In December 1931, Rabbi Joshua Herschorn spoke in Montreal’s “Romanian shul” and sparked a controversy. His sermon reacted to shocking news of riots by Polish students seeking to limit the number of Jewish students in their universities. Montreal Jews were even more shocked to hear that the rabbi had allegedly preached a sermon that stated that the riots were at least partially the Polish Jews’ own fault!
The controversy began with the publication of a letter to Montreal’s Yiddish newspaper Keneder Adler that alleged that Rabbi Herschorn had argued that the Polish students had a point in that Polish Jews did not financially support Polish universities. The newspaper’s editor added a note supporting the allegations and asserting that this was merely one of many letters he had received on the subject.
The charges against Rabbi Herschorn were taken up by Montreal’s Russian-Polish Sick Benefit Society that requested an investigation, demanded that the rabbi’s salary be suspended, and called for a protest meeting. The rabbi’s livelihood seemed in real jeopardy.
His supporters now entered the debate, asserting that Rabbi Herschorn had never justified the hooliganism of the Poles. The editor, Israel Rabinovich, was unconvinced. Given that the sermon’s title was “The Other Side of the Coin”, he wondered what the “other side” of an anti-Semitic pogrom could be?
The next stage of the controversy came when Rabbi Herschorn’s synagogue held a public meeting that heard testimony asserting that the criticism the rabbi received was groundless. Isidore Popliger, the president of the congregation, attempted to discredit the testimony against his rabbi. He questioned the newspaper’s accusations on the basis of a dubious letter. He denied that Rabbi Herschorn said that the Polish Jews “deserved what they got” and called it “a despicable lie.”
Rabbi Herschorn gave his version of the affair. Certainly he did not justify anti-Jewish pogroms. What he had said was that the Jews needed to conduct themselves better in their relations with their non-Jewish neighbours. At this point, the rabbis in attendance convened a rabbinical court and declared him innocent of the charges against him. The meeting ended and the matter fell from the public agenda of Montreal Jewry.
One published source purports to give us the “gist” of Rabbi Herschorn’s sermon. According to this summary, he began by comparing the situation of the Jews of Poland to that of the Jews in Montreal. He said that it was in the Jews’ interest to have good relations with their fellow citizens and to support non-Jewish institutions from which Jews derive benefit. Thus McGill University has many Jewish students. But how many Jews contributed financially to McGill? Similarly Rabbi Herschorn deplored the fact that Jews didn’t support the Royal Victoria and the Montreal General hospitals, even though Jews used these hospitals and got the same attention as Christian patients.
Rabbi Herschorn had intended to preach a provocative sermon, using the recent pogroms to rivet the attention of his congregants on their own situation. What he likely intended to be a secondary point spun out of control and required the skilled intervention of his congregation’s president to get him out of trouble.
Rabbi Herschorn’s sermon is remarkable. It attempted to take a stand on the Montreal Jewish community’s relationship to the larger community that bucked a strong communal inward trend. Thus, for example, the Jewish community of Montreal was channeling its resources to build the Jewish General Hospital, for which the groundbreaking ceremony had taken place in August, 1931, while Rabbi Herschorn was advocating more Jewish engagement with the Protestant hospitals of Montreal.
Rabbi Herschorn’s vision of a Jewish community increasingly engaged with the institutions of Anglo-Montreal constituted a bold attempt to influence his listeners’ engagement with their society but didn’t seem to reflect the direction of the Montreal Jewish community in the short run. In 1931 it was probably dismissed as optimistic, even utopian. However the situation illuminated by this controversy would not last. Economic progress and the forces of acculturation would ultimately lead to the contemporary prominent financial engagement of Montreal Jews in all the educational, medical, social, and cultural institutions of Montreal – just as Rabbi Herschorn had advocated.