How Does My Identity Inform My Actions?
Consider how Jewish experiences and values – in both conscious and unconscious ways – informed the actions of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, and inform our own allegiances and behaviors.
- Identities are complex and help shape the choices we make.
- Jewish experiences and values – in both conscious and unconscious ways – informed the actions of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement
- How do our identities shape – and get shaped by – our feelings of belonging, inclusion, and exclusion?
- How do our identities influence our actions?
- How did some Jews understand Jewish values in relation to the Civil Rights Movement?
- What are your own values (Jewish and secular) and how do they shape your actions?
Notes to Teacher
This lesson plan contains two distinct components that can be taught together or separately. The first component includes Parts I-III of the lesson outline; students are asked to think about their own identities and “membership groups” and examine three documents relating to how one’s identity informs one’s actions and perspectives on the world. For the second component, Part IV of the lesson outline, students consider "What's Jewish About Justice?" during an activity using signs posted around the room that each refer to a Jewish value linked to social justice. (When using the "What’s Jewish About Justice" signs, leave time prior to class to copy the signs onto heavy paper and post them around the room.)
American Jews, Race, Identity, and the Civil Rights Movement
Introductory Essay for Living the Legacy Unit 1, Lessons 1-4
In every generation, people shape their sense of themselves and their place in society within the frameworks defined by their local community and the larger national community. What does it mean to be white? What constitutes Jewishness? (Is it a race? An ethnicity? A religion? A nationality?) The answers to these questions are not fixed but rather are constantly shifting, especially in a modern context in which people have multiple, sometimes competing, identities.
Race may, at first glance, seem to be the most immutable identity – existing "in the blood" or written on one's skin – but it is actually fluid. Before the mid-19th century, European immigrants to the United States were mostly absorbed into the white population, and Jews – though considered religiously "other" and often socially separate – were not viewed in racial terms. But the rise of mass immigration from Europe, beginning in the 1840s, brought in a new wave of immigrants too large to be easily assimilated, and this new social reality of large urban populations with a heavy European immigrant flavor led to a recasting of racial categories and relations. The ruling elite classes (predominantly wealthy, American-born Protestants) expressed their fears of "race suicide" as the "native" stock was infiltrated and overrun by these "inferior races" first from Ireland and then from Eastern and Southern Europe. This immigration wave brought nearly 2 million Jews to the United States, outnumbering the German Jewish elite who had arrived in the mid-19th century and transforming the American Jewish community, which had been predominantly Sephardic (of Spanish/Portuguese origin), into a predominantly Ashkenazi population, as it remains today.
The new racism that arose in response to the immigration wave was rooted in supposed science – intelligence tests and a eugenics movement that focused on breeding "better" people, as opposed to the "feebleminded" Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, Asians, Native Americans, and African Americans. This "scientific racism" justified the passage of legislation that outlawed Chinese immigration (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) and heavily restricted immigration except from Northern Europe (Johnson Act of 1924). The government and businesses limited the social mobility of those "inferior races" who had already settled in the US through policies such as quotas in higher education, corporate hiring restrictions, and, in the postwar period, federal housing loan policies that enforced racial segregation and subsidized the suburbanization of white populations.
In this context of changing perceptions of race, the racial identification of Jews underwent significant shifts. On one level, most Jews were always considered white in that they were permitted to become naturalized citizens – a right reserved only for "free white persons," according to the 1790 law set in place by the first Congress. But during the years of the large wave of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe (roughly 1880-1924), Jews were counted among the many European groups (the 1911 Dillingham Commission Report on Immigration identified 36 different European races) classified as not quite white, or racially "other." (Some Jews, for example, were classified as "Hebrew.") Who fell into this racially suspect category depended on who was seen as different, unassimilable, or a threat to the nation, as well as who was perceived as providing essential (though devalued) labor. In the 1860s, the Irish were singled out for their savagery and racial weakness; by the end of the 19th century, Jews often bore the brunt of anti-immigration racism, targeted as the racial scourge overrunning and infecting urban areas. Political cartoons, for example, often depicted Jews as dirty, diseased, and criminal. Though expressed in racial terms, this anti-immigrant sentiment also intersected with fears of the rising working class and of political radicalism.
This racial definition of Jewishness, though derogatory when applied by non-Jews, could also serve a positive purpose for Jews. Many Jews embraced race as something that united them – a kind of identity deeper than belief or religious practice, something primal, defying assimilation. Racial identification resonated with a Jewish sense of peoplehood – an identification that was not entirely captured by the definition of Jewishness as solely a religious identity – and fulfilled the desire to preserve a minority identity.
Soon after the Johnson Act effectively closed the door on immigration from anywhere but Northern Europe, conventional wisdom on racial classification moved toward the recognition of three main races: Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negroid. This meant that the many different European races – including Jews – were consolidated into a monolithic category of Caucasian whiteness, and the primary racial distinction in America became the black/white binary.
Several factors led to this consolidation of whiteness. In light of the severe immigration restriction, those formerly considered "racially other" now posed less of a threat. Without a steady stream of new immigrants, the Eastern and Southern European populations were now predominantly American born, not immigrants themselves, and thus seemed less different and more easily assimilable. At the same time, the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to urban North and West between 1910s and 1940s threw the distinction between black and white into sharper relief.
The involvement of African Americans in World War II also caused a major shift in racial issues on the home front. The dissonance African Americans experienced between fighting for democracy abroad but being denied its benefits at home led to a surge in civil rights activism, particularly around segregation of the armed forces and the defense industries. As segregation (also known as "Jim Crow") became the central American racial issue, racial differences among whites became less important. By emphasizing the black/white binary, Jim Crow could work to solidfy the whiteness of certain groups, such as Jews, who had previously been considered ambiguously white. Finally, Nazi Germany served as a sharp reminder of the horrific dangers of race-based classifications.
After World War II, Jewishness remained a social distinction but no longer a racial one. For example, Jews were allowed to move into white suburban neighborhoods that the Federal Housing Authority policy determined were only for people of the "same social and racial classes" (though some communities instituted housing covenants that excluded Jews). "Ethnicity" became the new language to describe difference among whites, now seen as cultural – a distinction that further entrenched the black/white divide by implying that racial differences go deeper than cultural differences. The new racial system defined whiteness as the "normal" American state, and blackness as a racial problem.
Many scholars have argued that Jews in the South were the first Jews to see themselves as white, but the case of Leo Frank makes clear that they occupied an ambiguous middle category of racial outsider. In April 1913, a 14-year-old white girl was murdered in a pencil factory in Atlanta, and Leo Frank, a Jewish part-owner and manager of the factory, was convicted of the crime based on the testimony of a black janitor. When his sentence was commuted by the Governor in August 1915, a mob pulled him out of the prison where he was being held and lynched him. That a supposedly white man could be convicted based on the testimony of a black man, and the use of lynching as the method of (illegally) meting out his punishment, demonstrates the contingency of Frank's perceived whiteness.
Throughout the postwar period, the social position of Jews in the South was precarious, despite the fact that Southern Jews were among those Jews with the longest roots in the US. Jews in the South were accepted as part of the social fabric, and in many cities were prominent business people who often ran the local store, but they were also seen as different from other whites and somewhat suspect, and in some cases excluded along with blacks. They had to work hard to fit in, and many Jews were reluctant to take action that would set them apart from the other white community leaders. They felt they needed to assure their own equality and security first, and therefore were often hesitant to engage in overt, public civil rights activism, though some supported civil rights in quiet, private ways.
While for some Southern Jews, association with the Civil Rights Movement confirmed for their white neighbors a lingering sense that Jews were racially tainted, for many Northern Jews, involvement in the Civil Rights Movement served to further solidify Jewish whiteness. Allying themselves with blacks cast into sharper relief the whiteness of Jews – ironically, since many Jews were motivated to civil rights activism by a sense of identification with African Americans and a persistent sense of "otherness" despite having, by and large, "made it" in America.
Today, many American Jews retain an ambivalence about whiteness, despite the fact that the vast majority have benefited and continue to benefit from white privilege. This ambivalence stems from many different places: a deep connection to a Jewish history of discrimination and otherness; a moral imperative to identify with the stranger; an anti-universalist impulse that does not want Jews to be among the "melted" in the proverbial melting pot; an experience of prejudice and awareness of the contingency of whiteness; a feeling that Jewish identity is not fully described by religion but has some ethnic/tribal component that feels more accurately described by race; and a discomfort with contemporary Jewish power and privilege.
And of course, while there is a tendency in the US, where the majority of Jews are of Eastern European descent, to assume a shared white racial identity for Jews, many Jews are in fact not white. Throughout history, Jews have come in all colors and from all places, and have almost always lived multicultural lives. The "mixed multitude" of the Jewish people include Jews from Arab lands (Mizrahi Jews), Jews with roots in Spain and Portugal (Sephardic Jews), and Jews from India, Asia, and Africa, some of whose ancestors may have been separated from the rest of the Jewish community many centuries ago. There are many Jews of color whose families have been Jewish for generations, if not centuries. In an American context that increasingly values diversity, the backgrounds and colors of the Jewish community are also enriched by adoption, intermarriage, and conversion. The Institute for Jewish and Community Research, an organization that studies the demography of the Jewish people, estimates that at least 20% of the American Jewish population is what they term "racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage."
Just as the definition of racial categories in America is always shifting, as illustrated by changes in the options for racial self-definition on the US Census, so, too, does the definition of Jewish identity and the image of what Jewish looks like continue to change.
- If you taught Unit 1, Lesson 1 (Exploring My Identity), hand back to your students one of their Identity Index Cards.
If you didn't do the Identity Index Card activity from the previous lesson, explain that we are each members of many different groups (groups we are part of). These groups may shift over time and in different contexts. Give your students a few minutes to jot down a few of the groups they are members of, such as family, sports team, class, etc.
Skip b and c below, and continue with the second sentence of d.
- Explain that as part of our identity, we experience membership and belonging. Just as we have many different parts to our identity, we also belong to many different groups, which may shift over time or in different places. Some of these belongings are voluntary – like joining a team or a club – and some are (mostly) involuntary – like being part of one's family or one's race; even if one chooses not to identify with this membership group, others may identify you as belonging to it.
- Have your students look at their Identity Index Cards and think about what membership groups are represented there. You may want to give them a couple of examples. For instance, if you said you were a "sister" one of your membership groups is your family or if you said you were a student one of your membership groups might be your school.
- Give your students a couple of minutes to think about what is on their card and what membership groups are represented. Then ask as many of your students as possible to each share one membership group that they are part of and make a list on the board. See how long a list you can make. Students may add other groups besides what is on their card if your list is short. Point out that certain identities can lead one to feel a sense of belonging to more than one group. For example, an Orthodox Jew may feel a sense of belonging to a community of religious people of all faiths as well as a sense of belonging to the Jewish community. This person might feel shared identity with a religious Christian and with a secular Jew, even though the secular Jew and the religious Christian may not share a sense of belonging to the same community.
- After you've completed the list of membership groups, introduce the terms "Power," "Oppression" and "Privilege." Ask students to define these terms. After collecting a few responses (or if no one is able to offer a definition), share with them the definitions in the vocabulary section below. Raise the issue that membership groups are usually not neutral. Some groups tend to have more power and privileges than others, and the power of one may depend on the lack of power of another (this is what leads to oppression – the system that gives certain people power and privilege at the expense of other people). Also, one's sense of belonging and power can shift depending on context. For example, in a school that is mostly Jewish, being Jewish may come with certain power, whereas in some parts of America, Jews are a small minority and therefore may have less power. You may also want to point out that power and privilege are not always visible to those that have them. When privilege is unearned or has always been part of one's experience, it can easily be taken for granted as "just the way things are" or not even noticed. Ask students if they can think of examples of power or privilege in their own lives/communities.
- Explain that each of our membership groups probably has stated or unstated values or principles that guide the actions of its members. These values may also be related to the group's power. Ask your students to choose a group from the board and identify a value or principle of the group. (If your students need an example to get started, you might suggest that your school has certain rules or an honor code that is supposed to guide student behavior.)
Who's in, Who's out?
- Divide your class into small groups of no more than three or four students.
- Hand out copies of Document Study #1 to each group and give the groups a chance to read and discuss.
- You may want to point out to students that the "Your People" document is actually a secondary source and not a primary source. This excerpt is based on an interview but is not a transcript of the interview itself.
- After students have finished their discussions and come back together, explain: In these examples people's ideas about their identity and membership groups shaped how they viewed the world around them and also how they chose to act in the world. Sometimes we also make choices about how and when to express our membership in our group or whether we want to express that membership at all. For example, we may choose to wear a Jewish star only when we are with other Jews, we may choose to wear it all the time, or we may choose not to wear one at all. Provide the opportunity for students to respond to these statements.
A Yarmulke: Choosing How to Identify Yourself
- Hand out copies of Document Study #2 to your students.
- Have your students take turns reading one paragraph at a time out loud. After each paragraph, stop the students and discuss the following questions with your class.
- Paragraph One:
- According to his sermon, why did Rabbi Braude wear a yarmulke between Selma and Montgomery?
- Why do you think Rabbi Braude was reluctant to wear a yarmulke?
- Why do you think the rabbis got such a positive response from fellow marchers?
- How do you think this made the rabbis feel? Do you think this might have influenced the way the rabbis felt about wearing their yarmulkes?
- Paragraph Two:
- How does the purpose or symbolism of the yarmulke change as a result of rabbis wearing them during the marches between Selma and Montgomery?
- What is its new positive name and symbol?
- What is its new negative name and symbol?
- How is it possible for one object to have so many different associations attached to it? Can you think of other items connected to identity that may be viewed differently by different groups?
- Paragraph Three:
- Consider the parallel drawn between the yarmulke and the clerical collar.
Is this yet a different symbolism for the yarmulke than in the previous paragraph? Why or why not?
- Consider the parallel drawn between the yarmulke and the clerical collar.
- Paragraph Four – Six:
- Review: When is a yarmulke traditionally worn? By whom?
- Why did Rabbi Davis go to Alabama?
- Have the yarmulkes worn by Rabbi Davis and Rabbi Braude really changed function? Why or why not?
- Do you think the rabbis changed how they felt about the yarmulke as a result of their experience in Alabama? If so, how?
- Paragraph One:
- Explain that sometimes, like the rabbis in this sermon, our comfort with expressing our identity through certain symbols can change.
- Have your students write a journal entry based on the questions:
- Have you ever had an experience where you were uncomfortable wearing/doing something that identified you as part of a certain group?
- Did your feeling about this change? If so, why? If not, what do you think could cause you to feel more comfortable with it?
- If there's time, have a few students share what they've written. Otherwise, the students can hand in their journals, and you can write some responses to what they've written and hand the journals back during the next class.
What's Jewish About Justice?
- Post the "What's Jewish about Justice" signs around the classroom/space you are using.
- Explain that membership, belonging, and exclusion aren't only categories of personal identification. They also describe how larger groups relate in society. Your students should consider the fact that the same identity can be experienced as providing a sense of belonging in one context and a sense of exclusion in another. For example, being Jewish may lead to feelings of belonging in a Jewish setting and exclusion in another setting. Explain that this simultaneous "in"/"out" identification has influenced how many Jews relate to social justice issues.
- Point out the "What's Jewish about Justice" signs that are posted around the room. You may want to give your students some time to do a "gallery walk" around the room to read and reflect on the different signs.
- Have your students think about the different actions taken by Rabbi Nussbaum, Roberta Galler, and the rabbis who marched from Selma to Montgomery. (You may want to add other figures from the curriculum, if you already have done other lessons with the class.) Ask your students to choose one of those figures and then go and stand under the "What's Jewish About Justice" sign that represents the Jewish value that might have motivated their actions.
- Once all of your students are standing under a sign, go around the room and ask each group of students which historical figure they were thinking of and why they think this Jewish value shaped the person's actions.
- Repeat this activity, but this time have your students choose to stand under the sign that they feel most connected to and/or the value that they think would motivate them to act in the world.
- Once all of your students are standing under a sign, go around the room and ask each group of students to explain why they chose their sign and what kind of actions in support of social justice this value might motivate them to take in the world today.
- Ask your students what connections they see between their values and the values of the Jews they've studied today who took part in the Civil Rights Movement.
- Remind your students that no matter our identities, we probably hold Jewish values, American values, and some other values all at the same time. Some Jews are driven to work for justice by Jewish values; others are motivated by other values. Jews have a strong tradition of seeking justice, but do not have a monopoly on social justice values or activism.
- Distribute light colored paper and markers to your students. Have them come up with a value sign they would like to add to the ones posted around the room. The new value sign should reflect another value that would cause them to act to support social justice in the world today. It should also include an action that they would take based on this value.
- Once your students are done making their signs they can post it some place in the classroom.
- You may want to leave these signs up for future classes as a reminder of the class' values as you continue your studies of Jewish Social Justice and the Civil Rights Movement.
Who's In, Who's Out?
- Read the first document out loud.
- As a group, look back at the document again to see how the characters perceive the situation differently through the lens of belonging and exclusion. Whom do they consider part of their “in” group? (It might be useful to make diagrams or sketches to visually represent the different perspectives in the story.)
- Discuss the questions listed after the document.
- Read the second document out loud, and repeat steps 2 and 3.
The notion of "the other" has cast long shadows over my life. One morning, when I was about nine or ten, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother and my father's mother. Grandma Alice spoke only Yiddish and could not read or write English. Mama was reading aloud from a newspaper account of a plane crash the night before, shaking her head with sadness at the loss of life. "Any Jews killed?" Grandma Alice asked. This was the familiar refrain: "Any Jews?" If there were no Jews, it was a non-event, something of no concern. I was confused. It made no sense to me that a segment of humanity would be excluded from concern because they were not part of our membership group. It was my first awareness of culture as a system of belonging, of insiders and outsiders.
- What criteria does Grandma Alice use to decide who is "in" and who is "out" of her membership groups?
- How is the phrase "any Jews?" used by Grandma Alice similar to or different from the contemporary refrain, "is it good for the Jews?"
- What might be some positive aspects of seeing the world the way Grandma Alice does? What might be some negative aspects of seeing the world this way?
During her stay in the Hinds County Jail in June 1965, Roberta Galler first encountered the Jackson Jewish community in the form of Rabbi Perry Nussbaum. Nussbaum, who had been quietly supporting civil rights against the wishes of his congregation, came into the cell where Galler and several other Jewish women were jailed. Holding up toothbrushes, soap, and other small necessities, Galler recalls that he said, "Okay, who in here are my people?" Galler stepped forward and said, "Either all of us are your people or none of us are your people."
Galler's defiant declaration highlights both the self-righteousness and the universalist spirit in which young Jewish activists saw their civil rights activism. She did not know that Nussbaum was going out on a limb to visit civil rights workers in jail, nor could she have known that his decade of efforts addressing civil rights questions would lead to the bombing of his home and synagogue two years later. With little patience for the situation of southern Jewish communities and little desire to be identified as Jews themselves, young Jewish activists in SNCC recoiled from any sign of what they saw as Jewish ethnic particularism. Nevertheless, they had walked into a landscape where Jewishness mattered.
- What criteria does Roberta Galler sense that Rabbi Nussbaum is using to decide who are "his people" while he's in Hind County Jail?
- How is Rabbi Nussbaum using his idea of membership and belonging to guide his actions in this situation?
- Why do you think Rabbi Nussbaum might have been more inclined to help his own group than helping everyone in the cell?
- What criteria do you think Roberta Galler uses to define her group in this situation? Why might this be true? What do you think this might say about the way she identifies? How might her identity be shaping her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement?
- We know some things about Rabbi Nussbaum that Roberta Galler did not, namely that he was also a supporter of civil rights whose actions had very real and violent consequences for him, his family, and his synagogue. How do you think Rabbi Nussbaum's idea about who are "his people" might have been different in other situations relating to civil rights?
- How do Rabbi Nussbaum and Roberta Galler’s understandings of their own identities shape their actions? (Think not only about this incident in the jail, but also more broadly.)
What I Learned in Alabama About Yarmulkes
This is an excerpt from the Rosh Hashanah 1965/5726 sermon by Rabbi William G. Braude of Temple Beth-El, in Providence, Rhode Island. In this sermon, Rabbi Braude explores whether or not to wear a head covering. The practice at Temple Beth-El – like the majority of Reform congregations at the time – was that men did NOT wear a head covering such as a kippah (yarmulke) or hat. Rabbi Braude ended his sermon by putting a yarmulke on his head.
What I learned in Alababma about Yarmulkes
…But it was on the highway – on U.S. Route 80 – between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama that the deep significance of the Jew’s wearing his Yarmulke came to me. Some of you may remember that on Wednesday, March 24, 1965, Rabbi Saul Leeman of Cranston and I were among the marchers from Selma to Montgomery. On that day, the two of us, he quite readily and I somewhat reluctantly wore our Yarmulkes. The reason: to protect our heads from sunburn and to identify ourselves as Rabbis. We succeeded on both counts. From all sides, white and black alike, men and women greeted us with, “Shalom, Shalom.” Young Jews, their eyes aglow, came up: “We are glad to see Rabbis with us.” A professor of philosophy from Berkeley who did not look Jewish came up: “It means so much for one of my background to see Rabbis participating in the March!” One white man, a rugged blonde, a Gentile said: “Before you Rabbis are through, you will convert the entire Christian nation.”
And so, in the midst of this atmosphere of camaraderie Saul Leeman and I marched on. Then Sandy Rosen, a fellow Rabbi from San Mateo, California coming up from behind me, greeted me with the words “Shalom Chaver.” I looked at him. He, too, was wearing a Yarmulke. Know that he was a Reform Rabbi, I asked him: “Do your people wear Yarmulkes?” He replied: “No. But our colleagues who came to Selma throughout their stay there wore Yarmulkes.” And the Negroes – Sandy Rosen went on to tell me – took to the Yarmulkes, began wearing them and calling them freedom caps. Then the Rabbis proceeded to bring in large supplies of Yarmulkes which they distributed to many of those on the freedom march. Thus the one-legged man, a white man, who walked the entire distance from Selma to Montgomery got himself a Yarmulke which he wore from time to time. At the service in Selma on Saturday, March 27, 1965 which followed the killing of Viola Gregg Luizzo, the mother of five children, the Associated Press report stated, that many of those present, white and black alike, wore Yarmulkes. On the other hand the segregationists began calling these head coverings “Yankee Yarmulkes.”
Here is how my colleague and pupil Maurice Davis put it in a sermon: “We returned to the church, and I noticed that all the Reform Rabbis were wearing yarmulkes. When I questioned this, I was told, ‘It is our answer to the clerical collar.’ Clergymen of every denomination, from Roman Catholicism to Unitarianism were wearing clerical collars to show that they were clergymen. Rabbis of all branches of Judaism were wearing yarmulkes.”
“I tried to get one, but I could not. I learned later that they set back for a thousand yarmulkes but all the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them. Negro children, and white marchers were all sporting yarmulkes.”
“People keep asking me why I decided to go to Alabama. I’m not sure that even now I know the answer. I think I went to Alabama to worship God!”
To me, one striking aspect of Rabbi Davis’ statement is that when we went to worship God, he found that will’e nill’e he had to wear a Yarmulke…
"What's Jewish About Justice?" signs
"What's Jewish About Justice?" Signs: ...Legal System that Teaches Us Ethical Interpersonal Practices
"What's Jewish About Justice?" Signs: ...From the Biblical Prophets a Direct Call to be Agents of Justice
The ability to control circumstances
A system that gives certain people power and privilege at the expense of other people
Generally unearned advantages and beliefs that benefit some, often at the expense of others.
Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement
Schultz, Debra L. Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "How Does My Identity Inform My Actions?." (Viewed on September 24, 2023) <https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/civilrights/how-does-my-identity-inform-my-actions>.