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.
Okay, so it wasn’t that long ago, and it’s totally in this galaxy (although some may see the Jewish South as a “galaxy far, far away”). When I first visited congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, Texas, in August 2013, the director of their school told me that part of my work with them would be writing programing for their annual religious school February Shabbaton, or Sabbath/weekend retreat.
She also informed me there was a student who wanted to give me ideas about said Shabbaton. Zachary.
Zachary loves Star Wars, and he just could not understand why we had never made Star Wars the theme of the Shabbaton. So when I returned for my fall visit in November, Zachary and I went out to lunch to discuss all his ideas.
Over the next few months we all worked hard to put together a weekend full of Star Wars and Jewish learning. You may be familiar with the concept of The Force, but did you know there is a “Force” in Judaism, too? God gave people free will and intelligent minds to use as we please. In the same way that Jedis can use the force for good or for evil, Judaism believes that every person has a yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and a yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) that they choose to follow. In both situations, we have to learn to master our powers and use them to make the world a better place.
This was the theme of our weekend. We staged relay races and a scavenger hunt to help students learn about Jewish values and how these values lead us to use our powers for good. The whole weekend was a great success, and I never would have come up with the theme if not for Zachary. He explained all the intricate details of the Star Wars characters and showed me how their personalities and talents could teach us Jewish content. I was so impressed by how he had thought this through. This was an amazing example of the fact that students learn best when you teach them in a way they can relate: Zachary loves Star Wars, so we used that to teach him and his classmates about related Jewish concepts.
I really enjoyed the experience of working with Zachary, and not just because it made my job a little easier. It was so rewarding to see a student excited about Jewish learning for himself and his classmates. The activities of this weekend taught these students in a way they could relate to without diluting the Jewish content. I hope this can be an example I take to other communities, and I hope it can inspire you, too.
What are the interests of your students? How can those interests become an avenue for teaching Jewish content? I would love to hear from you about how you accomplish this in your schools.
Earlier this week, in Oxford, Mississippi, two unidentified perpetrators placed a noose around the neck of the James Meredith statue at the University of Mississippi. There was also an old Georgia state flag (which incorporated the confederate flag) draped around his shoulders.
James Meredith was the first African American student at the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss”
as it is still most commonly called. The campus has had several negative incidents of intolerance in the past few years – riots and racial slurs after President Obama’s re-election, heckling and homophobic remarks during a performance of The Laramie Project.
As a current undergraduate student at another college here in Mississippi, the first question that came to my mind when first hearing of this incident was: Where do we go from here?
I know this is not representative of that entire campus and community, but the fact remains that it happened (as did the heckling at the play, as did the racial slurs after the presidential election). It’s not enough to just not he perpetrators; we cannot just be bystanders. I grew up in the South and am certainly not a stranger to racial tension, but this is something much, much more deeply rooted and severe. It is something from which we cannot look away. I can’t escape it even if I wanted to – purely out of coincidence, I am going to Oxford this weekend to visit an old friend, now a student up there at Ole Miss, who happens to be African-American.
While I still look forward to the company of my friend, I will also feel a certain sense of dread sitting on the bus that will steadily edge closer to Oxford. In a way, this bus will be a time machine, taking me back to a Southern past I had assumed I would never experience firsthand.
Which brings me to my next question: As a white person with many close black friends, what is my own responsibility in improving race relations in our country?
In many ways living in the Deep South mirrors the experiences I had studying conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. In Belfast a peace agreement was signed in 1998, officially putting an end to The Troubles. The key word here is officially. While the violence dramatically decreased, much of the cross community tensions remained and were still present when I traveled there in 2013. However, because there is infrastructure for cross-community dialogue in Belfast this sentiment has been changed in some of these most hard lined members of the conflict.
Perhaps we in the US can take a lesson from the Northern Irish in thinking about our own civil rights movement. Although the campaigning days of Dr. Martin Luther King are gone, agreements have been signed, and laws have been made, we still desperately need cross-community dialogue.
This is, in part, why the work we do in the community engagement department is so important. Engaging the community in dialogue and discussing these horrible incidents of racism when they occur is one of the most important steps toward a better future. It helps this white Southern college student be part of answering that first question: Where do we go from here?
It’s something I’ll be thinking about while riding that bus, just as others did in the past, and I’m glad to continue working with a team to encounter difficult truths and come up with shared solutions.