With an Eye on History, a Couple Gives to Organize and Train Reform Jews to Stand Up for Immigrants

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Jews know what it is to be immigrants, chased out of countries and states including pre-state Israel, Spain and Western Europe. So it’s no surprise that advocating on behalf of immigrants and refugees has been a major focus for several Jewish groups since Donald Trump’s election.

Organizations including the traditionally immigration-oriented HIAS, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and any number of individual synagogues have made the issue a priority.

Now, the Reform movement is formalizing its involvement with a new project called the Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus Initiative for Immigrant and Refugee Justice, to be based at the Union for Reform Judaism. It was announced on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls this year on May 2—today—and is funded by a $1 million multi-year grant from New York City-based Kraus Family Foundation.  

The Kraus Family Foundation is piloted by Peter and Jill Kraus, who named the new initiative for Peter’s grandparents. They were a Philadelphia couple when, bucking the intense American anti-Semitism of the 1930s and pressure to avoid doing anything that would draw attention to the Jewish community there, they rescued 50 children in 1939 from Nazi-occupied Vienna and Berlin.

Gilbert Kraus was a major labor lawyer and publisher of the Philadelphia Ledger. Members of the Philadelphia Jewish community, fearing an anti-Semitic backlash, warned Peter’s grandfather that his businesses would face ruin if the couple pursued its plan. They did it anyway.

Until 15 years ago, Peter had never heard anything about this episode—until his father gave him a memoir written by his own mother about their rescue operation.

Gilbert and Eleanor, risking their livelihoods, campaigned for the U.S. government and German and Austrian governments to permit these children to emigrate—and at a time when the Nazi campaign was ramping up and Jews wanted only to leave Austria and Germany, Gilbert and Eleanor went to Vienna and Berlin.


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