Living the Legacy


Jews and the Civil Rights Movement: the Whys and Why Nots

Unit 1 , Lesson 3

Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacy

Jews and the Civil Rights Movement: the Whys and Why Nots

Lesson plan:
  1. Advance Preparation

    Prior to class, read the Temple Ohev Shalom scenarioTemple Ohev Shalom scenarioTemple Ohev Shalom scenarioTemple Ohev Shalom scenarioTemple Ohev Shalom scenarioTemple Ohev Shalom scenarioTemple Ohev Shalom scenarioTemple Ohev Shalom scenarioTemple Ohev Shalom scenarioTemple Ohev Shalom scenario and board member scenarios. Choose the documentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocumentsdocuments that you want your students to use as background for the debate. As you're choosing the documents keep in mind the size of your class, your students' experience working with primary sources, and the amount of time you can devote to this lesson. [Note that the series of letters from and to the Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, Mississippi revolve around decisions made by a temple board. The letters touch on many issues relevant to the debate and may be particularly useful for your students. However, if you are concerned that your students may place too much emphasis on these letters, and that the letters may dictate the outcome of the debate, consider distributing them at the end of the lesson.]

    Each board member and document included in the lesson plan offers a different perspective. If you find that there are other perspectives you would like to include in this lesson, consider adding additional characters and/or bringing in additional sources (including documents from people from your community who may have been involved in the Civil Rights Movement). For a large class you also may need to create additional characters (pick names and biographical backstories) or ask students to choose their own names and characters. Alternately, you can have students work in small groups of 2 or 3 students to represent each board member found in the lesson plan (this would allow them to discuss their role and views as they prepare for the Temple Board Meeting) or assign some of your students the role of general board members who don't present their own arguments but can ask questions and vote on what the board should do at the end of the meeting. You may choose to take the role of the Temple Board President yourself or delegate that role to a student, depending on the size of your class and the abilities of your students.

    Print 1-2 copies of each document and put them around the room for students to read in pairs, looking for ones relevant to their characters. Alternately, you can combine these documents in one packet, and make enough copies for each of your students. Be sure to make a copy of the Document Discussion Guide for each student.If you are doing this lesson in a setting which has a board room or conference room, you may want to arrange to hold your Temple Board Meeting in that room. Make (or have your students make) name cards that they can set out in front of them on the Board table. Feel free to provide other props/costumes that you think would add to the realism of the meeting or help your students get into their roles.

  2. Introduction

    1. If you taught Unit 1, Lessons 2-3, review some of the key concepts about identity with your students. List them on the chalk board, white board, or chart paper.
      1. Each of us has many different identities.
      2. The importance of any one of our identities may shift due to the time and/or place we are in.
      3. Sometimes different parts of our identities can be in conflict.
      4. Our actions in the world are often motivated by the values we hold and these are often related to the groups with which we identify.

      If you have not done the previous lessons, you may want to list the key concepts on the board and then provide your students with brief examples or ask them for examples as you discuss each point.
    2. Introduce the following new idea by writing it on the board and then discussing it with your students:

      We want to protect our security and that of the people we care about. Sometimes this value is in conflict with our other values.

      You may want to ask the following questions:
      • What are some things that make us feel secure?
      • Who are some people we might try to keep secure?
      • How could our actions cause them to feel less secure?
      • What might be an example of a situation where one's value-based actions might damage someone else's sense of security?
      • How might the issue of risk/danger to ourselves and others challenge our idealism?
    3. Explain that Jews acted the way they did in the Civil Rights Movement for many different reasons based on their different experiences and concerns. The Jewish relationship to the Civil Rights Movement is often painted as a simple one – in which Jews were supportive – but in fact it was quite complex.
  3. Prepare for Temple Board Meeting, Part A: Reviewing the scenario and roles

    1. Distribute the Temple Board Meeting Scenario. Have a student read it out loud.
    2. Explain that each student (or pair of students) will become a member of this Temple Board. They will be assigned a role to play and, using the arguments they gathered from the documents they are about to examine, they will need to present their point of view on this issue based on the fictional character they were assigned. The documents they will be examining include letters, photographs, and statements from the time of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as more recently written descriptions of what life was like during that period. 
    3. Distribute the Board Member Scenarios. You may distribute these randomly or choose ahead of time who you want to play each role. (If you choose not to play the role of the Temple President yourself, remember to hand out this scenario along with the others.)
    4. Give your students time to read over their scenarios, think about their characters, and take some initial notes on their arguments (space for this is provided on the scenario work sheet). They may do this alone, in pairs, or in small groups; you could also organize them in two facing lines or in an inner circle and outer circle so that everyone is facing someone and must engage in conversation. You could have them reflect in writing, in the form of journaling or a more formal letter written in character to present his/her argument to the board (these can then be shared at the end of the board meeting as part of the wrap up).
  4. Prepare for Temple Board Meeting, Part B: Reviewing the Documents

    1. Distribute the chosen primary source documents. Provide each student with a copy of the Document Discussion Guide and go over the directions as a class.
    2. Divide your class into pairs or small groups to examine and discuss the documents around the room/in their packets.
    3. Explain that they can use the documents to get a sense of how their characters might have felt about the Civil Rights Movement and to get ideas for what they might say during the Board Meeting. As they look through the documents, students should identify which documents and arguments are most relevant to their assigned characters and read those most closely.
    4. When all the groups have finished reviewing the documents, have your students come back together as a class. Have the groups share some of the items on their lists. You may want to write their ideas on the board.
    5. If the Board Meeting is occurring at a later time/date, go over when and where the Board Meeting will be held and review what will be expected of them.
  5. Temple Board Meeting

    1. Set up the Board Room
      1. If you have been able to reserve a board or conference room for your class' Board Meeting, take your class to that location.
        Have your students help you rearrange their desks, chairs, and/or themselves into a rectangle or circle symbolizing a Board Table.
      2. Have your students place their name signs (which you made prior to class or that your students make) in front of them so that others can read their names. They should introduce themselves, in character and using first person language, to the rest of the class.
      3. Provide the Temple President with a copy of the Board Scenario, the outline of the Temple Board Meeting, and a gavel.
    2. Hold the Temple Board Meeting
      1. Have the students debate the issue before the Temple Board according to the outline. The Temple President may call on board members in any order s/he wishes, and may ask additional questions. Everyone should have a chance to share his/her views. Once everyone has shared his/her views, the Temple President may call on people again to counter a point that has already been made. Finally, the Temple President should call for a motion: "We should support the activists." Or "We should not support the activists." Or some alternative or combination. A vote should then be taken.
  6. Wrap-Up

    1. Discuss some of the following questions with your students:
      1. What did you think about as you were putting together your argument for the board meeting?
      2. What do you think were the strongest arguments made during the board meeting?
      3. Were you surprised by how the Board voted? Why or why not?
      4. Why do you think supporting civil rights was such a complicated issue for Jews?
      5. How, if at all, did the experience of participating in this Board Meeting change the way you think about the Jewish community and social justice?
    2. Optional: Revisit the line in Maurice Eisendrath's 1963 letter to the congregation in Greenville, MS, in which he writes that the Union of American Hebrew Congregations "ever strides to tread the narrow path between inaction and reckless action."
      1. What is your take on this statement, having just participated in the Board Meeting? How does one define "inaction" and "reckless action" for an organization? For oneself?
    3. Summarize what the students have done and what they have said they have learned while preparing for and taking part in the Temple Board Meeting. If relevant, let students know that over the next several lessons, the class will be returning to some of the issues raised today and also expanding on them.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Living the Legacy - Lesson: Jews and the Civil Rights Movement: the Whys and Why Nots." (Viewed on April 24, 2014) <>.