Tag Archives: equality

“Profit is a Great Motivator for Tolerance”: Mississippi Jewish History Has Something to Say

Have you seen this image yet?

Eddie Outlaw

If not, can you guess which state it may be from? Believe it or not, this is a Mississippi initiative.

This glorious logo has been flooding my Facebook feed for weeks and is now getting the great press coverage it deserves – from local news outlets like the Jackson Free Press, and also from the likes of Time Magazine and some Posts—Washington and Huffington.

After the Mississippi House and Senate passed SB 2681—the controversial “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Mitchell Moore, owner of Campbell’s Bakery and a self-proclaimed “white, heterosexual, conservative Christian male,” decided to take a stand.

“The examples people always use (when talking about how businesses could discriminate) always involve weddings and a florist or a baker (refusing service to a gay or lesbian couple), since those are the ones that have probably happened somewhere,” Moore said to the Jackson Free Press. “I thought it was ridiculous, and I wanted to get the message out that we are not discriminatory, and that I want to sell my product to as many people as will buy it.”

Since then, hundreds of stickers have been printed and put up in storefront windows across the state. The campaign is getting so much attention that the American Family Association, a conservative evangelical organization, is fighting back. This article from the Huffington Post quotes the AFA saying  this is “not really a buying campaign, but it’s a bully campaign… carried out by radical homosexual activists who intend to trample the freedom of Christians to live according to the dictates of scripture.”

In counterpoint, the Huffington Post author points out that those who agree with the AFA might want to consider this: “…bigots in Mississippi are still free to discriminate, but they do at a disadvantage to competitors who don’t… Profit is a great motivator for tolerance.”

It’s this last line that got me thinking historically about tolerance among merchants. As I’ve written in the past, many Jewish immigrants to Mississippi at the turn of the century worked their way up from peddlers to become merchants in towns across the state. A majority of these merchants differentiated themselves from other businesses through their relationships with the black community. Jewish merchants across the South, especially the ones that owned lower-end dry goods stores (of whom there were many) relied heavily on black customers.

And in this relationship, there was a definite distinction between Jews and other whites. Jewish store owners had the reputation of treating their black customers far better than other white merchants. Jews were more willing to extend credit to blacks, and to use terms of respect when speaking to them. Certainly, there was an economic incentive to treat their customers well, but as one civil rights leader in Mississippi noted, Jewish merchants were considered “the better of the white element that you had dealings with.” In her memoir The Jew Store, Stella Suberman recalls how her father hired the first black store clerk in their small Tennessee town in the 1930s. In the store owned by Edward Cohen’s family in Jackson, clerks called their blacks customers “Mr.” or “Mrs,” which was unusual at the time. As Cohen notes: “We observed blacks’ humanity, if not their equality.”

But years later during the Civil Right Movement of the 1960s, the pressure to conform to segregation laws was more intense. When city leaders were not willing to integrate, Jewish merchants could be caught in the middle between movement sit-ins and white resistance. While they may have held progressive ideals, Jewish merchants were worried about the impact joining the movement would have on their businesses, and how speaking up could potentially endanger them and their families.

Only after integration became inevitable, or the cost of continued segregation became too high, did they change their practices—but they did often take the lead in this process. In Memphis in the 1960s, a handful of Jewish department store owners organized meetings with other merchants to discuss the peaceful integration of their stores. Jack Goldsmith, owner of Goldsmith’s, and Mel Grinspan of the Shainberg’s store chain, led this effort, which was designed to have all the stores integrate together so none of them could be singled out for retribution.

In both instances, profit was a main motivator,  but at different points in history a merchant’s practice of discrimination could either be bad or good for business. It’s why I find this “Religious Freedom” bill so dangerous. We’ve seen what happens when discrimination becomes acceptable and profitable, and the situation that it puts merchants in. Taking a look back helps frame the fight we are fighting today as social change threatens the sacred status quo.

The “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling”  campaign is trying to point out that in Mississippi, in 2014, discrimination is bad for business. This law is bad for the people in the state and those thinking of doing business in the state. And twisting the logic behind something as important as “religious freedom” of the majority to enforce discrimination against a minority is just another level of how disturbing it is.

Having lived in this state for six years, I’ve learned that the loudest voices are often assumed to be the majority. It was some loud voices who got the “Religious Freedom Bill” passed—but now, some other loud voices are taking the megaphone—loud, proud business owners who will sell to anyone who’s buying, and are taking a bright-stickered-sign against discrimination.

For more information, visit the website If You’re Buying website and follow the news of this growing movement on their Facebook page.

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Posted on April 30, 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

Some “Deeply Held Religious Beliefs” Aren’t What You Think

Stop LGBT Discrimination

In the late 1970s, my Uncle Eric Rofes marched in a gay pride parade in the Boston area with a paper bag over his head.

Why would he do this? What reason did he have to hide his identity as he sought to make equal rights for LGBT individuals a reality?

His reasons were practical, and heartbreaking. He was a teacher, and at the time, it was completely within the realm of acceptable activity to fire teachers if they were “discovered” to be homosexual. Allowing his face to be seen could have consequences.

Later in the year, he decided that he no longer could hide this aspect of his identity. He decided he would inform the school that he was gay. He would no longer bring fake “girlfriends” to school functions, and, if asked by his students, he would talk with them honestly about the fact that he is attracted to men and not women.

Upon learning this, the school fired my Uncle Eric.

My uncle went on to become an accomplished activist, working tirelessly for equal rights for all, regardless of sexuality. He made a lot of headway. But what is clear to me today is this: there is so much work left to be done, and for me it starts right now here in Mississippi.

Today, a vote on Senate Bill 2681 will likely occur in Mississippi. If passed, it would give businesses the right to deny service to individuals if their reason for doing so stems from a “sincerely held religious belief.” This would give businesses the right to deny service to LGBT individuals without any consequence. A classic example is that of a gay couple going to a bakery to purchase a cake, perhaps celebrating the anniversary of their first date (or of their wedding, if they traveled outside of Mississippi to a state where there is marriage equality). This law would mean that businesses could kick those individuals out of the store. It is the equivalent of a “straights only” sign in the window, reminiscent of a Civil Rights era that I had hoped we had moved past.

This bill (popular because it would also add “In God We Trust” to the state seal) would formalize that someone can be turned away/denied service based on a “deeply held religious belief,” and these days that’s often veiled language for LGBT, though clearly it can extend to discrimination among many other groups, and smacks of segregation language pre-civil rights, using religion to justify discrimination.

As a Mississippian, as a human being, and, for me, as a Jew, I must stand up and do what I can to defeat this bill. I refuse to sit back when a law may pass tomorrow that would mean citizens of my state, today, would have to hide their sexuality just as my uncle did decades ago.

Mississippi EqualityFor those looking for a “sincerely held religious belief” in opposition to this bill, I have a very simple one. It is, perhaps unexpectedly, from Shammai, a man noted for being significantly less open-minded than his counterpart, Hillel the Elder. He states, in Pirkei Avot, a Jewish ethical tractate:

Hevei m’kabeil et kol ha-adam b’seiver panim yafot.” Receive every person with a cheerful countenance.

It doesn’t say receive some people with a cheerful countenance. It doesn’t say, accept some people cheerfully, but those others, well, you can give them the cold shoulder if you don’t agree with them.

Our society will suffer greatly if we do not live up to those words. For my sake, for your sake, for my Uncle Eric’s sake, and for the future of Mississippi – let us fight against discrimination, and embrace the “sincerely held religious belief” that we should receive everyone with a pleasant face, an open door, a cheerful countenance.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 4, 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

“How I Met Your Rabbi” – Or, “How I Met Your Mother/Father God”?

Today’s post is from Education Fellow Amanda Winer.

“Kids, let me tell you the story of how I met your Rabbi.”
JoshRadnor_0
Okay, so that’s NOT how the latest episode of “How I Met Your Mother” began this week- but there has been some buzz around the interwebs this week regarding one of the Jewish stars of the popular sitcom.

Earlier this week, Reform Judaism featured this post by Josh Radnor, who stars as Ted Mosby on “How I Met Your Mother.” The post is a prayer written by Radnor, which is excerpted from the upcoming book Unscrolled, which describes itself “the new book in which 54 leading Jewish writers, artists, photographers, screenwriters, and more grapple with the first five books of the Bible, giving new meaning to the 54 Torah portions.”

Radnor’s prayer offers a very interesting interpretation of the first book of the Torah, B’reishit (Genesis). I definitely suggest you read the piece; one part that really stood out to me was the dual genders when he refers to God’s role as our creator/parent: “When the Father said, ‘Let there be light,’ the Mother answered, ‘And there was light.’”

This instantly reminded me of Avinu Mal’keinu, the poem that many communities recite aloud during the high holidays. Avinu Mal’keinu itself means “our father, our king” and that, many progressive communities have grabbled with. In favor of gender neutrality, communities yielded to a couple different strategies. For example, Machzor Ruach Chadashah from the UK Liberal Judaism omovement uses the feminine attribute of God, Shechinah, in their interpretation of this prayer.

The only thing that I know for sure is that there is no clear way that everyone relates to or refers to God, but I can definitely understand God’s role as a parent.

Wait! IS THAT who the mother is?! That would have saved me years of wondering and days of Netflix binge watching!

Just kidding. You’ll have to watch the show to find out who “the mother” is – and you’ll have to wrestle with the prayers to figure out if you think of God as father, mother, or both.

What do you think? Does God feel like a parent to you? If you communicate with God, do you have a gender in mind?

Posted on September 27, 2013

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