WE WERE ONCE STRANGERS

Social Justice Committee member Michael Several shares this history of the Pasadena Jewish community and their engagement with refugees…

Before America entered World War II, the Pasadena Jewish community began a tradition of not standing idly by with indifference toward the plight of refugees. Over the years the community has taken action giving life to the repeated Biblical reminder and admonishment that we must welcome and love the stranger because we were also strangers in a foreign land.

In 1940, as Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany arrived in the United States, the Pasadena chapter of the B’nai B’rith set a nation-wide example to other B’nai B’rith chapters by establishing a committee to assist refugees in the San Gabriel Valley in complying with the Alien Registration Act.

The Pasadena Jewish community’s commitment to helping refugees continued after the war. Recognizing that the massive movement of millions of people was creating the greatest European refugee crisis of the 20th century, the Pasadena Jewish community under the leadership of the congregation’s new rabbi, Max Vorspan, took up the challenge by committing time and money to bring refugees to Pasadena. Because of their work, 10 to 12 families were able to leave Europe, move to the United States and settle in Pasadena. Among the first were Herman and Celia Blumenfeld and their children in 1947. The congregation sponsored the family, and when they arrived by train from the east, congregant Herta Gutenberg welcomed them at the station. She then drove them to the Crown Hotel at 677 East Colorado, where the congregation had arranged to pay their rent for several months. After settling down, Herman Blumenfeld was hired by congregant Harry Neiman to be the manager of FABCO, a company Neiman owned that manufactured Venetian blinds and formica table tops for the expanding home building industry. With the support of Neiman, Blumenfeld arranged to get jobs at the plant for newly arrived refugees. Together, Neiman and Blumenfeld significantly expanded the supporting role of the Pasadena Jewish community from sponsorship and housing to assisting refugees transition into the work force and become productive
members of the community.

Among the other refugees sponsored by the congregation were Helen and Joseph Freeman, and their two children, Lillian and Renee. Though arriving in mid 1951—four years after the Blumenfeld family–the Freemans were similarly assisted by the congregation which arranged housing and paid their rent for several months. The congregation also helped furnish their apartment and through Herman Blumenfeld, found a job for Joseph at FABCO.

Even refugees not sponsored by the Jewish community, such as Israel Belfer, Hanig and Marion Flaster, Jack and Lena Koenigsbuch, and Ike and Sam Langholz, were helped by members of the congregation. The Koenigsbuch family was initially housed after arriving by the president of the congregation. Ike and Sam Langholz, and their father, Fishel, were sponsored by their sister, Celia Blumenfeld, and their brother-in-law, Herman Blumenfeld. Arriving in Pasadena on a beautiful day in early January 1951, Ike, Sam and Fishel were greeted at the train station by Herta Gutenberg. She took them on a tour of Pasadena and helped check them into the Green Hotel, where the congregation had rented a room for them. Though the Langholz brothers could have gotten jobs at FABCO, they had been trained as electricians by ORT in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany and found their own employment within days of arrival.

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Beginning in the 1960s, the Pasadena Jewish community stepped up to the plate and became involved in the plight of Soviet Jewry. Initially, the congregation joined other congregations and organizations throughout the Los Angeles area in marching and demonstrating support for the emigration of Soviet Jews. Later, when refugees from the Soviet Union began arriving in the 1970s, congregants were encouraged to provide jobs for them while the congregation sponsored drives to collect clothing and furniture for the community’s new residents.

Today, with refugees fleeing violence and turmoil in the Middle East, Africa, and Central America, our community continues to be challenged to fulfill our obligations to neither stand idly by, nor forget that we were once strangers in a foreign land. Our community met the challenges multiple times in the past. So let us now continue that tradition, build on that record, and become a model that later generations will look at to guide them on what they must do for the strangers in our midst.

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