Yesterday, the ISJL hosted students from Operation Understanding, an organization whose mission is to develop a group of young African American and Jewish leaders knowledgeable about each other’s histories and cultures to effectively lead the communities of Philadelphia, PA and Washington, D.C. to a greater understanding of diversity and acceptance.
I thought I would share with our readers here a little of what I shared with the students in our office.
Having taught high school history for a number of years, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do a presentation for teenagers on the relationship between Southern Jews and African Americans. This is not an easy talk to give to any age group, because while we like the stories of Jews fighting for civil rights, the historical truth is that those were primarily Northern Jews; most Southern Jews were not actively involved in fighting against the white hierarchy of the South.
Jews in states like Mississippi lived in a climate of fear and intimidation. Southern Jews were acutely aware that any challenge to white supremacy would result in serious social and economic consequences. Synagogue bombings, threats of economic boycott, and violence directed against civil rights workers convinced a lot of Southern Jews to remain relatively silent.
African American activists faced the same challenges, but to a much higher degree. James Chaney – one of three civil rights workers murdered during Freedom Summer by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi – struggled to find support for civil rights among his local community. They were afraid of falling prey to what ultimately happened to Chaney. Chaney knew the risk and accepted it, paying dearly for his bravery. Following his death, his mother Fannie made sure that James’ younger brother Ben would follow his brother’s footsteps. I can’t imagine the kind of courage that would allow a mother to risk such a sacrifice, but she did, and Ben is still an active advocate of civil rights today.
Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, a Jewish activist who came down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi trying to register black voters, elected to leave the danger almost as soon as he arrived. He did not make the decision lightly or at some small act of intimidation, however: he was senselessly beaten with a tire iron in board daylight by white supremacists. A small group representing Hattiesburg’s Jewish community urged him to get out of town, fearful their synagogue would get burned or their members injured or killed. Lelyveld responded: “Don’t worry, I can’t wait to leave.”
These stories illustrate of a larger lesson: when any one of us fights for a social justice cause, we often embark on that journey with the best of intentions and without anticipating all of the dangers, difficulties and tragedies along the way. When that path threatens our safety or the safety of others, we begin to question how far we should go. Despite enduring great risk and suffering great injury, Lelyveld was able to return to the North and never face his aggressors again. Jews within the Hattiesburg community had to live among them with the memory of his beating urging them against anything other than compliance.
Even still, some very brave Southern Jews did stand up for civil rights in all sorts of ways. Many prominent Southern rabbis called for an end to bombings of African American churches and school segregation. And, despite the threat of boycotts against businesses owned by their husbands and families, many Jewish women worked against the segregationist system through organizations like the Women’s Emergency Committee. The organization was formed to combat the governor’s closing of Little Rock High schools. One Jewish woman, Marilyn Siegel, raised money for the WEC while dying from cancer.
Today, learning and working together, we can use these stories as an opportunity to ask ourselves larger questions about what we would do in similar circumstances. The issue of personal sacrifice for the sake of the common good is at the crux of a democracy. Each of us must inevitably weigh just how much we are willing to sacrifice for others every day in our own lives.
Here are some of the reflections and insights from some of these amazing students:
- “I think too many people my age assume someone else is going to take care of things and so they don’t do anything but it doesn’t mean we don’t still care.”
- “In my community, the biggest problem is young black males being incarcerated, but I don’t know how to help because the problem seems so big.”
- “A bunch of us walked out to protest budget cuts to our public schools, but not everyone because they were scared of being suspended. I think we let fear get in the way of standing up for things we care about.”
- “I like the fact that my community is so diverse. I think it makes everyone stronger somehow. People tend to look out for one another and that makes me proud to live there.”
What are your observations about diversity in your community? How do historical narratives shape your own understanding? I’d love to hear your thoughts, too.
I am Jewish. I am a historian. And, as my name attests—I am also Cajun French, so I was most excited to write a post about some Jewish history down in Cajun country.
My father’s family hails from the Alexandria, Louisiana area; specifically, a small town called Marksville. My grandparents were farmers, and I have fond memories of picking pecans on visits during the summer so that my mamaw could turn them into her heavenly pecan pralines. (To this day, I still can’t figure out her recipe so if you hear of one that includes dates, contact me!)
About two and a half hours up the road lies Donaldsonville, or “la Ville de Donaldson,” often referred to as the metropolis of the Sugar Belt. The town boasts a rich Jewish legacy. In fact, Donaldsonville had the most Jewish mayors in the South, with 9 men, serving 14 terms in total. One Jewish mayor, Marx Schoenberg, was killed during a standoff with militia troops after a dispute over counting ballots although some accounts suggest he was targeted and murdered by a political rival.
It may not have any living Jews now, but in May, the people of Donaldsonville honored the town’s Jewish heritage by making the town’s Jewish synagogue into a historic monument.
The campaign was spearheaded by ISJL former board member Mary Ann Sternberg. She wrote a wonderful article detailing the historical evolution of the synagogue, Bikur Cholim.
Built in 1872, the synagogue served as the only synagogue along River Road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and the second oldest extant synagogue building in Louisiana. Jewish residents of Donaldsonville were careful to observe Jewish laws. Services were typically well attended and Jewish businesses closed on Sabbath mornings. Intermarriage with the local Catholic Community diminished the Jewish community and by the late 1940s, the synagogue was closed.
The building was deconsecrated in 1955 and made into a car dealership. In 1977, it became an Ace Hardware store. Visitors to the store will find a poster in the store’s window commemorating its history with a historic photograph of the Bikur Cholim exterior along with a drawing of what the interior was believed to look like.
The Jewish community thrived throughout much of the 19th century, especially in 1871 when railroad service was offered to New Orleans. A city publication from 1900 wrote that Jews residents were “among the most liberal minded citizens, and are associated with every progressive move.” The town was especially attractive to French speaking Alsatian Jews that were looking for a future in the new world. They made a living despite the major destruction of Donaldsonville in 1862. In fact, there were at least 16 Jewish stores of the 69 located in Donaldsonville in the late 1800s.
From humble beginning, Jacob Lehman built up a large commercial business enterprise. In 1877, he built what would become the oldest continuing department store in Louisiana until the 1980s. Described as the “finest Italianate commercial building in any river town north of New Orleans,” it now houses the historic Donaldsonville museum. Inside is a reproduction of the entryway to the town’s synagogue along with local Jewish artifacts and papers.
What is most notable about Donaldsonville is its Jewish cemetery, which is still maintained by a trust fund set up by the proceeds from the sale of the synagogue. The headstones are engraved in a mixture of several languages, demonstrating the pluralistic nature of the community. While some are in Hebrew and English, many are in various combinations of French, German, Hebrew and English. A few of the oldest graves have no English at all, reflecting the spoken languages of the region: Jewish merchants typically spoke Hebrew to each other, German to customers of German descent, French to the Cajuns, and French or English to African Americans.
If you have the time, be sure to pay the gateway to the Cajun country a visit to soak up its Jewish heritage. And other opportunities for delving into local history abound. For instance, the River Road African-American Museum is devoted to African Americans of the nearby plantations, from the slavery era to today. Be sure to stop at the Grapevine café for hearty Cajun fare, right on the banks of the Mississippi river. Soak in the history, the modern culture, and when in Cajun country, of course—laissez les bons temps rouler!
Post updated July 9, 2014, to clarify the area wherein it was the sole synagogue.
This is my first week as the historian for the ISJL. I’ve been so warmly welcomed here—and am already finding connections between my last phase of life, and this one.
I recently completed my PhD at New York University. My focus was on church-state issues in American history, so I had to read a lot of case law. When the opportunity arose to write Jewish history for the ISJL, I jumped on it. Public history has a particular appeal to me because I feel that studying history is not just about studying the past, but also about understanding trends within current society and searching for ways to make positive change.
I was especially pleased to be given an assignment researching a rabbi by the name of Judah Wechsler for the Meridian/Lauderdale County Tourism Association. The association is interested in documenting the Jewish contribution to the Civil Rights movement in Meridian given the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom summer. Through my research, I discovered that Rabbi Wechsler became heavily involved in the issue of African American education as early as the late 19th century.
Like many small towns across the Reconstructionist South, Meridian, Mississippi, had limited free education offerings for African American children. Prior to 1871, an African American school was housed in the local Methodist church, but one of its teachers, Mr. Warren Tyler, was killed during a riot there in 1871. The other teacher, Mr. Price, was forced to leave town. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Henry McElroy and Rabbi Judah Wechsler, the school survived until 1875. Wechsler and others campaigned for a bond issue to construct the first brick public school building for African Americans.
Rabbi Wechsler actually donated $1,000 (close to $25,000 by today’s standard) of his own personal money toward the expense of the school. When the bond issue passed, Meridian’s black community asked that the new school be named in the rabbi’s honor. The Wechsler School still stands today, and is registered as a historic landmark by the National Register of Historical Places.
During the Civil Rights era, there were several instances of Southern and Northern Jews fighting for equal educational rights in Meridian and beyond. For instance, while I was in New York finishing my dissertation, I had the good fortune to get to know Mark Levy. During the summer of 1964, Mark served as a coordinator of the Meridian, MS, Freedom School.
Freedom schools were alternative free schools for African Americans set up by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to mitigate a segregated school system with little resources directed towards African American schools. Many African American children in small towns received little to no education. These schools aimed to empower African Americans in Mississippi to become active citizens and agents of social change. The progressive, experiential curriculum emphasized student-centered teaching and learning by doing.
I spoke with Mark for over three hours. He has devoted his whole life to social justice measures. His passion for tikkun olam is downright contagious. Though I met him first in New York, Mark will be here in Mississippi for the fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom summer. This exciting event runs from June 25-29, at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Organizers expect 3,000 activists, elected officials, students, scholars, and veterans of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer to commemorate the achievements of Freedom Summer. This event isn’t just about the past, but will serve as a launching pad for social action focused on four closely-related social issues impacting minorities in Mississippi and beyond: Education, Workers Rights, Healthcare, and Voting Rights within Mississippi and the nation.
(As a further connection, Rabbi Wechsler shares a last name with my dissertation chair, Dr. Harold Wechsler of NYU, who is quite learned and also extremely warm-hearted. I could not trace a blood relationship between the two men, but they share a generous spirit. Just one more way history and community connects to our own stories!)
If you, too, are interested in connecting with living history and making the world better, the ISJL is helping coordinate complimentary special programs focusing on past and potential Jewish contributions to social justice. The event promises to be an enriching and exciting experience and all of us at ISJL encourage you to come. More details are here. I hope to see you in Mississippi!