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.
Let’s make a new Jewish holiday.
Let’s make a new Jewish holiday.
When I opened a recent daily e-mail from The Jewish Daily Forward, that’s what author J.J. Goldberg invited me to do.
Reading the headline, “Why We Should Honor Slain Civil Rights Workers With Jewish Holiday,” my instinct was to feel skeptical. We’ve already got the High Holidays, three festivals, Chanukah, Purim, Tu Bish’vat, days devoted to the state of Israel and the Holocaust, minor fast days, and 52 Shabbatot every year. We have the Omer count, the month of Elul, and the 9 days leading up to Tisha B’av – periods of time that, while not quite holidays, are additional times of year already marked with meaning.
We need another holiday now?
The headline startled me a little and confused me even more. But then I did what I probably should have done right away. I read the article. It turns out that Goldberg might just be onto something.
I won’t spell out all of the specific points of the article, but I will hone in on one portion, where Goldberg describes a large group of modern-day Jews – those who connect to Judaism largely because they believe that it relates issues of social justice. Furthermore, he explains, these people are often not connecting with Jewish institutions – despite the fact that many of them feel a passionate connection to their Jewish identities.
He asks a vital question about this sub-section of the Jewish people. “How can the Jewish community approach them, when its agendas, institutions and even calendar so little resemble their Judaism?”
Many Jewish texts, including our most holy, contain ideas that many in this modern-day cohort would love. Environmental ethics can be found all over the Torah. Anti-war activists need look no farther than the book of Isaiah’s cry to beat our swords into ploughshares. Texts in the Mishnah can be linked to Transgender equality today.
But there’s a problem with this. The aforementioned sub-section of Jews likely isn’t just picking up the book of Isaiah or a tractate of Mishnah on a regular basis. There needs to be an entry point. An occasion where the Jewish community collectively trumpets from its synagogues and community centers that this tradition exists. That social justice has long been a part of our tradition, and, God-willing, will still be for centuries to come.
We cannot and should not conclude that social justice and Judaism are the same. They are not. In addition to the above examples, there are real elements of the Jewish tradition that challenge, or even directly contradict, many liberal pre-dispositions. Sometimes those of us who are liberal overlook that vital truth, and to do so is a mistake.
But, if done thoughtfully, a Jewish holiday recognizing our historic connection to issues of social justice could be a vital tool as we look for ways to engage this group of Jews. It could be the perfect entry point for those who care about Social Justice and their Jewish identity, but have not yet learned how to blend those two passions into one.
So today, 16th of Tammuz (July 14th), I’m taking JJ Goldberg’s advice, and celebrating those links that exist between Jewish tradition and values of social justice. I’ll be balancing a look back at the past with a gaze into the future. I’ll take some time to reflect on the murders of three civil rights workers in my very own state of Mississippi, and, more positively, on the incredible work that was done in the aftermath of their deaths. As I look forward, I’ll be thinking about steps that I can take, as a Jew and as a human being, to minimize the possibility of similar crimes from being committed today or in the future.
I invite you to join me.
I am coming up on my one-year anniversary of working at the Jewish Women’s Archive. It’s a pleasant shock that nearly twelve months have passed since I joined the Jewish communal world; before I came to JWA, I maintained a safe distance from full-time employment with a Jewish organization.
I left my position as executive director of a summer writing camp last spring to figure out my next steps. Like many women my age (I am looking directly into the jaws of turning 50) I knew that the time had come to make a deliberate change. My kids were getting older, I needed more colleagues, more intellectual grist, blah blah blah.
Last month, I had the good fortune of reflecting on the changes of this past year, as I prepared to teach my first workshops with my JWA skirt on. I went to Jackson, Mississippi for the annual education conference of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL). As a guest presenter, I taught about the importance of primary source-based learning, Jews and the music of the civil rights movement, and what inspiring Jewish women like Bella Abzug and Queen Esther can teach us about costumes and identity.
Moments like this are when I know I made the right shift in my career. I am learning a whole new lexicon. A new prism for viewing the world. A history I knew existed, but didn’t really know how to access. A framework for living the next decades of my life. An understanding that feminism is not monochromatic. And, as a result, a passion for the subject matter I get to shepherd(ess) every day.
Which brings me, again, to the ISJL. I listened to music from the civil rights era pretty much nonstop for a few weeks to get me into the mindset for teaching the topic. I learned many new details about Freedom Summer. I read and re-read Heather Booth’s letter to her brother, in which she writes about her “fear and exhaustion” but also the “songs that help to dissipate the fear.” The more I learn about Freedom Summer (I got an early look at the extraordinary new Stanley Nelson documentary which premiered June 24 on PBS), the more I am humbled by the bravery of all the volunteers.
I am also profoundly inspired by the Jewish civil rights workers who comprised an estimated 50% of those college-age volunteers that summer. They went to heal fractured communities, to encourage the disenfranchised to vote, to bring a modicum of dignity to those whose basic democratic freedoms had been denied for over a hundred years, and to try and build a better world for the next generation through the creation of Freedom Schools.
Is it okay to say I had fun preparing for my first conference, even when the topics were tough? I had fun because I discovered new ways to think about my own history and identity and how to translate these discoveries for others. I have a new modus operandi, which I am proud to have and even prouder to impart—I kinda lectured friends at dinner about the important Jewish role models who preceded us, and not only were my friends encouraging, they were thrilled to learn the stories that were new to them.
And I had a great time teaching at the ISJL conference; the educators were smart, eager to learn new materials, and committed to sustaining Jewish life in their home towns. As a northeastern Jewess, I was moved to learn about the many small communities in the South where one Jewish educator nurtures and nourishes the children growing up there, and how, like Bella and Esther, these educators have to wear a few identities to navigate their different orbits.
My time in Jackson also had an unexpected “shining moment.” I met Pam Confer, who was at the hotel to plan for Freedom Summer activities later in the week. I asked her if she would come and sing “This Little Light of Mine” during my presentation on civil rights and music. I had planned on playing a recording of Betty Fickes’ version of the song, but the thrill of having a local artist sing was too tempting to pass up; her beautiful voice filled the room and showed us all how the power of music can bring people together. Everyone was smiling and clapping; the mood in the room was electric.
Thank you, ISJL, for introducing me to Southern Jewish life, and giving me the chance to experience shining a new light. And as we approach the 4th of July holiday, may we continue working toward liberty for all!
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