Orthodox Jewry and the Civil Rights Movement

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the “I have a dream speech,” here are selections from an unpublished BA thesis on the role of Orthodox Jews, Orthodox Rabbis, and YU students in the Civil Rights movement.It is not exhaustive because there were other Orthodox Rabbis such as Danny Landes of Pardes who spent the night in jail.

“Justice, Justice You Will Pursue?” Orthodox Jewry and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1970
A Thesis Presented By Lora Rabin Dagi, Bachelor of Arts with Honors, Harvard University, March 2006

On March 21, 1965, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led thousands of marchers from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in a political move that would ultimately lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Though Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s presence at the front of the crowd has graced photographs of the event ever since, the story of Rabbi Saul Berman’s imprisonment in a Selma jailhouse just days before seems to have drawn a smaller audience.

Rabbi Berman was arrested on the Jewish fast day of Ta’anit Esther, which fell that year on March 17. At nightfall, when the fast ended, Rabbi Berman was not able to break his fast on prison food, for it did not meet traditional Jewish dietary restrictions; a friend rummaged through Rabbi Berman’s suitcase and brought back the salami upon which Rabbi Berman was hoping to break fast. This friend also found another cylindrical item in the suitcase – a scroll containing the text of Megillat Esther, the tale of a Jewish girl who became queen of a massive kingdom and saved her people from certain destruction. Both the salami and the Megillat Esther proved to be of great use to Rabbi Berman: having broken the fast, Rabbi Berman celebrated Purim, a holiday commemorating the story of Megillat Esther, by reading the scroll out loud to “about 250 people” crowded into the jail. One can imagine the power reverberating throughout the room as a young Orthodox rabbi, far from his congregation, read an ancient narrative recounting the deeds of a Jewish queen who saved her people from an enemy within the government – a story that could easily resonate with a group of people hoping to save blacks from their own government’s voter registration prejudices.

Just two years before, rabbinical degree in hand, Rabbi Berman arrived in Berkeley, California ready to work at Congregation Beth Israel. For the five years he served there, Rabbi Berman worked to better the rights of blacks in Berkeley and beyond. He returned to Berkeley after the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March determined to become more engaged with local civil rights politics. Though Berkeley’s high school was integrated, its lower education public school district lines were drawn in a way that separated white and non-white students. According to Rabbi Berman, two opposing forces were at work at once: one group wished to redraw the school lines so as to integrate the lower schools, while another group hoped to create a second high school that would essentially keep students segregated. Rabbi Berman primarily toiled to integrate the schools, though the community agenda additionally dealt with issues of free speech and, ultimately, the Vietnam War.

Rabbi Berman’s case, though not the norm for the majority of Orthodox Jews in America, is by no means unique. Rabbis and some Orthodox laymen throughout the United States of America not only endorsed the Civil Rights Movement, but also worked to end racism against blacks

Rabbi Berman’s colleague in New York, Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, also contributed to the Civil Rights Movement. Along with his wife, Rabbi Greenberg first supported the Movement through donations to “various civil rights groups and voting for candidates that were sympathetic to the [Movement];” soon, the two were “attending rallies or special demonstrations” for the improvement of the status of blacks in American society. As a faculty member at Yeshiva University, a Modern Orthodox institution in New York City, Rabbi Greenberg took the opportunity to bring in speakers who discussed various aspects of the Civil Rights Movement. As a rabbi of the Riverdale Jewish Center, an Orthodox congregation, Rabbi Greenberg “spoke passionately” about the Movement’s necessity.

Finally, Rabbi Greenberg involved himself in HaTza’ad HaRishon, a controversial and ultimately unsuccessful group founded for the benefit of so-called black Jews. Certain American communities of blacks were presenting themselves as Jews, though the Orthodox community did not accept them as such. For instance, the Commandment Keepers Congregation of the Living God, based in Harlem, NY, identified itself as a sect of Judaism, though petition for institutional acceptance failed. Established in 1964, HaTza’ad HaRishon, or “The First Step,” hoped “to serve the Jewish social, cultural, and educational needs of New York’s Israelites, to unify their communities, and to integrate Black Jews into…mainstream” Judaism. It funded and organized social gatherings, Israeli dancing, “activities with other [white] Jewish youth groups,” prayer events, financial aid and placement in Jewish schools, educational discussion-based seminars, and edifying liaisons to white Jews who would discuss the existence of black Jewish communities. In addition, the group provided access to Orthodox conversion resources, should its members desire to ensure their full acceptance by all parts of the Jewish community. Ultimately, between incredibly charged questions of Jewish legitimacy, authority, and conversion, this group collapsed. HaTza’ad HaRishon, though not the norm, represents both the race-blind aspect of Jewish conversion, and the fact that at least some Orthodox Jews did not view blacks through the lens of ‘absolute other.’

In New York, Rabbi Greenberg was joined by the young Tsvi Blanchard, not yet a rabbi. Rabbi Blanchard was heavily involved by the late 1950s, and continued to take part in the Movement until the year after the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March. Splitting his time between college and yeshiva (a traditional Jewish institution of learning) in St. Louis, Rabbi Blanchard worked hard in Missouri and around his home in Rochester, New York to further the Movement’s goals. In St. Louis, he “was involved in redeveloping areas of the black ghetto.” In addition, Rabbi Blanchard participated in the boycotting and picketing of Woolworth’s and Eastman Kodak. The Woolworth’s story is fairly well known: in 1960, four black students started a sit-in at a Greensboro Woolworth’s to protest segregated seating; within weeks, the “Greensboro four” had inspired sit-ins and picketings across the country. In contrast, the Eastman Kodak narrative dealt with employment issues: Rabbi Blanchard joined Saul Alinsky, community organizer extraordinaire, to challenge Rochester’s Eastman Kodak to hire more black workers. At the same time, Rabbi Blanchard involved himself in “a whole series of various and sundry picketings of racist speakers,” and supported “black self-organization efforts” such as those surrounding the Kodak protest. The Selma-Montgomery March both highlights and marks the final stage of Rabbi Blanchard’s activity in this paper’s time period.

Even the South, homeland of the Jim Crow laws and their overt supporters, hosted at least two Orthodox rabbis who quietly worked to promote the message of the Civil Rights Movement. One rabbi from Atlanta chooses to remain anonymous, but writes that he participated casually throughout the time period; for instance, he would occasionally deliver sermons supportive of the Movement. At times he would host observant Jewish activists who had recently been released from jails in Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery and elsewhere. Finally, this rabbi took part in “informal discussion groups” on the matter. Another Southern rabbi, Rabbi Louis Tuchman of Durham, North Carolina, followed a similar pattern. Though his congregation hired him specifically because he was not a Civil Rights activist, Rabbi Tuchman was preaching pro-integration by 1957. He specifically incorporated the themes of freedom during the Jewish Purim and Hannukah holidays, relating the holidays to the black quest for full integration. Unfortunately for Rabbi Tuchman, that same year his congregation moved to the suburbs and to Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Tuchman and his anonymous colleague in Atlanta deserve special recognition for their work. According to Mark Bauman, fewer than forty Orthodox rabbis served congregations in the South in 1954. The states of “Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Mississippi…claimed a total of three Orthodox rabbis,” and no Orthodox rabbis served Florida communities apart from those in Miami and Miami Beach. Bauman posits that the “limited” involvement of Orthodox rabbis in the South corresponds to the small number of Orthodox rabbis actually present. This theory relies upon only one incidence of Orthodox involvement noted in his book’s collection; however, one cannot ignore the fact that some forms of informal involvement may prove quite difficult to trace. For instance, more than one or two Orthodox rabbis may have presented this controversial topic to their congregants through holiday sermons. Since participation in the Civil Rights Movement can include actions outside of a certain model of 1960s volunteering, the judgment of ‘limited’ involvement may be based upon somewhat incomplete evidence.

Some, such as Chicago’s Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, were better known; this leading Orthodox scholar passionately discussed the basis for equality in halakhah in the keynote address at a national convention for Orthodox affiliate Young Israel.
By 1964, supposedly motivated by competition for “allegiance of the young” liberals flocking to Conservative and Reform denominations, the Rabbinical Council of America publicly declared its support for the Civil Rights Movement. Young Israel, another Orthodox group, had already backed the Movement in a 1962 editorial. The Orthodox Union, in turn, preceded Young Israel by agreeing with a “strongly liberal” plan for “civil rights and civil liberties” in the 1950s, and it continued to support the “civil rights gains of blacks” throughout the 1960s.

Yeshiva University Students: The Civil Rights Movement and Other Priorities

Without question, YU students actively discussed the Civil Rights Movement, though not necessarily right away. The record for the 1950s is largely silent on the matter, and aside from late-night dorm-room conversations and a short editorial despairing over the bigotry extant at the University of Alabama, there may not have been much debate over the plight of blacks in America. However, analysis of student publications shows that by the beginning of the 1960s, students often discussed and educated themselves about the Movement. For instance, in 1961, Stern students listened to a Nigerian leader maintain the need for blacks and whites to work together. They later had the opportunity to hear the administrative assistant of the NAACP’s Executive Secretary speak about the history, purpose, methods, and goals of that prominent organization. In 1964, the YC Yavneh, an “Orthodox Jewish students organization,” hosted a panel on the Civil Rights Movement.

An entire supplementary edition of The Observer was dedicated to questions on the causes of black rioting, theoretical solutions to help alleviate racial tension, comparisons between blacks and Jews in the United States, and comparisons between blacks and Israeli-Arabs. In fact, from 1967 onwards, black rioting and episodes of black anti-Semitism clearly affected the rhetoric on campus. Musing over the previous summer’s black riots, one YC student wondered whether there was any possibility of calming the revolts. The editor of HaMevaser, the “official student publication of the religious divisions” of YU, acknowledged that SNCC had rejected Jews, yet felt that “a true religious person” could not blame all blacks for the actions of SNCC and its partners. Another Observer supplementary edition addressed issues of Black Power, Jewish racism, Jewish withdrawal from the black-Jewish dialogue, and black anti-Semitism. That same month, the grassroots campus publication Pulse published an author who was discouraged with the fact that black rioting and anti-Semitism had led some Jews to equate the push for black equality with extreme violence and fear, and thus to unsettling memories of the Holocaust. Rather than step away from American black society, this author hoped to encourage interracial discourse and the dissolution of negative black stereotypes among Jews. Still another student, disgusted with the turn of events, claimed that the Civil Rights Movement had generated a “Frankenstein” of violent militants.

YU students did not simply discuss the Civil Rights Movement; they also actively pursued its goals. For example, in 1960, YU was a member of the Metropolitan Students for Non-Violent Civil Rights Action, and YU students protested Woolworth’s Southern lunch counter policies by picketing and distributing leaflets in front of a New York branch. The next year, YU students started a tutoring program in a local public school; this program served as a model for other colleges. One wholeheartedly dedicated Stern student published her memoirs of the March on Washington, where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech; she later reported on a Washington, D.C. conference on apartheid, Southern segregation, and Northern discrimination. This student soon worked with other Yavneh leaders to organize a “mass boycott of New York City public schools,” in which Yavneh members taught freedom schools and picketed throughout Harlem and Washington Heights. In fact, YU even donated the use of one of its buildings for the endeavor. By the late 1960s, over 100 YC students were tutoring through the Yeshiva University Neighborhood Youth Corps (YUNYC), and SC started its own version of the same.

YU as an institution encouraged a positive perspective on the Civil Rights Movement. In 1961, it awarded an “honorary Doctor of Laws degree” to Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was quite influential in the 1954 vote to end segregation.

In addition, its medical school application did not ask for a photograph, and thus had color-blind admissions. This fact is noteworthy in a country whose medical schools were not fully open to blacks until 1966. Starting in 1969, the medical school’s King-Kennedy Medical Program subsidized lower-income blacks as they prepared their pre-medical curriculum, so that they could later improve medical care in their ghetto communities. That same year, a black Jewish YC freshman discussed his identity in The Commentator; clearly, a black Jewish student in the College was not only tolerated, but openly accepted.
Though the institution seems to have acknowledged certain values of the Civil Rights Movement, a vocal group also begged its contemporaries to work with caution. For instance, one student responding to the Woolworth’s protest unashamedly critiqued the Student Council for officially backing the picketing: because of this backing, the Student Council had turned YU students into unwilling representatives of all East-coast Jews. Rabbi Lichtenstein, a major figure in the school, felt that Orthodoxy’s slow response to issues such as the Civil Rights Movement was due to an appropriate sense of prudence; still others felt YU could not afford to critique society publicly when it was just proving the possibility of living religiously and functioning fully within America.

Yet another group of students may not have formulated extensive opinions on the Civil Rights Movement at all. Throughout the timeframe, The Commentator and The Observer published articles scorning the supposedly commonplace apathetic student lifestyle. Whether deriding the student body for voting half-heartedly, if at all, in the Student Council elections, or simply condemning students for displaying “indifference” towards non-academic activities, student leaders at SC and YC despaired over the seemingly “contagious” apathy displayed by their classmates. This laziness does not necessarily point to an entire generation of bookworms.

In May of 1961, The Observer reported that nearly half the graduating class was already married, and two women had already borne children. Interest in femininity encouraged the young women to bring a special instructor on “posture, hair care, make-up, and fashion” to the school three times during the 1963 to 1964 school year.

3 responses to “Orthodox Jewry and the Civil Rights Movement

  1. It is worth noting that the Jewish Observer editorialized against Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, worrying that it would jeopardize the safety of Southern Jews.

  2. My wife is from Birmingham, Alabama. Her grandfather on her father’s side I believe was the first to see the bomb planted in Temple Beth El which was defused before it could go off. Her mother’s father was in New York buying clothes for his families’ department store when it was announced that 19 Conservative Rabbi’s were heading for Birmingham. In Birmingham itself there was very little news coverage of the civil rights activists. The Jews in Birmingham were very against these Rabbis’ coming.

    It turns out that the most racist political leaders in Birmingham, Bull Connor and a couple of his cronies, were voted out of office in April 1963, when the city reorganized its government from a city commission to mayor-council form of government, which resulted in a victory by more conciliatory leadership that didn’t want Birmingham to be a byword for racism. In some ways, the black leadership needed Bull Connor, they needed these media events to move their political goals forward; Bull Connor needed the black protesters because his goal at the time was to become a candidate for Governor and so he could make a name for himself as a hater, which he did.

    Here is a very good article: http://www.sjlmag.com/2013/05/bearing-witness-controversial-1963-trip.html. Sylvan Laufman, mentioned at the beginning of the article, was my wife’s grandfather

  3. This short piece from The New Yorker is good kaparah for some of the self-congratulatory reactions to the anniversary of the march. Money quotes:

    Fifty years later, that gulf hasn’t changed much. By some measures it has widened. In 2011, the median income for black households was about fifty-nine per cent of the median income for white households, up slightly from fifty-five per cent in 1967, according to Census data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. But when you consider wealth—that is, everything a family owns, including a home and retirement savings—the difference seems to have grown. Pew found that the median black household had about seven per cent of the wealth of its white counterpart in 2011, down from nine per cent in 1984, when a Census survey first began tracking this sort of data.

    “The marchers had ten demands for Congress, at least four of which were aimed at improving black people’s financial circumstances and narrowing the gulf between black and white Americans’ economic opportunities. Fifty years later, that gulf hasn’t changed much. By some measures it has widened.”

    “The United States does have policies aimed at building wealth—but those policies happen to disproportionately help people who are already pretty rich. For instance, homeowners claim the mortgage-interest tax deduction only if they itemize their deductions, which higher-income taxpayers are likelier to do, and the deduction gets bigger when you have a larger mortgage or are in a higher tax bracket.”


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