From the Genesee River to the “Town of Greece v Galloway” – by Peter Eisenstadt

From the Genesee River to the “Town of Greece v Galloway”
Peter Eisenstadt

There are many mysteries about the lamentable US Supreme Court decision earlier this week, “Town of Greece New York v Galloway,” that gave license to local political bodies, such as town councils, to sponsor opening prayers that are overtly denominational and sectarian. It is not hard to guess what happens next. In most communities, as happened in Greece, Christianity will be the only religion that gets prayed to, and in many places there will political pressure for a “rush to Jesus,” and the increasing Christianization of public discourse before the business of government can be addressed. And those who don’t like it, those of minority religious persuasions, or different forms of Christianity, will be told that they are too “sensitive,” and that the will of the majority rules, and that’s that.

But as I said, there are mysteries about the recent decision. One, that has troubled me for many years, and has also puzzled some commentators on the case, is the matter of why there are no Jews in Greece, or certainly no synagogues. (If there had been Jews in Greece in large numbers, no doubt the town government would have treated opening prayers very differently.) There certainly are plenty of Jews in the greater Rochester area, some 20,000 or so, by most accountings. But very few of them live West of the Genesee River. There are some exceptions, as I can vouch for. I lived in the 19th Ward, west of the river, for some 18 years, and I can name names of other Jews in that general vicinity. But I suspect we 19th Ward Jews, if I may take the liberty to still include myself in that category, did so primarily because of its proximity to the University of Rochester. Once you get further west, into Greece and Gates and Chili, Jews tend to disappear.

Why is this? There’s no good answer I know. There’s one school of thought that most cities in upstate New York have their fancier suburbs to their east, supposedly, as the folklore goes, because they were built to allow men to drive to and from work without the glare of the sun in their eyes. And since Jews tended to move to the more well-heeled suburbs of Rochester, to the city’s east, Brighton and the Three Ps (Pittsford, Penfield, and Perinton), and clustered there, they had no need to move to the dowdier suburbs to the west.

There is another suggestion I have seen in print this week, to the effect that Greece did not have Jews it was because, back in the day (that being the interwar wars) it did not permit Jews to move their, and that homeowners had restrictive covenants on their leases, baring the sale of their houses to Jews. Restrictive covenants were declared unenforceable by the US Supreme Court in 1948, though the practice of including these noxious clauses on leases continued for several years thereafter.

The question of restrictive covenants in the greater Rochester area is a fascinating question, and when I last looked at it, about 15 years ago (when I was writing the history of Temple B’rith Kodesh) I did not come to any definite conclusion. The town where restrictive covenants were most prevalent, I was told by several informants, was Brighton, and realtors in that town in the 1930s put up a mighty but ultimately losing struggle to prevent Jews from the Joseph Avenue area from moving in.

Another question I was unable to answer to my satisfaction was whether the University of Rochester, under the overly prolonged presidency of Rush Rhees (1900–1935) established a quota to restrict the percentage of Jews. The general consensus was that this was the practice, though I unable to find a smoking gun—Old Rush was more discreet about than his fellow college presidents at Columbia or Harvard. But there was little doubt that if a Jew from Rochester wanted to go to a good local college in those years, the place to go was Syracuse University. That is what Rabbi Philip Bernstein did, and Rabbi Bernstein wrote extensively about the persistence of discrimination against Jews in the 1930s.

So to conclude, I think the reason there aren’t more Jews in places like Greece and Gates is probably because Jews did not want to move their in large numbers, not because they were actively excluded. But this doesn’t get Greece off the hook. It doesn’t matter how many Jews (or Muslims or atheists or Wiccans or what have you) there are in your town, the point of the separation of church and state is not to respect the feelings of those of minority faiths, but to prevent the damage to both religion and government from the institution of state-sponsored religion.

There have been some commentators, even some liberal voices, who advise those upset by “Town of Greece, New York v Galloway” to grow thicker skin, and argue that you will only be offended by some preacherman going on about the need to accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior if you choose to be offended. Otherwise, its just religious prattle. Just ignore it. That’s not the point. I like Christianity. I like Jesus. If people want to be saved by Jesus, go ahead and be saved. I am not offended by salvation talk. But I will not tolerate the state acknowledging two classes of people, those who practice the right religion and those who practice the wrong religion. We have been down this road in this country before, with restrictive covenants, and worse. And the decision of the US Supreme Court this week is a giant

step backwards to a time when discrimination against non-Christians was taken for granted.