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entries tagged with: Abraham Joshua Heschel


The sermon that spurred the Soviet Jewry movement

A poster from 1969 by the Israeli graphic designer Dan Reisinger. Courtesy of Dan Reisinger

On a fall day in 1963, Abraham Joshua Heschel unburdened his soul.

Speaking the truth without regard for whether it scandalized or hurt was something he would do fairly often in that decade of social upheaval. Already branded as an eccentric and an outsider, that year he had met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time, beginning a close friendship that would deepen his involvement in the civil rights movement. The two eventually would offer the most endearing and enduring image of the now long dead black-Jewish alliance when they walked arm and arm to Selma, Ala., in protest, garlands of flowers around their necks.

Gal Beckerman Nina Subin

But in September 1963, Heschel’s audience was Jewish — a gathering of rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. His speech would be read aloud that Yom Kippur at hundreds of congregations across the country. It was a sermon that set in motion one of the great engines of what would soon be known as the Soviet Jewry movement: guilt.

Heschel was angry and ashamed that American Jews were not more engaged in helping their brethren in the Soviet Union. There was mounting evidence that these Jews were stuck in an increasingly untenable situation. Every element of their Jewish identity, from religious life to cultural expression, had been brutally squashed. At the same time, the avenues to assimilation were blocked — if nothing else, their internal passports singled them out for discrimination by identifying them as Jews. The option of abandoning the Soviet Union for good was not even a possibility.

Heschel looked at the Jews of America — most of them only two generations removed from the Pale of Settlement — and could not believe that they were responding with little more than sadness and resignation.

“What is called for is not a silent sigh but a voice of moral compassion and indignation, the sublime and inspired screaming of a prophet uttered by a whole community,” Heschel lectured the assembled rabbis.

Then he made his most searing argument. This was not the first time that American Jews had been impotent when it came to helping other Jews, Heschel told them.

“We have been guilty more than once of failure to be concerned, of a failure to cry out, and failure may have become our habit,” he told them.

Heschel was referring, of course, to the Holocaust. And the reference was effective. Whether or not American Jews deserved to bear this historical burden — whether there was anything more they could have done — is irrelevant. In the early 1960s, just as consciousness of the extent of the genocide was bubbling up, so too was a painful recognition that as millions of their brethren were murdered in Europe, this increasingly stable and prosperous community could hardly organize themselves to put on a single rally.

This guilt would blossom into what for some time now has been an obsessive concentration on the Holocaust, one that many have rightly come to see as an extremely corrosive development — the constant memorializing eclipsing so much else about Jewish identity. But what has been forgotten is that before every Jewish community had its own memorial and museum, there was the guilt and the need to do something about it.

I’ve been exploring the Soviet Jewry movement over the past five years for a forthcoming book. Throughout its 25-year history, the need to cast away this heavy burden was present at nearly every moment. But I also came to see it as a positive element. American Jews mobilized, went up against an American administration, and became a more assertive community partly as a way of clearing their collective conscience.

Guilt was present when a group of NASA scientists in Cleveland, Ohio, decided in 1963, after reading the then slim literature of the Holocaust, that they had to do something for those Soviet Jews now suffering “spiritual genocide” and started the first grass-roots Soviet Jewry group. It was also present in New York the following year at the inaugural mass meeting of what would soon be known as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. One of the students offered to sing a ditty he had come up with for their first protest. Its refrain was “History shall not repeat.”

Guilt, leavened with anger, also was present in Rabbi Meir Kahane’s slogan “Never again,” when he hijacked the movement in the early 1970s. In 1971 he rallied a thousand young people to be arrested in Washington, D.C., near the Soviet Embassy, with the words, “I’m asking you to do today what Jews didn’t do while the gas chambers were burning. Sit down in the streets of Washington.”

And in 1987 when a quarter-million people marched in Washington for Soviet Jewry, greeting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on his first visit to the United States, guilt was distilled from Elie Wiesel’s words: “Too many of us were silent then. We are not silent today.”

But this guilt was not about wallowing. It was directed, focused. I heard the same line from the many activists I interviewed for the book: They did not want their children to ask the same question of them that they had asked their parents: What had they done to help Jews during the war?

As a result, the movement acted as a sort of catalyst. By cleansing the conscience, it allowed these Jews to be assertive. It emboldened them to act with a confidence they had never before exhibited on American soil.

Never was this truer than during the fight for the Jackson-Vanik amendment from 1972 to 1975. The Jewish community went up against the president — and won. They wanted Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to temper their pursuit of detente and make any improved trade relationship with the Soviets contingent on freer emigration.

Here, too, the Holocaust was not far away. The amendment was inspired by a new tax the Soviets wanted to levy on departing emigrants: They would have to pay back the state for their education.

An editorial cartoon in the Los Angeles Times captured the feeling this tax inspired by showing a caricature of two almost identical prisoners: The first held out an arm tattooed with a number from a concentration camp and was captioned “Germany, 1936”; the second had the same tattooed arm and was captioned “Russia, 1972.” The difference was the numbers on the second arm had a dollar sign in front of it.

American Jews made this guilt productive. The Soviet Jewry movement became as much about saving themselves as it was about saving this far-off community of Jews.

When I started working on the book, I was drawn by a need to understand the world after the war. My grandparents all survived death camps and lost much of their families. And yet, by the time I knew them, they had raised families and were happy, well-adjusted people.

As curious as I was about what happened to them in those camps, I also wanted to understand what went into this transformation. The same was true on a much larger scale. How did American Jews scrub out that terrible stain?

The answer, it seems, was contained in the Soviet Jewry movement. Here Jews were able to work out those feelings and answer Heschel’s lament.

A few months before his speech in 1963, a reporter from the Yiddish newspaper the Day-Morning Journal asked Heschel where he had been in 1943. He answered mournfully that he had just arrived in America, did not speak English well, and commanded no attention from the Jewish leadership.

Still, he said, “This does not mean that I consider myself innocent. I am very guilty. I have no rest.”

If not for him, then for the next generation, Soviet Jewry offered that rest.



A half-century later, rabbis recall marching with Martin Luther King

The late Rabbi Ralph Simon, then the president of the Rabbinical Assembly and father of Rabbi Matthew Simon of Rockville, Md., accompanying the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who addressed the RA convention at the Concord Hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains, March 25, 1968. Matthew Simon

At least that was the case in the 1960s, he says, when Dresner, now rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, was one of dozens of rabbis who answered the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for clergy from the North to join the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow South.

From the Freedom Rides of 1961 to the famous march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked in the front row with King, Jews were prominent participants in the battle for civil rights that dominated the first half of the ’60s.

Of the thousands of white activists who headed South, nearly half were Jewish, according to “Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice,” a 1998 publication of the Reform movement.

“This was living out what Judaism itself has been teaching all along, that you have to help the oppressed, the underprivileged, not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” said Rabbi David Teitelbaum, 84, of Redwood City, Calif.

As the United States gets set to mark Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 17, some rabbis who traveled South to join the man who would go on to win a Nobel Peace Prize talked to JTA about the civil rights struggle.

Teitelbaum went to Alabama with four other rabbis from northern California in March 1965 for the voter registration drive of African Americans and the Selma march.

Rabbi Israel Dresner, left, and the late Rabbi Martin Freedman were part of the first interfaith clergy Freedom Ride. They and Rabbi André Ungar, right, marched in Selma, Ala., for civil rights with Martin Luther King.

The rabbis who joined these efforts were arrested, jailed, and sometimes beaten, protected by the color of their skin from the worst physical dangers, but nonetheless threatened on a daily basis.

Dresner’s first arrest was in June 1961, when he and the late Rabbi Martin Freedman of Barnert Temple, then in Paterson, along with eight Protestant ministers, formed the first interfaith clergy Freedom Ride. Their bus was part of a summer-long campaign of white and black activists, many of them clergy, who traveled together throughout the South to draw attention to the evils of segregation.

The young Dresner went to jail each summer for the next three years, as he brought ever-larger groups of rabbis and ministers to join the struggle in the South.

“I was a Reform rabbi, but I always wore a yarmulke,” said Dresner. “I wanted people to know I was Jewish.”

The president of the NAACP at the time was Kivie Kaplan, a prominent member of the Reform movement’s social action commission. Kaplan bought the Washington building that became the headquarters for the movement’s new Religious Action Center and also housed the fledgling Leadership Council on Civil Rights.

Black and Jewish lawyers drafted, on a table in that building, what became the major civil rights laws of the mid-’60s, recounted Al Vorspan, who directed the Reform commission for 50 years.

It was a time when Jews and blacks often found common cause in the struggle for justice in a country where both had been oppressed.

Rabbi Matthew Simon, 79, now the emeritus rabbi of B’nai Israel in Rockville, Md., was working at a Conservative congregation in Los Angeles when he joined the 1965 Selma march.

“I had very good relationships with the black clergy in the San Fernando Valley,” he recalled. “We worked together on social action issues, on voting rights and housing rights, not just in Los Angeles but all over the country.”

Jews who took part in these efforts took considerable push-back from fellow Jews who felt that Jewish activism was better directed at issues of Jewish, not general, concern.

Most of the rabbis who marched with King, or joined the Freedom Riders, were Reform, said Vorspan, now senior vice president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, formerly known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

UAHC came out “strongly and unequivocally” in favor of civil rights activism, he said, but the rabbis who went South risked more than physical danger.

“Many of their congregations were on the verge of firing them for it,” Vorspan said. “I personally went to several congregations threatening to fire their rabbis and told them it would be a ‘chilul HaShem,’” a desecration of God’s name.

Three of the largest Reform temples in the country, including Temple Emanuel in New York, temporarily withdrew from the Reform movement, he recalled, because of the movement’s support for the civil rights struggle and later opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, leading black activists were borrowing heavily from Jewish sources, particularly the Bible, in their sermons and speeches. King himself often used biblical motifs, especially the Exodus, to dramatize the African-American journey from slavery to freedom.

One night in Georgia in the summer of 1962, Dresner and King were trapped with other activists in a house surrounded by hundreds of members of the local White Citizens Council.

While they were waiting for help, King told Dresner about the Passover seder he’d attended that spring at a Reform synagogue in Atlanta. He particularly recalled reading the Haggadah and hearing the phrase “We were slaves in Egypt.”

“Dr. King said to me, ‘I was enormously impressed that 3,000 years later, these people remember their ancestors were slaves, and they’re not ashamed,’” Dresner said. “He told me, ‘We Negroes have to learn that, not to be ashamed of our slave heritage.’”

Negro was the accepted term for African American in the 1960s, Dresner noted.

In March 1965, Rabbi Saul Berman, then the spiritual leader of Cong. Beth Israel in Berkeley, Calif., traveled to Alabama with the rabbinic delegation from northern California.

Black leaders in Selma called, asking the rabbis to bring a box of kippot with them.

“At that time, black people in the South were wearing kippot as a freedom cap,” explained Berman, now a prominent Orthodox scholar who teaches at Stern College and Columbia University School of Law in New York. “It was an extraordinary indication of the extreme penetration of the Jewish community.”

At the same time, Berman said, a “disturbing undercurrent” began to surface in the movement. As his group of 150 activists was arrested for the second time on its way to Selma, debate broke out as to whether they should disband, with a promise not to return, as local police were urging.

“They didn’t want to book us — half the group was clergy,” Berman said.

As the white ministers pondered the best move, the black participants became angry.

“The question arose, whose movement is this?” Berman said. “It was a precursor of much more intense feelings of that sort that emerged in the late ‘60s as black leaders began to resent white leaders who felt the civil rights movement was ‘theirs.’ I didn’t recognize the significance of that scene until much later.”

Among the rabbis gathered in Selma was André Ungar, now rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, in Woodcliff Lake. He said that he and his wife, Judy, had been “privileged” to take part in the march.

“She was very pregnant and very thirsty,” he recalled, “but when she asked for something to drink, people turned her down because she was a ‘carpetbagger’ like the rest of us.”

King, said Ungar, was “a wonderful man, a great American, a true friend of the Jews. He spoke about Moses and Amos and Martin Buber with great knowledge and passion. The world would be a better place with King alive.”

Many of the rabbis who were active in the civil rights struggle went on to support freedom for Soviet Jewry, motivated by the same sense of prophetic justice that drew them to the South and by the desire to protect their fellow Jews in trouble, a more particularist concern that grew as the decades passed.

Today, relations between the black and Jewish communities are rarely as strong as they were in the heyday of the civil rights struggle.

“The issues of concern today are those of American society as a whole, not of blacks being able to enter American society,” said Simon, who notes that even after 30 years in suburban Washington, he still does not know his local black clergy. “I interact with them from time to time, but they’ve never come to us for a common action.”

Still, vestiges of commonality remain.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, is the only non-African American on the board of the NAACP. Many synagogues and Jewish community centers run Freedom Seders at Passover with local African-American and Latino leaders, or interfaith Shabbat services to honor Martin Luther King Day.

And rabbis who marched with King say they’d do it again.

“Because I’m Jewish,” Dresner said. “I didn’t see any alternative.”

JTA Wire Service

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