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 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

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?

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Rabbi Milton Grafman Sermon." (Viewed on March 4, 2021) <https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/documentstudies/rabbi-milton-grafman-sermon>.

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