Why We Went: A Joint Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine
This document, a letter signed by a group of rabbis who were in jail together, was drafted overnight by Rabbi Eugene B. Borowitz. His rabbinic colleagues and Al Vorspan of the UAHC staff contributed to the revisions, and Vorspan saw to its distribution. The letter describes why these rabbis went to St. Augustine, what they hoped to accomplish and what occurred while there.
This transcript is excerpted from the original document
These words were first written at 3:00 a.m. in the sweltering heat of a sleepless night, by the light of the one naked bulb hanging in the corridor outside our small cell. Thy were, ironically, scratched on the back of the pages of a mimeographed report of the bloody assaults of the Ku Klux Klan in St. Augustine.
…We were arrested on Thursday, June 18, 1964. Fifteen of us were arrested while praying in an integrated group in front of Monson’s Restaurant. Two of us were arrested for sitting down at a table with three Negro youngsters in the Chimes Restaurant. We pleaded not guilty to the charges against us…
…We came to St. Augustine mainly because we could not stay away. We could not say no to Martin Luther King, whom we always respected and admired and whose loyal friends we hope we shall be in the days to come. We could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by a moral means – a rare modern privilege – which has been the glory of the non-violent struggle for civil rights.
We came because we could not stand silently by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time. We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.
We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act…
We believe, though we could not count on it in advance, that our presence and actions here have been of practical effect. They have reminded the embattled Negoes here that they are not isolated and alone. They conscience of the wicked has been troubled, while that of the righteous has gained new strength. We are more certain than before that this cause is invincible, but we also have a sharpened awareness of the great effort and sacrifice which will be required. We pray that what we have done may lead us on to further actions and persuade others who still stand hesitantly to take the stand they know is just.
We came from different backgrounds and with different degrees of involvement. Some of us have had intimate experience with the struggle of minority groups to achieve full and equal rights in our widely scattered home communities. Others of us have had less direct contact with the underprivileged and the socially oppressed. And yet for all of us these brief, tension-packed hours of openness and communication turned an abstract social issue into something personal and immediate. We shall not forget the people with whom we drove, prayed, marched, slept, ate, demonstrated and were arrested. How little we know of these people and their struggle. What we have learned has changed us and our attitudes. We are grateful for the rare experience of sharing with this courageous community in their life, their suffering, their effort. We pray that we may remain more sensitive and more alive as a result…
…Each of us has in this experience become a little more the person, a bit more the rabbi he always hoped to be (but has not yet been able to become).
We believe in man’s ability to fulfill God’s commands with God’s help. We make no messianic estimate of man’s power and certainly not of what we did here. But it has reaffirmed our faith in the significance of the deed. So we must confess in all humility that we did this as much in fulfillment of our faith and in response to inner need as in service to our Negro brothers. We came to stand with our brothers and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God. In obeying Him, we become ourselves; in following His will we fulfill ourselves. He has guided, sustained and strengthened us in a way we could not manage on our own.
We are deeply grateful to the good influences which have sustained us in our moments of trial and friendship. Often we thought of parents, wives, children, congregants, particularly our teen-age youth, and of our teachers and our students. How many a Torah reading, Passover celebration, prayer book text and sermonic effort has come to mind in these hours. And how meaningful has been our worship, morning and evening, as we recited the ancient texts In this new, yet Jewishly familiar, setting. We are particularly grateful for what we have received from our comrades in this visit. We have been sustained by the understanding, thoughtfulness, consideration and good humor we have received from each other. Never have the bonds of Judaism and the fellowship of the rabbinate been more clearly expressed to us all or more deeply felt by each of us…
Rabbi Eugene Borowitz
Rabbi Balfour Brickner
Rabbi Israel Dresner
Rabbi Daniel Fogel
Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein
Rabbi Joel Goor
Rabbi Joseph Herzog
Rabbi Norman Hirsch
Rabbi Leon Jick
Rabbi Richard Levy
Rabbi Eugene Lipman
Rabbi B. T. Rubenstein
Rabbi Michael Robinson
Rabbi Murray Saltzman
Rabbi Allen Secher
Rabbi Clyde T. Sills
Mr. Albert Vorspan