Rabbi Morris Lazaron and the Problem of Quotas

Posted on January 25th, 2017 by

Ellen of Baltimore writes, “Your current exhibition [Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America] is very interesting and extremely well done. I have a question that I wonder if you can answer.  Why did Rabbi Lazaron want to stem the tide of Jewish students to medical schools?”

That question had us scratching our heads as well, so in the exhibition’s text panels we fudged. But I recently came across a letter by Rabbi Lazaron that may shed light on the matter.

Rabbi Morris Lazaron, n.d. Gift of David Weinberg, JMM 1988.012.036

Rabbi Morris Lazaron, n.d. Gift of David Weinberg, JMM 1988.012.036

First, a little background, primarily drawn from “The Jewish Problem in U.S. Medical Education, 1920-1955,” by Dr. Edward Halperin, the most authoritative history of the quota system that discriminated against would-be Jewish doctors (excerpt here https://muse.jhu.edu/article/15241/pdf ). This article, published in 2001 by the Journal of the History of Medicine, also alerted us to the role played by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Morris Lazaron in documenting the quota system in 1934. Rabbi Lazaron’s papers, held by the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, which supplied us with hundreds of pages related to his study, and an unpublished thesis by Scott L. Shpeen (A Man Against the Wind: A Biographical Study of Rabbi Morris S. Lazaron, 1984), a copy of which is in the vertical files at the JMM, are the other major sources of information for this post.

Antisemitism in the United States increased throughout the early 20th century as approximately two million Jews came to America, mostly from Eastern and Central Europe. By the time the flow of immigrants was staunched by legislation in 1924, the American-born children of these arrivals were seeking to enter college in large numbers, and “overt anti-Jewish prejudice in the academic community…reached its zenith.” Harvard College president Lawrence Lowell started the ball rolling around 1922 when he suggested that “if every college in the country would take a limited proportion of Jews we should go a long way toward eliminating race feelings among students….” Harvard’s board stopped short of instituting an official policy of quotas, but an unofficial practice of restricted admissions was adopted, and it soon spread to colleges and universities around the country.

The problem was particularly acute in medical schools. In 1927, the dean of the University of Michigan’s medical school concluded that since the school based admission on academic qualifications, and since many applicants with high qualifications were Jews from Eastern Europe (that is, immigrants or children of immigrants), the school was going to be overrun with “undesirables.” What was undesirable about these Jewish students? According to one medical school authority of the day, “it is a fairly tenable fact that…personal acceptability and magnetism…is less prevalent among the Jewish class…than among the entire list of applicants as a whole.”

By the 1930s, about half of all applications to medical schools were coming from Jewish students, but only about 17% of those were accepted. When set against the proportion of Jews in the U.S., then about 3.5%, this number seemed fair to many of the day, including Jews. But the rejected students were complaining and resentment of the quotas—at that time an open secret—was growing. This was the situation when Rabbi Lazaron undertook his extensive investigation. Rabbi Lazaron wrote to the deans of 65 medical schools and received 57 responses.

Rabbi Lazaron wrote to the deans, “I have felt for a number of years that too many of our Jewish students are going into medicine….Personally, I feel that we should not let this matter drift…and that it is the obligation of our Jewish people to attempt to divert, if possible, the increasing flow of Jewish students into this profession.” This is the source of Ellen’s question. Why divert them? How could there be “too many” Jewish doctors? Some colleagues and visitors to the exhibit theorized that Lazaron was showing understanding of the “problem” as a way of encouraging a more honest response from the schools. I believe, on the contrary, that Lazaron’s papers show he meant what he wrote.

1938 Lazaron book on interfaith relations. JMM 1987.060.007

1938 Lazaron book on interfaith relations. JMM 1987.060.007

For one thing, Lazaron collected a number of articles published in medical journals discussing a concern current in the 1930s over competition between doctors, discussed as “overcrowding” of the medical profession. One Jewish doctor wrote that “seldom does a Jewish physician acquire a clientele among non-Jews.” If Jewish doctors were primarily limited to practicing among America’s tiny percentage of Jews, “an economic problem would arise.” The community might see “a condition of severe competition [that] is conducive to a lowering of ethical standards.”

Another concern may have been the current climate of antisemitism. Hitler had been elected chancellor of Germany in 1933, and American Jews were fearful. In the end, Lazaron decided not to publish his findings, uncertain whether “it would be advisable at the present time to make [this] material a matter of public discussion” (emphasis added). Lazaron did not shrink from talking about being a Jew. In fact, he was a leader in the National Conference of Christians and Jews (founded in 1928), and became nationally prominent in 1933 when he toured the country with Reverend Everett R. Clinchy, a Presbyterian minister, and Father John Ross, a Catholic  priest, speaking to audiences about their beliefs and theological differences in an effort to dispel stereotypes. They became known as the “Tolerance Trio.” Lazaron saw his role in teaching Jewish students to cope with prejudice on campuses as particularly important, and while he was passionately committed to his Jewish identity and the right of Jews to worship in distinctive ways, he also sought integration and goodwill.

And this is where the answer may be found. The specter of Jewish competition in the professions, where the stereotype of the “commercial Jew” seemed particularly inappropriate, the need to promote interfaith (and what we might today term inter-cultural) harmony, and perhaps, as Halperin suggests, a personal desire not to upset his own social “apple cart,” all led him to write to the dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (who was quite forthright about his school’s quota) that “my chief interest is to present such a picture of the situation as will discourage the flow of Jewish students into medicine.” Further emphasizing the underlying assumption that the push toward medicine was due to commercial considerations, he added “except in such cases where there is conviction of the part of the youth that [medicine] and that alone is his life work.”

As an aside, Lazaron mentions in the same letter that “if I have any energy left after tracking down this material I would like to do the same thing with reference to the number of Jewish students going into law.”

karenA blog post by Curator Karen Falk. To read more posts from Karen click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Once Upon a Time…03.18.2016

Posted on December 6th, 2016 by

The Baltimore Jewish Times publishes unidentified photographs from the collection of Jewish Museum of Maryland each week. If you can identify anyone in these photos and more information about them, contact Joanna Church by email at jchurch@jewishmuseummd.org

2010020172Date run in Baltimore Jewish Times:  March 18, 2016


PastPerfect Accession #:  2010.020.172


Status: Unidentified – who are these Sinai Nursing School students grouped around a piano, circa 1940?

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See You on the Flip Side

Posted on June 30th, 2016 by

As a young adult, I find myself on the flipside of many events from my childhood and teenage years. When I began attending my family’s congregation in fifth grade, I fidgeted through the children’s services and, admittedly, antagonized the teen leaders with my friends. We grumbled when instructed to stand, acted too cool to play the games, and introduced ourselves with incorrect names. Of course, only a few years later, I began working as a teen leader myself …and dealt with all the younger kids intent on troublemaking for the next five years.

Now, as an education and programs intern, I’m on yet another flipside: assisting with school and camp group tours and activities. On my first day as an intern, Trillion told us to arrive early the next day to help with a school group. Since that day, we’ve worked with seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade, and K-second grade groups. While I first felt most comfortable walking with others and monitoring behavior, I just experienced the best tour yet leading the students myself. While I’ve learned to feel more comfortable with this responsibility, I’ve also learned a few other facts along the way. By combining memories of my own school trips along with my time as one I’ve the leaders, I’ve realized three things.

Exercise activity before seeing the “Beyond Chicken Soup” exhibit!

Exercise activity before seeing the “Beyond Chicken Soup” exhibit!

First, that quiet, seemingly disengaged kid in the corner? He or she may just need someone to personally engage with them. I know this both from my own experience as the quiet kid and from my favorite moment with a school group. We all sat in the exhibit beneath Lloyd Street Synagogue, while the instructor gave a mini-Hebrew lesson. After learning a few words, the leader told the students to turn to each other, shake hands, and say “Shabbat Shalom.” After a few seconds of awkwardness, most kids got into it, shaking hands wildly up and down while giggling “Shabbat Shalom!”  One kid, however, sat further away from the others, a slight frown on his face. I went up to him and stuck out my hand for a handshake. Right away, his face split into the biggest smile and his eyes lit up, taking my hand and giving me a very professional handshake. “Shabbat Shalom,” I grinned, and he giggled it right back.

The box of goodies that turns into an archeology game.

The box of goodies that turns into an archeology game.

Second, both the students and the adult leaders compromise for each other. I know from being a student that sometimes, even if you enjoy the trip’s topic or location, you’re just not in the mood on that particular day. Yet, you still sit (relatively) still, try to listen, and participate when possible. At the same time, the leaders listen to the needs of the students more than I realized. Twice now, we’ve changed the original plan based on the needs of the students, whether cutting out an activity or changing the timing of lunch when students complained of hunger. It makes me wonder what compromises my own teachers and student leaders enacted when I took these fieldtrips.

Finally, a large group of kindergarten, first, and second graders listens and plays along far better than a medium sized group of ninth graders. Whether it’s the different degrees of fear, respect, and excitement, or simply the difference in height (even many seventh graders towered over me), I would take the group of younger children any day.

All in all, these school and camp tours remain my favorite part of this internship. I love improvising to cater the exhibits to each group, seeing the students interact with each other, and hearing their guesses to my questions. Museums are for the public, so I consider it special that the education and program interns have the chance to see it engage with our museum first hand.

06.06.2016 Interns (13)Blog post by Education & Programs Intern Anna Balfanz. To read  more posts by and about interns click HERE.

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