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Sermon by Rabbi Milton Grafman, September 19, 1963

Rabbi Milton Grafman found himself caught between the realities of southern Jewish life and civil rights activists. In 1963, Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing several African American children. Rosh Hashana began that same Tuesday evening. In his sermon on Rosh Hashana morning, Rabbi Grafman expressed his horror at the violence and asserted that white citizens in Birmingham needed to help make things right.
Courtesy of the American Jewish Archives
Other license (see note)
Grafman, Milton
Date / time
September 19, 1963
American Jewish Archives
*This transcript is only an excerpt of the speech.* Friends, it’s with a great deal fear and trepidation that I stand before you at this moment and begin to speak to you at this moment in our service when the Rabbi is supposed to bring some message of hope and inspiration, or help carry you not really through the day but through the year to come. …I feel a sense of trepidation because for the first time in all my years as a student and rabbi, I stand before a High Holiday congregation unprepared…And there are several reasons for it. There are several reasons for it. Very frankly, this has been a horrible summer! This has been a horrible year! These are troublous times. Very frankly, I hardly knew the Rosh Hashanah was about to begin tomorrow night. There has been no time for thinking and preparation and outline... There are things that are upon my heart that I want to say to you…The calculated risk that I am doing today, because I don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth; I don’t know how long it is going to take; I don’t know how you are going to receive it. But there is certain things that have to be said, and I’m going to say them. It will not be the first time that I took a calculated risk. I’m just sick at heart as you are about what’s happened in our city. I have been sick about it for years. Anybody with a shred of humanity in him could not have been but horrified by what happened Saturday or Sunday. And I’m sick at heart for a lot of other reasons. I’m sick at heart because of the attitude not of the people who either by direction or indirection were responsible for the death of those children. Not for the people that by direction or indirection are responsible for the horrible image that this city of ours has throughout the country, and this Jewish community has throughout out the country! And I’m sick at heart because of what the so-called nice people, not only in the city of Birmingham, but in Temple Emanu-El – the liberals in Temple Emanu-El. The people that sneer at everything that happens in this city who point the finger at everyone beginning with the rabbi. Who ought to put the blame upon everyone but themselves. I am sick at heart is their attitude also. I am sick of and tired of finger pointing. I am weary of reasons and rationalizations. And I am weary of people congregating in their homes and their places of business over their coffee, wherever they may be, I am weary of people calling me on the telephone and asking me what are you doing. What is the Temple doing? What is the Jewish community doing? I am tired of liberals and reactionaries coming into my study, and wanting to know what’s going on. If I have the time, I might try to tell you what your Rabbi’s been doing. I answer to my conscience. You’ll have to answer to yours. I want you to know as your Rabbi, and for 8 yeas as the Rabbi of the Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky, I have never been unmindful of two things. I have never been unmindful of my responsibility to God, and the obligation that that belief in God places upon me in my relationship to my fellow man. And I have also never been unmindful of the fact that as your Rabbi I cannot speak for you. My name may go on a thousand documents or statement. I cannot commit you, we have no hierarchy, thank God, in the Jewish religion. I cannot speak as a Bishop, though I speak along with Bishops. I am no Pope, no Rabbi is a Pope. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations in the Central Conference of American Rabbis can speak for nobody as far as the individual Jew is concerned. And I have always been mindful of that. I have been mindful that I owe you something. I have always been mindful that I owe you a responsibility. That I must think of your welfare. I must think of your security. I must bear in mind that nothing I say or do will in any way bring shame or disgrace, or God forbid, destruction to you as a Congregation, to this Jewish community, and to this beautiful house of God. And I tell you all this by way of saying that for days there have been about 20 of us that have been meeting – colored and white – and since this terrible thing happened, and I pleaded with them particularly. I said to them that if Birmingham has anything to repent of to atone for, let it be the white community of Birmingham that makes the atonement. Let us not have fundraising throughout the country to rebuild that church; to pay for the funeral expenses. You can’t repay these people for the loss of their children, but whatever we can do to help them, hospital expenses, but let us do it! Let the white people of Birmingham do it! Let it not be a Roman circus! Stop holding us up to shame and [illegible] throughout the world. …I’m going to talk about you. I’m going to talk about those of you particularly keep talking about what ought to be done. What have you done? You know how the image of this city is created? It isn’t created by Wallace; and it isn’t created by Connor or Hanes. It is created by those letters to the editor in the newspaper. I want to know how many Jews sitting in this room have written a letter to the editor of the Birmingham Post-Herald or the News. What the matter, haven’t you got the guts to do it? You afraid you might have harassing calls? I’ve had them since 1955; because, I referred to the Governor two months ago as bellicose and signed a statement to the effect that everyone including him has to obey laws until they are changed and court decisions until they are reversed. My life was actually threatened, though no one knew about it, and for three – two and one half months – my home under surveillance. It is a calculated risk. It is a calculated risk what I’m saying from this pulpit right now. I’m here to say that if you want change this, you are going to have to start standing up and being counted. If you tell me you have got children; I remember a number of years ago when a United States Senator was arrested because he walked into the door of a church; and an attorney said to me I would give everything to defend that man, but I’ve got a wife and two children. This is the attitude that has prevailed in this town, and it still prevails. …I’m not asking you to go out and lead a crusade. But in heaven’s sake, can’t you do at least what I have done and join with other Christians. I admit that I wouldn’t have signed my name to these statements alone, but with Bishop Murray, Bishop Durick, and with Bishop Carpenter, and Bishop Harmon, I felt that I was protecting you and there was a measure of security for myself. And you have got to talk to your Christian friends, this is the first thing. One of the ways you can get them to talk…It ain’t nice. Maybe it’s not the nice thing, but these are murderers that are abroad. And if somebody will talk for $25,000 or $50,000 or $100,000, let’s put up the money. Let’s put up the money because these people have got to be caught. We know from whom, we think we know from whom this stems. And let me say these people are primarily anti-Semitic and this is where you have got a stake. Because let me tell you, if they get away with this, nobody’s going to be safe and the first ones that will not be safe, will be the members of the Jewish community… This isn’t the way I like to talk on Rosh Hashanah. I told you, I have never done this before. These are terrible times. And it’s time to stand up and be counted. It is time to do things. It is time to pay the price whether it is in personal safety and security or whether it is in money. The question is are you ready to pay the price, because if you are not, God help this city. This city isn’t dead yet, not by a long shot. It’s almost dead. You and decent Christians in this community can revive this city. Dr. J.L. Ware, Dr. Pitt, said to me just the other day, and I said to them you know, I’m in the south than the north. I was raised in the north. It is going to be horrible up there. I said some day we are going to work out an accommodation and it is going to be a far superior accommodation than anything north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and both of them said, you are so right. Once we get to understand each other, this is going to be the greatest area in the country. You have got a stake and a share in that area in this city. You could make it possible.
American Jewish Archives

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Sermon by Rabbi Milton Grafman, September 19, 1963." (Viewed on January 17, 2018) <>.


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