Tag Archives: community

Operation: Understanding – Our History, Our Present

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.

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Operation Understanding students at ISJL office

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.

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Asking and answering questions

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.

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Posted on July 25, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Divestment? Not in New Orleans!

Rev. Frampton and Rabbi Cohn

Rev. Frampton and Rabbi Cohn

In our corner of the world, Temple Sinai of New Orleans and The St. Charles Ave. Presbyterian Church have been friends for many years now.  The friendship between our communities is deep. Our congregations, led respectively by Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn and Reverend Donald Frampton, joined on an interfaith trip a few years ago to Israel. When the church had heating problems one Christmas, they celebrated their Christmas services in our sanctuary.

So when word came down about the Presbyterian General Assembly’s decision about divesting from Israel, the very first thing that Rev. Frampton did was to pick up the telephone and call Rabbi Cohn.

The New Orleans reverend wanted to assure his friend, the New Orleans rabbi, that their local church disagreed with divestment; that they supported Israel, and also their local Jewish neighbors. They wanted to continue the conversation and include their communities, so they immediately arranged for this joint congregational dinner.

A great turnout from both communities.

A great turnout from both communities.

The two congregations came together at Temple Sinai for a pot luck supper and discussion. Our lay leaders, staffs, clergy and congregants were all overjoyed at the turnout and the table talk during dinner.  After dinner Rev. Frampton took the podium.

“As Senior Pastor of St. Charles Presbyterian Church,” Rev. Frampton said, “I wanted the opportunity to assure you, our valued and trusted friends of Temple Sinai, of our ongoing friendship and partnership in ministry regardless of what happened in Detroit!”

We were also joined by some members of the Lakeview Presbyterian Church, and their Elder, Sue Burge, presented our congregation with a beautiful olive tree to be planted on our grounds. Their community also had an olive tree planted in the State of Israel as a symbol of peace and hope for the future for all of God’s children.

Cantor Joel Colman spoke next, more closely detailing the map of Israel and the current warning times  of 15 seconds to 3 minutes depending on how far a city is from Gaza missile launches.  Joel’s son, Josh, is currently serving in the IDF… very near the 15 second warning area. “This is a terrible situation for everyone in Israel and most especially the children forced to deal with bombs on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.”

Rabbi Cohn shared his support for Israel and explained that like any country, including our beloved USA, there is history that is not pretty, and he does not agree with every single decision that Israel has made. However, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.  Israel is the only country in the Middle East, whose Christian population has doubled and redoubled in the last 10 years. Divesting from Israel, he explained, is most often a thinly veiled cover for anti-Semitism.

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(And of course, great food!)

The rabbi and the reverend agreed on that point, and on the “big idea” of the evening: No matter what, these congregations will remain united faith communities in the Crescent City of New Orleans, forever friends.

Our missions are both to do good works here and abroad, to support our congregants spiritually, to cultivate community and to continue to make our world a better place! Here in New Orleans, even when times are tough, our bonds are strong.

Thank you to our Presbyterian friends and neighbors here at home for showing their support.

Posted on July 16, 2014

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What Can Southern Jews Teach The Rest of Us About Intermarriage and Outreach?

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky

Usually we think of small, southern communities as being at least a beat behind their larger counterparts, especially when they have small—even “diminishing”—Jewish populations. Many of these Jewish communities were once thriving, but they have followed the American trend of younger generations abandoning smaller hometowns for larger urban centers.

These communities may be demographically small, but they should be considered ideologically large in their response to those who have intermarried.

How these communities respond should be instructive to other communities, regardless of size or region. It is true that the intermarriage rate—particularly among non-Orthodox Jews—is among the highest in these communities. Even if there is debate among demographers as to the exact rate of intermarriage, what is most important to consider is the trend lines. That’s why the well-practiced response of these communities is so important at a time when the rest of the North American community has finally transcended the question of “Should we reach out to those who have intermarried?” and moved to “How should we reach out to those who have intermarried?”

In a word, the only response of these smaller Southern communities has always been the same: welcome.

To be the most welcoming of communities is the only response possible and that is what these small communities have been doing. The synagogue remains the most numerous of Jewish communal organizations in the United States. In smaller communities, it is often the only Jewish communal institution and serves a multiplicity of functions. That’s why its actions are so demonstrative.

How have these Southern Jewish communities led the way?  While institutions in other parts of the country are still debating the roles for those of other religious backgrounds in synagogues throughout the country, many in the South have long seen “non-Jewish partners” take on key roles in their communities.

As part of Jewish Outreach Institute’s ongoing partnership with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, I traveled to Mississippi this past week to serve as faculty at the ISJL’s education conference. I was reminded, again, of how many individuals in these Southern communities might not be Jewish—but are undoubtedly contributing to the Jewish future.

Simply by committing to raise Jewish children, they are contributing to our future; but their involvement goes above and beyond that. Southern congregations recognize this, voting with their feet and extending full synagogue membership to non-Jewish partners. These unsung heroes have joined the boards of synagogues, sometimes a thankless task, and have even become board presidents in some places. They are religious school teachers, and some have even become the directors of their town’s religious schools.

These partners-of-Jews have cast their lot with the Jewish people. The synagogue has become their spiritual home. We welcome them. We applaud them. And we thank so many in the Southern parts of these United States for leading the way, providing an example for the rest of us to follow.

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Posted on July 1, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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