Between 1925 and 1934, that number dropped to less than 9,200 annually. The growth of the American Jewish population from 1925 was largely due to natural causes, rather than immigration. During the 1920s, for the first time in the twentieth century, the majority of America’s Jews became native born.2

Yet, buried deep within the 1921 legislation, and usually overlooked by historians, lay a provision that would reshape the trajectory of American Orthodoxy, notwithstanding the rise of the “second generation.”3 The law read, “Aliens who are professional actors, artists, lecturers, singers, [End Page 357] nurses, ministers of any religious denomination, professors for colleges or seminaries, aliens belonging to any recognized learned profession, or aliens employed as domestic servants may, if otherwise admissible, be admitted notwithstanding [this quota].”4 From a Jewish perspective, this meant that the quota exempted rabbis. Even if their followers were restricted by quota from immigrating to America, they themselves could apply to do so as “non-quota immigrants.” This provision had dramatic, if unintended, consequences for Orthodoxy and for American Judaism generally. Hundreds of rabbis, most of them Orthodox, immigrated to America after 1921, changing the ratio of rabbis to congregants, revitalizing Orthodox leadership, resulting in the establishment of new Orthodox institutions, and setting the stage for the renewal of Orthodoxy, especially fervent or so-called Ultra-Orthodoxy, following World War II.

American immigration legislation had long distinguished between “desirable” and “undesirable” immigrants. The earliest restrictions in 1881–82, for example, barred Chinese “laborers,” but permitted the entry of Chinese subjects “proceeding to the United States as teachers, students, merchants, or from curiosity.”5 Similarly, the 1885 Foran Act, which banned the importation of workers (contract labor), exempted from its provisions, among others, professional actors, artists, lecturers, and singers. Clergy, however, were not explicitly exempted by the Foran Act. This led to an important Supreme Court decision, in 1892, declaring that immigration laws limiting contract labor could not be applied to churches. In his decision, Justice David J. Brewer, himself the son of a missionary, asserted that Congress never intended to limit the immigration of celebrated priests, ministers and rabbis to America, and the Court enjoined it from excluding less-celebrated ones as well:

Suppose, in the Congress that passed this act, some member had offered a bill which in terms declared that if any Roman Catholic church in this country should contract with Cardinal Manning6 to come to this country and enter into its service as pastor and priest, or any Episcopal church should enter into a like contract with Canon Farrar,7 or any Baptist church should make [End Page 358] similar arrangements with Rev. Mr. Spurgeon,8 or any Jewish synagogue with some eminent rabbi,9 such contract should be adjudged unlawful and void, and the church making it be subject to prosecution and punishment. Can it be believed that it would have received a minute of approving thought or a single vote?10

As a result of this widely-applauded ruling, Congress amended the Foran Act, exempting from its provisions “ministers of any religious denomination” as well as “professors for colleges and seminaries.”11 The immigration law of 1907 and subsequent restrictive laws through 1921 repeated these same exemptions.12 This was the immigration clause that admitted rabbis into the United States without running afoul of either the ban on contract labor or the 1921 emergency quota.

The Supreme Court, in...