From the Rabbi's Desk

The Freedom Summer of 1964

on Wednesday, 27 August 2014.

Marking the 50th Anniversary

Each spring, around our seder tables, we retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, our ancestor’s journey to freedom.  In revisiting, year after year, this ancient story, we are given the opportunity to pause and appreciate how far we have come.  But as we celebrate our people’s miraculous journey of liberation, we are reminded time and again that work remains – that we are not yet truly free.

 

It is in this tradition that we, along with other organizations including the Institute for Southern Jewish Life and the Union for Reform Judaism take time this summer, the 50th anniversary, to retell the story of the Freedom Summer of 1964.

 

Part of the larger Civil Rights Movement – during the summer of 1964 the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee partnered together to register African Americans in the Jim Crow south to vote.

 

While voter registration efforts took place in a number of states, a decision was made to focus on Mississippi because of its egregiously low number of registered black voters.  Resulting from the systematic use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation, nearly 100 years after the fifteenth amendment extended the franchise, only 6.7% of Mississippi’s African Americans were registered to vote.

 

Over the course of the summer many thousands of people were registered to vote, and the volunteers even succeeded in opening 30 “freedom schools.”  But it was also a very difficult time.  Those connected to the registration drive or thought sympathetic were often met with violent opposition.  Churches, homes and businesses were burned, volunteers beaten, and over 1,000 people arrested.   Most infamously, on June 21 three volunteers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

 

Their tragic and brutal murder, as well as the unprecedented number of college students, predominately white and from universities in the North, who came to participate in the voter registration drives led to extensive media coverage.  Journalists from across the country descended on Mississippi.  Their reports helped bringing national attention to the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans and ultimately helped get the Voters Right Act of 1965 passed through Congress.

 

Earlier I mentioned the murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.  All three were active in the leadership of CORE – the Congress of Racial Equality.  James Chaney was a veteran civil rights organizer from Meridian Mississippi, while Goodman and Schwerner were college students, both from New York and both Jewish.  That they were Jewish is not coincidental.  At least 50% of the whites who went to Mississippi in 1964 were Jews, as were, by some estimates, 90% of the civil rights attorneys in the South. 

 

Jews played an important role in the Freedom Summer of 1964 and as Reform Jews we should take pride in knowing that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

 

Some have suggested that Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement met an important psychological need – a chance to atone, if you will, for impotence of the American Jewish community during the Holocaust.  But while psychological factors may have played a role, such an explanation discounts the importance of Jewish teachings and values, as well as the long history of Jewish and Afro-American partnership.

 

While many of us are familiar with the images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching hand in hand – Jewish involvement in the struggle for civil rights goes back decades earlier.

 

Henry Moscowitz, Julius Rosenthal, Lillian Wald, and Rabbis Emil Hirsh and Stephen Wise were amongst the co-founders of the NAACP – an organization that has several times been headed by Jews.

 

The Chairman of Sears Roebuck, Julius Rosenwald spent a large part of his fortune on improving the education of African Americans in the South.  In partnership with W. E. Dubois, he helped establish nearly 2,000 primary and secondary schools.  At one point, nearly 40% of all southern blacks were educated in a school Rosenwald helped establish.  He was also involved in the founding of 20 historically black colleges or universities, including Howard University.   Interestingly, during the 1930s and 1940s, many Jewish scholars fleeing Nazi Europe found employment, and with it a life-saving visa, at these institutions.

 

And finally, though by no means, exhaustively, there is the example of the American Jewish Committee – which funded the work of sociologist Kenneth Clark – who showed that separate is inherently equal.  Clark’s work was at the heart of the seminal 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ruling – a case in which both the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Congress also submitted amicus briefs.

 

As these examples show, Jewish participation in the Freedom Summer of 1964 was not an isolated phenomenon.  But as history shows, it was perhaps a high water mark.  In the years that followed, the rise of the black power movement and other factors led to decreased Jewish involvement.

 

Still, Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement had a lasting effect – not only in helping to create a more just America, but on the character of the Jewish community as well.   For those who came of age during the 1960s, and for their children and grandchildren, Tikkun Olam – the struggle to repair our world – became a central if not primary expression of Jewish life.

 

50 years after the Freedom Summer, we have a lot to celebrate.  Today in Mississippi more than 75% of African Americans are registered to vote – making them a powerful voting block – even in Republican primaries.   And thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Fair Housing Act of 1968, there are legal protections against racial discrimination.

 

De-jure segregation is a thing of the past, but de-facto discrimination persists.  America remains painfully divided along racial and socio-economic lines.  That is what the events, the past few weeks out of Ferguson illustrate – and that is what a drive, just a few blocks west on Cervantes reveal every day. 

 

And so we are reminded that there is still work to do.  In the Passover Seder we are charged, B’chol Dor V’dor Chayav Adam Lirot Etzmo K’ilu hu yatza m’mitzrayim.  In every generation one is obligated to see themselves as if they went out from Egypt.  May we, in our generation, truly be freed from Mitzrayim – the narrowness of division – and may we, alongside our neighbors of every race, creed, and orientation, work to ensure America is truly the land of freedom and opportunity for all.

Passion and Convictions

on Monday, 07 July 2014.

Parshat Balak 5774

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Balak we find the Israelites encamped at Shittin.  There the men are tempted – you might say propositioned -- by the Moabite women.  In what scholars believe may have been part of the cult of Baal Peor, the Israelite men and Moabite women engage in sexual relations.

 

The ancient Israelites’ behavior is problematic, not only because they are overtaken by physical desire, but because motivated by passion they align themselves with a system of beliefs and values they might have otherwise disdained.

 

Though no longer wandering in the desert wilderness, the Israelites of today live in a land thirsty for peace and stability.  We were reminded of this harsh truth one week ago, when the bodies of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach, were discovered in a field outside Hebron.

 

In light of this news, emotions, which had been running high since the teenagers’ abduction, hit a crescendo and a solemn sense of mourning took of the country.  This collective grief transcended the divisions that usually dissect Israeli society:  religious and secular, Sephardic and Ashkenazic, left and right.

 

On Tuesday thousands gathered from all over Israel for the teenagers’ funerals in Modi’in.  But as the majority of Israeli’s affirmed, through mourning, the sacredness of human life – a small minority, driven by rage and anger– lashed out in terror.

 

Like the ancient Israelites at Shittim, this minority of Jewish Israelis was overtaken by passion --in this case for revenge and vengeance.  And like their ancestors, in following these base desires they discarded the values of their faith – committing acts anathema to the teachings of Judaism.

 

There are troubling reports of anti-Arab rallies, racist graffiti on Palestinian owned homes and businesses, and most devastating, the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir’ -- his death a suspected revenge killing.

 

These abhorrent acts are not about defending Israel.  Acts of defense are fundamentally about affirming life.  No, this hateful behavior is about denying the humanity of others.  It is a rejection of what Ben Azzai taught is the most important principle in the entire Torah  – that every man and woman is created in God’s image.

 

Speaking at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv’s Independence Day Celebration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to the Israeli people to “exercise restraint in your actions and words. Our hearts ache, our blood boils, but we must remember that we are, first and foremost, human beings and we are citizens of a law-abiding country.”

 

Writing in the Times of Israel, the satirist Benji Lovitt expressed a similar sentiment.  Departing from his normally humorous tone, he called all of Israel to account, asserting

 

We clamor for the Palestinians to take responsibility for their actions, to bring terrorists to justice, to condemn perpetrators of horrible crimes.  When Jews are rioting in Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs” and attacking innocent bystanders, they must be condemned.  If it turns out that the Arab boy was killed in an act of revenge, it must be condemned.  Not only by the government, but by all of us.  On Facebook.  In Shabbat dinner conversations.  In our minds.  It doesn’t matter that they killed three of ours, an unspeakable, horrible tragedy.  It doesn’t matter that Arafat said no in 2000 at Camp David.  It doesn’t matter that Hamas are rejectionist animals.  Those have nothing to do with the killing of a boy.  It doesn’t make us weaker or compromise our values to be human and acknowledge suffering when it exists on the other side.

 

Jewish tradition praises Pinchas – the man who ended the plague in our Torah reading, for the strength of his faith and convictions.  As a Jewish community, in Israel and around the world, now is a time when we need to be strong in our convictions -- strong in our belief that even as the shadow of terror darkens our cities and homes, the pursuit of peace remains our task and the sanctity of human life our guiding principal. 

 

May we blessed to live as according to our highest ideals and may peace yet come to us. – Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.

 

 

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