The Roots of Local Antisemitism

Phyllis Kasdin was raised Jewish in Rochester and has lived here her whole life. She wrote a book, "The Future Begins with the Past: An Archives Exhibit of Jewish Rochester," on the history of Judaism in the City. Photography by Travis LaCoss

Antisemitism in the U.S. is at its highest level in decades. In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League — a non-governmental organization that has tracked cases of assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews — reported 2,717 incidents nationally, the most since record-keeping began in 1979.

The spike has paralleled brewing tensions in the Middle East, as well as misinformation spread by celebrities and politicians through social media. Now is an appropriate time to review the history of Judaism in Rochester and explore how discrimination has evolved over the years. 

The Early Years

Hailing from what is now Germany, the first Jews settled in Rochester in the 1840s. These immigrants had fled difficult conditions in Europe and often traveled to New York City before venturing further inland for work.

Rochester is indirectly connected to New York City via the Hudson River and the Erie Canal, the latter of which feeds into Midwestern cities beyond the Great Lakes. This made Rochester a convenient hub for 19th-century transportation, for both trade and incoming immigrants.

Dr. Neil R. Scheier, a local physician and Board President of the Joseph Avenue Arts and Culture Alliance, further explained the appeal of Rochester for these groups.

“It really all starts with the Genesee River,” said Scheier. “The factories in Rochester in the late 1800s started developing along the Genesee River…[because] water is a power source.”

Jewish immigrants were often poor and lacked the education to immediately enter professional jobs, so many resorted to providing manual labor. When Rochester’s clothing industry blossomed in the latter half of the century, it was the Jewish community that served as its backbone.

“All of a sudden, this wave of immigrants [came in] the 1880s,” noted Scheier. “That’s why they came — because [there] was work here.”

Phyllis Kasdin, a member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester, noted the importance of these immigrants.

“The city of Rochester at one time was on the verge of bankruptcy,” Kasdin mentioned. “It was the Jewish clothing work, the Jewish clothing owners that bailed them out.”

"The city of Rochester at one time was on the verge of bankruptcy ... it was the Jewish clothing work, the Jewish clothing owners that bailed them out."

The Community

The Jewish population became more diverse as it grew, with immigrants coming from Eastern Europe and Russia near the turn of the 20th century. They built an integrated community in the city’s Northeast Quadrant. The remnants of this community are still visible today. 

“The Greek Orthodox churches are all along Ridge Rd. because they were part of the immigrant group,” said Scheier. 

Norton St., Seneca Ave. and Joseph Ave. were integral in this early community, too.

Even with this development, the local Jewish population endured many hardships. First, there was tension between German Jews — who had arrived first and grown wealthier — and the poorer Eastern European Jews. 

“The German Jews did not want to have anything to do with the Eastern European Jews that came,” said Kasdin. 

This started an outward pattern in the movement of Jews across Rochester. Their emphasis on education allowed them to become more affluent, from which they moved to the suburbs. They first moved to Union St. and North St., then to Monroe Ave. and finally to Brighton and Pittsford, where many live today.

Local Injustices

Despite their prevalence in the Rochester community, local Jews experienced intense discrimination.

“Kodak was extremely antisemitic,” recalled Kasdin. “If you were Jewish, you could never get a job at Kodak."

"Kodak was extremely antisemitic ... if you were Jewish, you could never get a job at Kodak."

In fact, Kodak was one of several American manufacturers that had ties with Nazi Germany during World War II. The company sold film to the Nazis from factories in Spain, Portugal and Switzerland, and its German branch utilized slave labor from Nazi concentration camps. 

Instead, Jewish scientists in Rochester were heavily involved with Xerox, previously known as Haloid. They invented the first xerographic photocopiers and helped to establish the corporation.

Beyond restrictions in industry, colleges such as the University of Rochester (U of R) enforced strict quotas on Jewish enrollment.

“[U of R] took 10% Jewish people,” noted Kasdin. “Medical school was even worse.”

Antisemitism increased nationwide leading up to World War II. It was revived by growing antagonism against immigrants, as well as the sermons of Charles Coughlin, a radio priest who openly expressed antisemitic and fascist views on the air.

Hateful attitudes were somewhat curtailed in Rochester thanks to Rabbi Philip Bernstein, who served as chief rabbi of Temple B’rith Kodesh for over 40 years. He became increasingly concerned about rising antisemitism after visiting Germany and Romania in 1930. 

Bernstein went on several national tours to inform the public about European developments before World War II. During the conflict, he was appointed as the Executive Director of the Committee of Army and Navy Religious Activities. His congregation backed his sentiment by supporting refugees fleeing from the Holocaust.

Modern Developments

Bernstein’s work was valuable, but it did not entirely eliminate Rochester’s antisemitic beliefs. Kasdin, who grew up in Rochester while Bernstein was active, was raised in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood.

“The next-door neighbors had two daughters…and they feared that my brother was going to rape them,” Kasdin said. “Of course, [the Catholic neighbors] told me that I killed Jesus.”

While Kasdin mentioned that these conditions improved over time, the synagogues and other relics of Rochester’s earliest Jewish communities were disappearing. Jews were moving to the suburbs, but racial tension heightened once again. This culminated in a 1964 riot, immediately caused by the Rochester Police Department using a K-9 unit against a Black block party on Joseph Ave.

The street held numerous Jewish businesses, many of which were destroyed during the riot. Because the Jewish community had already relocated to the outskirts of Rochester, most of these establishments never reopened. 

Kasdin expressed fear at the community’s current direction. “Every synagogue has a couple of guards,” she noted. She now lives at Jewish Senior Life, where her co-residents have advocated for the removal of the term “Jewish” from their buses, so they are not targeted. Kasdin also gives public tours of Jewish sites in downtown Rochester, but many of her guests fear stepping outside in the wrong place. 

Locals of all backgrounds must address the persistence of antisemitism. Kasdin believes that overcoming complacency is the key to solving such issues. It is through awareness campaigns, voicing concerns and calling out injustices when they happen that positive changes will occur at the community level.