Living the Legacy

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Jewish clergy in the Civil Rights Movement

Unit 2 , Lesson 6

Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacy

http://jwa.org/LivingtheLegacy

Jewish clergy in the Civil Rights Movement

Document studies: 

Rabbi Milton Grafman Sermon

Milton Grafman (1907-1988)

Born in Washington, and ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1931, Milton Grafman spent most of his career as the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, AL. Like many southern rabbis, Milton Grafman found himself caught between the realities of southern Jewish life and civil rights activists. While he and other clergy worked for the integration of public parks, thus angering many white southerners, he also believed that civil rights activists, especially Jewish ones, wanted to change things too quickly and did not understand the realities of southern life or the position of southern Jews.1

In 1963, civil rights activists began a large-scale protest of segregation in Birmingham. Faced with an injunction to stop the protest, Martin Luther King announced he would march on City Hall. Many feared widespread violence. Rabbi Grafman and eight other members of the clergy met to share their concerns, angered by King's insistence on protesting before the recently elected mayor had a chance to pass desegregation legislation. They wrote a letter, published the next day in Birmingham's newspapers, in which they essentially asked King to wait and give the moderate government a chance. Despite the letter, the protests continued.

On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Addressed to the local white clergy who had been critical of King's tactics, the letter expressed King's disappointment with their inaction.2

In September of the same year, Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing several African American children. The bombing occurred on Sunday, September 16, and the funeral for the children was held on Tuesday. Rosh Hashana began that same Tuesday evening. In his sermon on Rosh Hashana morning, Rabbi Grafman expressed his horror at the violence and loss and asserted that white citizens in Birmingham – Jews and Christians together – needed to help make things right.

Sermon by Milton Grafman, September 19, 1963

Discussion Questions

  1. Review: Who gave this sermon? When? Where?
  2. How do you think the way it was communicated might have influenced the message?
  3. Who was the intended audience? How do you think that might have influenced the message?
  4. Rabbi Grafman repeats several times that he is sick at heart. What do you think he means by this exactly? What seems to have caused him to feel this way?
  5. In what ways has Rabbi Grafman supported the Civil Rights Movement? In what ways has he not? What does he suggest he has always been mindful of in making his decisions about whether or not to act?
  6. What is Rabbi Grafman calling on his congregants to do? Why does he think they need to do this?
  7. How does Rabbi Grafman think change will come about in Birmingham? How do you think this differs from how civil rights activists want to bring about change?
  8. How do you think Rabbi Grafman's and his congregation's relationship to the Civil Rights Movement is complicated by the fact that they live in the South?
  9. What do you think Rabbi Grafman believes is his appropriate role in the Civil Rights Movement? What evidence do you have for this? Do you agree or disagree with this view of the role of a rabbi?
  10. Are there any current political/social issues on which you think rabbis today should take a stand? What kind of role would you want to see them take?

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

Born in Warsaw into a Hasidic dynasty in 1907, Abraham Joshua Heschel was ordained in Europe. He also pursued a secular education, but was unable to finish his doctorate in Germany because of anti-Semitism. After Adolf Hitler came to power and began his campaign against the Jews, many rabbinic seminaries in America invited European rabbis to teach at their schools. In this way, Abraham Joshua Heschel came to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of America (the Reform movement's seminary) in 1940. Later, he moved to the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary, feeling that this was a better fit with his traditional Jewish background and views.

Abraham Joshua Heschel is considered to be one of the great theologians of the twentieth century. He wrote on many Jewish topics including the Prophets. Heschel's experience during the Holocaust and his study of the Jewish prophets influenced his belief that Judaism required of one both deeds and actions. Known as "Father Abraham" to many of Martin Luther King's followers, Abraham Joshua Heschel was an outspoken activist for civil rights who marched with King, met with John F. Kennedy about civil rights legislation, and is celebrated by many in the Jewish community for his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and other movements for social justice. His reflection on participating in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March, 1965 -- "I felt my legs were praying" -- has become a model of activism as religious practice.

Telegram from Abraham Joshua Heschel to President John F. Kennedy, June 16, 1963

Telegram from Abraham Joshua Heschel to President John F. Kennedy, June 16, 1963
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Telegram from Abraham Joshua Heschel to President John F. Kennedy, June 16, 1963, Moral grandeur and spiritual audacity: essays, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), vii. Copyright Professor Susannah Heschel.

Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Selma March, 1965

Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Selma March, 1965
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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with other civil rights leaders from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 21, 1965. From far left: John Lewis; an unidentified nun; Ralph Abernathy; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ralph Bunche; Abraham Joshua Heschel; the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

Discussion Questions

Part I
  1. Initial assessment: Who wrote this telegram? When was it written? What was the context for writing the telegram?
  2. How do you think the format (a telegram) might have influenced the message?
  3. Who was his specific audience? What larger audience might this telegram also have been meant for?
  4. In the first half of the telegram, Heschel asks the president to make some demands of religious leaders. Let's recap: What are these demands? Why does Heschel think this is necessary? Your interpretation: What do you think of a religious leader asking the President of the United States (a secular leader) to make religious demands of religious leaders?
  5. In the second half of the telegram, Heschel makes certain proposals to the President. What are these proposals? Your interpretation: How do they blend religious issues and political issues?
  6. Heschel says that "We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes." What do you think he meant by this? Do you agree? Do you think worshipping God is a right that we earn through our actions? If so, what do you think are the kinds of actions that might forfeit this right?
  7. What do you think Abraham Joshua Heschel meant when he said "The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity?" What do those words mean to you?
  8. What do you think the purpose of this telegram is?
Part II
  1. How do you think Abraham Joshua Heschel's experience and/or Jewish values influence his participation in the Civil Rights Movement? What in the telegram makes you say that?
  2. Do you think this is an appropriate role for a rabbi? Why or why not?
  3. Are there any current political/social issues on which you think rabbis today should take a stand? What kind of role would you want to see them take?

Rabbis Who Marched in Alabama

Background

The newspaper article in this Document Study comes from Rabbi William G. Braude's personal papers, and brief biographies of Rabbi Braude and other Rabbis involved in the incident are included.

William G. Braude (1907-1988)
Born in Lithuania in 1907, William Braude came to America with his parents in 1920. In 1931, he was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement's seminary. His first and only pulpit was at Temple Beth-El in Providence, RI, where he worked on behalf of African Americans even before the formal beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and continued his involvement as a supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr. However, he did not support all civil rights legislation. In this he differed from many of his congregants who disagreed with his conservative politics.

Saul Leeman
Ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinic school of the Conservative movement, Saul Leeman had a pulpit at the Cranston Jewish Center in Cranston, RI (now Temple Torat Yisrael) during the 1960s.

Nathan Rosen
Nathan Rosen's first pulpit was in Savannah, GA, where he learned about Jim Crow laws and the degradation of America's African American community first hand. By the 1960s, Rabbi Rosen was the director of the Hillel Foundation at Brown University, in Providence RI.

Southern Hospitality Was Not Extended Say R.I. Rabbis Who Marched in Alabama

Southern Hospitality Was Not Extended Say R.I. Rabbis Who Marched in Alabama, page 1 of 2
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"Southern Hospitality Was Not Extended Say R.I. Rabbis Who Marched in Alabama," Rhode Island Herald, 2 April, 1965, 1,8. Permission to use granted by The Voice & Herald of Rhode Island.
Southern Hospitality Was Not Extended Say R.I. Rabbis Who Marched in Alabama, page 2 of 2
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"Southern Hospitality Was Not Extended Say R.I. Rabbis Who Marched in Alabama," Rhode Island Herald, 2 April, 1965, 1,8. Permission to use granted by The Voice & Herald of Rhode Island.

Discussion Questions

Part I
  1. Initial assessment: Who wrote this article? When?
  2. In what context was it written?
  3. Who was the intended audience for this document? How do you think this influenced the message of the article and/or what the rabbis told the interviewer?
  4. What did Rabbis Braude, Leeman, and Rosen do, according to this article?
  5. According to this article, why did these rabbis choose to march in Alabama? What other reasons do you think might have influenced their decision?
  6. According to this article, what kind of reception did these rabbis receive from people in Alabama? How did this reflect the feelings of the different groups whom they met?
  7. Did they feel that the march was effective? Why?
  8. How did the rabbis build on their experience by bringing it to the attention of others?
Part II
  1. How do you think these rabbis' experience and/or Jewish values influence their participation in the Civil Rights Movement? What clues from the article make you think that?
  2. How would you describe the role that these rabbis played in the Civil Rights Movement?
  3. Do you think this is an appropriate role for a rabbi? Why or why not?
  4. Are there any current political/social issues on which you think rabbis today should take a stand? What kind of role would you want to see them take?

Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine

Michael Robinson (1934-2006)

Born and raised in Asheville, NC, Michael Robinson was familiar with the inequalities between blacks and whites in the South, but he also learned that it didn't have to be this way. Robinson's father was an optometrist who treated black and white patients in the same office. When he was 10 years old, his "colored mammy" (an African American woman who worked as a servant, often helping to raise a white family's children) was forced to sit on the back of the bus and young Robinson chose to sit with her even though he was breaking the law and local custom.

Michael Robinson got involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the late 40s and early 50s, while a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement's seminary. During that time, he organized a group of fellow students to try and desegregate a Greek restaurant in Cincinnati. After ordination, Robinson took a pulpit in Croton, NY, a suburb of New York City. During the summer of 1964, Rabbi Robinson, along with a number of other Reform rabbis who had been attending the Central Conference of American Rabbis conference, answered Martin Luther King's call to join him in St. Augustine, FL. Once there, he was arrested, along with 15 other rabbis, for participating in civil rights activities.

Why We Went: A Joint Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine

Why We Went: A Joint Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine, page 1 of 3
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Click "Full Image" to see transcript."Why We Went: A Joint Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine," June 19, 1964. From the papers of Rabbi Michael Robinson. Permission to use granted by Dr. Eugene Borowitz.
Why We Went: A Joint Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine, page 2 of 3
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"Why We Went: A Joint Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine," June 19, 1964. From the papers of Rabbi Michael Robinson. Permission to use granted by Dr. Eugene Borowitz.
Why We Went: A Joint Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine, page 3 of 3
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"Why We Went: A Joint Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine," June 19, 1964. From the papers of Rabbi Michael Robinson. Permission to use granted by Dr. Eugene Borowitz.

Discussion Questions

Part I
  1. Initial assessment: Who wrote this document? When?
  2. Where was it written?
  3. Who do you think the intended audience was? How do you think this might have influenced the message?
  4. What did the rabbis who wrote this letter do to get arrested?
  5. In their letter, the rabbis say that "We came because we could not stand silently by our brother's blood." This quote is based on Leviticus 19:15-16 which says, "You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly. Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor." It is part of the Torah portion known as kiddushim, or the holiness code, which is read during the High Holy Days.

    What do you think the biblical quote means? What do you think the rabbis in St. Augustine meant by this quote? Why do you think they chose to use a biblical reference?
  6. What do you think are some of the reasons these rabbis chose to participate in civil rights activities in St. Augustine? What in the letter makes you say that? Which of their reasons were based in Judaism? Which were universal? Which were particular to being a rabbi/Jewish leader?
  7. What part do you think community played in their experience before their arrest and during their time in prison?
  8. What did the rabbis feel they had accomplished by their actions in St. Augustine?
  9. What impact did the rabbis' actions have on them personally? In thinking about the reasons for and impact of activism, how would you rate the ways in which it changes the activist?
Part II
  1. How do you think these rabbis' experience and/or Jewish values influenced their participation in the Civil Rights Movement? What clues from the letter make you think that?
  2. How would you describe the role that these rabbis played in the Civil Rights Movement?
  3. Do you think this is an appropriate role for a rabbi? Why or why not?
  4. Are there any current political/social issues on which you think rabbis today should take a stand? What kind of role would you want to see them take?

Sermon by Rabbi James Wax

James Wax

Ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in the 1930s, James Wax served as the rabbi of Temple Israel in Memphis, TN, in the 1960s. Rabbi Wax supported racial justice, and during this period was a member of the Memphis Committee on Community Relations which worked towards integration. He also played an important role in resolving the sanitation workers' strike, which dragged on for many months, beginning in February 1968. Rabbi Wax knew Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb, who had at one time been a member of his congregation, and spoke to Loeb alone and with other delegates on several occasions to negotiate an end to the strike. After Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while in Memphis supporting the sanitation workers' strike, Wax helped to arrange for the secret payment to the state of the funds necessary to pay the salary increases for the sanitation workers. Just days after King's assassination, Rabbi Wax shared his views of King with his congregation in a sermon.

Rabbi Wax Sermon on Martin Luther King, Jr., April 5, 1968

Rabbi Wax Sermon, 1 of 4
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Rabbi James Wax, "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Sermon delivered at Temple Israel, Memphis, TN on April 5, 1968. Courtesy of the Rabbi, Board of Trustees, and Archivist of Temple Israel, Memphis TN.
Rabbi Wax Sermon, 2 of 4
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Rabbi James Wax, "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Sermon delivered at Temple Israel, Memphis, TN on April 5, 1968. Courtesy of the Rabbi, Board of Trustees, and Archivist of Temple Israel, Memphis TN.
Rabbi Wax Sermon, 3 of 4
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Rabbi James Wax, "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Sermon delivered at Temple Israel, Memphis, TN on April 5, 1968. Courtesy of the Rabbi, Board of Trustees, and Archivist of Temple Israel, Memphis TN.
Rabbi Wax Sermon, 4of 4
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Rabbi James Wax, "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Sermon delivered at Temple Israel, Memphis, TN on April 5, 1968. Courtesy of the Rabbi, Board of Trustees, and Archivist of Temple Israel, Memphis TN.

Discussion Questions

Part I
  1. Initial assessment: Who delivered this sermon? When?
  2. How was it communicated? Where was it communicated? How do you think this might have influenced the message?
  3. Who was the intended audience? How do you think that might have influenced the message?
  4. How does Rabbi Wax view Martin Luther King, Jr.? What in his sermon makes you say that?
  5. How are these views similar and/or different from those of other people Wax mentions in his sermon?
  6. What, according to Rabbi Wax, is God's will?
  7. What do you think Rabbi Wax's purpose is in giving this sermon?
  8. Why do you think it might have been harder for Rabbi Wax to give this sermon in Memphis than it would have been for a Northern rabbi to give this sermon?
Part II
  1. How do you think James Wax's experience and/or Jewish values influence his participation in the Civil Rights Movement? What makes you say that?
  2. How would you describe the role that Rabbi Wax played in the Civil Rights Movement?
  3. Do you think this is an appropriate role for a rabbi? Why or why not?
  4. Are there any current political/social issues on which you think rabbis today should take a stand? What kind of role would you want to see them take?

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Living the Legacy - Lesson: Jewish clergy in the Civil Rights Movement." (Viewed on April 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/civilrights/jewish-clergy-in-civil-rights-movement>.