Where Were The Jews?

April 4, 2018
Where Were the Jews?

The American Jewish community harbors nostalgia for a storied time of cooperation between Jews and blacks. While those memories loom large in our consciousness, it is nearly absent from the narrative of non-Jewish African Americans. We Jews celebrate Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a close friend of Dr. King. We applaud all the clergy who answered the call to march in Selma. (The rabbi I grew up with in Kansas City, Morris B. Margolies, was there. Was yours?) In Memphis, Rabbi James Wax of Temple Israel led an interfaith service following Dr. King’s assassination, and marched to City Hall to urge the mayor to end the ongoing sanitation workers’ strike that brought Dr. King to the city. They confronted Mayor Henry Loeb, who had previously been a member of Temple Israel. But Rabbi Wax’s long-standing advocacy for civil rights had little support among the rest of the Jewish community at the time. Like many of the bold Jewish leaders who advocated and marched for civil rights, he understood how vulnerable the Jews felt in their southern and Midwestern towns. No wonder many non-Jewish African Americans remain unaware of the role that we Jews consider as significant.

Walking through the National Civil Rights Museum, I found one photo of Rabbi Heschel with Dr. King, with no caption, no explanation. In the exhibit recounting the founding of the NAACP the term “philanthropists” whispered to me the names of many Jewish founders and leaders of the NAACP. Among them, many of us recall Kivie Kaplan, who served on the board beginning in 1932 and as president from 1966 to 1975. Yes, there were many Jews involved in founding and funding civil rights organizations (SCLC, SNCC). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC. Their names and accomplishments do not enter the museum’s narrative. And why should they? After all, the leadership of most Jewish groups were not actively engaged with this movement.

Likewise today, when we seek an historic reconciliation between Jewish groups and African-American groups, we rely on the presence of individual leaders and the activism of powerful small progressive groups. In the current call for racial justice, major national Jewish organizations have yet to step up. In Memphis during the commemorations of 50 years since the sanitation workers’ strike and Dr. King’s assassination, I witnessed a powerful wave of leaders rededicating themselves to his legacy. Not only the legacy of racial justice and civil rights, but the less popular legacy of his final three years (1965-1968) when King organized and spoke out for the Poor People’s Campaign, protested to end the war in Vietnam and militarism, stood with union workers, and frequently called for economic justice as a way to bind all peoples together. It was Dr. King who asked the question, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can't afford to buy a hamburger?” Those challenges remain with us fifty years later.

While sitting in the historic Mason Temple, with 3000 invited guests, I felt moved and uplifted, despite the sadness of the occasion, not to let Dr. King die a second death. As his friend and fellow civil rights leader Andrew Young said, quoting an African proverb, “you’re not dead until the people stop calling your name.”Dr. King’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King told us that her father had called his mother the night before he died. He wanted to give her the title of his sermon for the next Sunday just in case something happened to him. It was “America May Go to Hell.” Without missing a beat, she echoed her father’s call fifty years later: America may still go to hell. The crowd murmured in agreement. Rather than use this occasion to mourn, Bernice King called the congregation to take up her father’s challenge. She declared “it’s time for America to repent.”  She noted with urgency that in the past fifty years our country has failed to respond to the three evils of racism, poverty, and militarism. Bernice King quoted her father: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than programs of social uplift is rapidly approaching a spiritual death” and reiterated her father’s challenge “to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society, from sectional to ecumenical loyalties.”

As her voice rose, the congregation rose with her, cheering every word as she proclaimed “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny and what affects one directly affects all indirectly. I cannot be all that I ought be until you are all you ought be, and you cannot be all you ought be until I am all that I ought be.”In that spirit, the next day ten thousand marched in the streets of Memphis: union representatives, people of all races and classes, from Memphis and across the country, led by great civil rights leaders including Rev. James Lawson who invited Dr. King to come to Memphis in 1968. As I marched along with our small contingent of the Jewish Labor Committee, I wondered, “Where are the Jews?” In the crowd I met a few Jews who had come to Memphis for the occasion. I’m sure there were others. Many Jewish labor leaders and activists were there. But aside from the JLC, there was no representation of the Jewish community.I understand there were many reasons the Jewish community was not visible. This event took place in the midst of Pesach, a time when many of us had already traveled for the holiday and others thought the challenge of observing the holiday too daunting. I know that many Jewish leaders observed the event in their home communities. Perhaps the heavy union focus made some organizations uncomfortable. Perhaps no one reached out to Jewish organizations to take part.

I came to Memphis thanks to the JLC, and because of a vision that arose at the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable (57 organizations pursuing social justice from a Jewish perspective). This year’s conference studied issues of racism. From that discussion, Marya Axner and Jonathan Rosenbloom of the JLC and Rabbi Mordechai Liebling of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, shared a vision of increasing engagement between Jewish and African-American organizations. From that discussion came the idea of a Labor Seder in Memphis. I went to Memphis to lead that seder. On the night of April 4, 2018, in the sacred space of the Clayborn Temple (where sanitation workers gathered and organized 50 years ago during the strike), 100 union leaders, Jewish leaders, and political leaders read the Haggadah, told stories of liberation, and shared a meal with the purpose of bringing us closer into relationship. We reaffirmed the Jewish commitment to Dr. King’s legacy, to work toward economic justice, to end racism, and to share the wealth of this country with the goal of lifting us all up in that “inescapable network of mutuality and single garment of destiny.”

My purpose is to charge us, authentically and fully as Jews, to answer Dr. King’s resounding call. As in the past, we may not see official Jewish organizations answer that call. Our presence may still remain invisible to the African American community. In the long tradition of Kivie Kaplan and Julius Rosenwald, of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi James Wax, of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, we need to be there. Like those bold leaders of the past, it is time for us to join the fight and to stand up for justice, regardless of our numbers, regardless of the risks, regardless of whether we get credit, and to commit ourselves to create that beloved community and to transform our nation, fulfilling Dr. King’s dream.


Posted on April 12, 2018 .