From the Archive: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — and the rabbis


David Greenglass, whose testimony against his sister and brother-in-law — accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — played a central role in their conviction, recently died at age 92.

JTA had minimal coverage of the Rosenbergs’ trial for spying for the Soviet Union. However, in September of 1950 — soon after the couple was brought before a federal grand jury — it made note of a Denver Post editorial noting that “many of the persons implicated in espionage against the United States have been American citizens of Jewish descent.” The editorial, which named Julius Rosenberg and David Greenglass as examples, praised a Denver rabbi, Manuel Laderman, for blasting Communists, “particularly Communists of Jewish descent,” in a Rosh Hashanah sermon.

In the months before the Rosenbergs were executed, there were numerous unsuccessful rabbinic appeals, from overseas, for clemency: 22 Israeli rabbis on Nov. 18, 1952;
Britain’s chief rabbi on June 12, 1953; and Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities on June 16, 1953. While Israel’s two chief rabbis initially were reported to have signed onto the November letter, the Ashkenazi one (Isaac Herzog) denied he had signed and the Sephardic one (Ben Zion Usiel), said he regretted signing it.

In the United States, Rabbi Abraham Cronbach of Cincinnati was one of only three clergy members urging clemency; he officiated at the Jewish couple’s funeral on June 21, 1953.

Rabbinic opinion the Rosenbergs’ execution was divided, at least in New York:

Rabbi Ira Eisenstein said from his pulpit the Synagogue of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (Conservative) that “Jewish tradition is unalterably opposed to capital punishment.” Rabbi David J. Seligson, in a sermon at the Central Synagogue (Reform) declared that “a true judgment was passed upon the Rosenbergs in accord with our American principles of evidence.”

Years later, JTA noted in a feature story on a Los Angeles retirement home for “aging Jewish radicals” — many of them former Communists — that the home’s courtyard featured “a rose bush planted in honor of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.”

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