For many American Jews, news of the Yom Kippur War was delivered in a whisper.
“In shul, a man very dramatically walked up to the front” and spoke quietly to the rabbi, who “made the solemn announcement that Israel had been invaded,” recalls Martin Raffel, the director for international concerns at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who was a law student in 1973.
But by the end of services that Saturday 25 years ago, as Jews gathered to break the fast, the alarm was blaring across the country and U.S. Jewry was mobilizing.
“Our first reaction was, `We did it in ’67 and we’ll do it again in ’73,'” says Rabbi Arnold Goodman, a Conservative rabbi in Atlanta who was on the pulpit in a Minneapolis synagogue when he heard the first reports of war. “By nightfall it was very apparent that it wouldn’t be the same.”
The euphoria that had buoyed American Jews for six years after Israel’s rapid victory in the 1967 Six-Day War evaporated into overwhelming apprehension as details of the Syrian and Egyptian surprise attack were confirmed by news reports, calls to national Jewish leaders and notification from Israeli consulates.
Concern for Israel’s security, however, energized rather than paralyzed the American Jewish community, which sprang to action: raising funds, lobbying Congress and the White House, and working to build widespread support among the general public for the beleaguered Jewish state.
Jews were united by the “fear that the only Jewish homeland we had was under attack,” says Shoshana Cardin, a prominent national Jewish leader who was head of the Baltimore Jewish federation’s women’s division during that fateful period.
Communal cooperation at all levels was prompted by the shock of the surprise Arab military strike, the reports of unprecedented Israeli losses on the front lines and the belief that the U.S. government was withholding urgently needed military equipment.
“There was a groundswell of concern for Israel’s future in a way I had never experienced before” recalls Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg, the spiritual leader of a conservative synagogue in Washington, who in 1973 was working in Harrisburg, Pa.
“It was across the board,” says Cardin. “It did not break down to religious, political differences, Zionist or non-Zionist.”
Swift activity began after Yom Kippur ended Saturday evening. An emergency session of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was held in New York to discuss strategies for generating political and public support for Israel.
On Oct. 9 — as the Soviet Union began to send additional arms to Egypt and Syria — some 1,000 religious and communal leaders convened in Washington.
Before that meeting, a select group, including veteran Jewish leader and Republican Party activist Max Fisher, met with Conference of Presidents Chairman Jacob Stein. They decided to urge President Nixon to send aid to Israel, and Fisher hand-delivered to the White House a letter making that plea.
Stein recalled recently how, later that day, Fisher came back to the rally “with a positive response from the president: `Yes, we will replenish losses in aircraft and give aid to Israel.'”
On the local level, Jews were just as assertive.
Gathered in synagogues as they first heard the devastating news, Jews offered appeals for divine assistance. Many rabbis improvised prayers and added special psalms to traditional Yom Kippur services.
“If we ever prayed with deep feeling, it was on that Yom Kippur,” says Rabbi Steven Dworken, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, who was leading an Orthodox congregation in Portland, Maine, in 1973.
During the traditional appeals at memorial Yizkor services that afternoon, congregants across the country responded generously — and the giving continued throughout the three-week war.
The United Jewish Appeal raised nearly $668 million in the 1974 campaign, a $290 million increase over the year before, according to Michael Fischer, assistant vice president of UJA. Three-fourths of the funds, Fischer said, flowed in during the 30 days after the outbreak of war.
The national effort was mirrored at local federations and community relations councils. Within days of Yom Kippur, whole communities met in synagogue sanctuaries and Jewish community centers to organize letter-writing campaigns, phone-a-thons and blood drives. In some cases, people volunteered to go to Israel.
“Everyone was showing up,” says Wohlberg, “even people who were not involved in the community.”
Albert Chernin, vice chairman emeritus of the JCPA, describes the Philadelphia Jewish community’s response to the crisis as fairly typical.
The day after Yom Kippur, Chernin, then the executive director of the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council, convened a meeting of his board of directors. “Immediately afterwards, a mass rally was held in the heart of the city,” he recalls. “Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 gathered,” representing all of the main Jewish groups in Philadelphia.
Later that month, the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry transformed its annual Simchat Torah rally into a show of support for Israel, that drew 75,000 people outside city hall.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents who was then the Soviet Jewry group’s director, remembers how the Israeli statesman Abba Eban, addressing the crowd, “said he wished he could run for office in New York because the response was overwhelming.”
The fallout from the Yom Kippur War moved national Jewish leaders to establish an intergroup body charged with presenting Israel’s human face to all Americans and impress upon them the importance of Israel in foreign policy.
The need to counter anti-Israel sentiment was prompted largely by the oil embargo imposed against the United States by Arab oil-producing countries as a response to Israel’s successful counterattacks and Washington’s decision to resupply the Israeli army.
Many in the American Jewish community saw in the embargo, which resulted in long lines at gas stations across the country, the seeds for growing anti- Semitism at home. The Arab nations, after all, had specifically said Israeli actions were catalyst for the embargo.
Those fears, which eventually proved unfounded, spurred the Council of Jewish Federations to enlist the JCPA’s precursor, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, to create media campaigns and communal outreach programs.
With a budget of over $1 million from the federations, NJCRAC’s Israel Task Force developed projects ranging from TV ads to labor union mobilizations administered by groups like the Jewish Labor Committee and the American Jewish Committee.
Theodore Mann, the task force’s first chairman, said the war “brought about far greater cooperation among defense agencies than ever had been before,” referring to the AJCommittee, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress.
Chernin, who became the executive vice chairman of NJCRAC in 1975, agrees with this assessment, adding, “It was a model in terms of agency cooperation. To this day I would like to see it replicated in other aspects of community relations.”
Hyman Bookbinder, the former longtime Washington representative of AJCommittee, looks back on the Yom Kippur War as “a turning point.”
“It was a stunning reminder and warning to us that Israel’s security was yet to be realized, and it still is. I hadn’t realized it’s been 25 years.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.