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Elena Kagan seen as brilliant and affable — and a mystery

WASHINGTON – Rabbi David Saperstein runs through a shopping list of superlatives on Elena Kagan — “self-evidently brilliant” and “steady, strategic, and tactical” — before acknowledging that he doesn’t have much of a handle on what President Obama’s choice to fill a U.S. Supreme Court seat actually believes.

In the Jewish community Saperstein, the head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, apparently is not alone.

Community reaction to Obama’s selection of Kagan, the U.S. solicitor general, is enthusiastic until officials consider what it is, exactly, she stands for.

Kagan, 50, has never been a judge — she would be the first Supreme Court justice without bench experience since 1974. It’s a biography the White House touts as refreshing, but also has the convenience of lacking a paper trail of opinions that could embarrass a nominee in Senate hearings.

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President Barack Obama meets with Solicitor General Elena Kagan in the Oval Office last month. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“When someone’s a solicitor general, it is really difficult to know what is their own position and what is the position of the state they are charged to represent,” Saperstein said.

A similar murkiness haunts how Kagan handles her Jewishness — she has alluded to it, but has not explicitly stated it since her nomination.

Her interlocutors in the Jewish community say Kagan is Jewish-savvy, but they are hard pressed to come up with her own beliefs.

The White House strategy going into Senate hearings appears to be blame whatever controversy trails her on her employer, on her client — on anyone but Kagan herself.

The first such controversy to emerge since Obama announced the nomination Monday was Kagan’s defense, as dean of Harvard University’s Law School, of the campus practice of banning military recruitment through the main career office (veterans were allowed to recruit independently) because of the military’s discriminatory hiring policies on gays.

Kagan inherited the policy when she became dean in 2003, but she was not shy about agreeing with it. When the Bush administration in 2004 threatened to withdraw funding, she rescinded the ban, but wrote to the student body, according to the authoritative SCOTUS Blog, of “how much I regret making this exception to our anti-discrimination policy. I believe the military’s discriminatory employment policy is deeply wrong — both unwise and unjust. And this wrong tears at the fabric of our own community by denying an opportunity to some of our students that other of our students have.”

Such stirring defenses are absent from White House materials that have emerged on the matter. Instead, the Obama administration is distributing an opinion piece that appeared Tuesday in the conservative Wall Street Journal by her predecessor at Harvard Law, Robert Clark.

“As dean, Ms. Kagan basically followed a strategy toward military recruiting that was already in place,” Clark wrote, not mentioning her stated ideological investment in the matter.

Another debate pertains more closely to an issue that divides the Jewish community: federal funding for faith-based initiatives.

Kagan clerked for Thurgood Marshall in the late 1980s, and in a memorandum to the Supreme Court justice, she said there was no place for such funding.

In her Senate hearings last year for the solicitor general post, Kagan outright repudiated the position she had forcefully advanced in 1987.

It was “the dumbest thing I ever read,” she said. “I was a 27-year-old pipsqueak and I was working for an 80-year-old giant in the law and a person who — let us be frank — had very strong jurisprudential and legal views.”

Her defense was convenient — Marshall, of course, is long dead and unable to defend himself — and troubling to Saperstein, whose group joins the majority of Jewish organizations in opposing such funding.

“People aren’t quite sure what to make of that,” he said.

The Orthodox Union’s Washington director, Nathan Diament, on the other hand, knows just what to make of it — hay.

“As strong proponents of the ‘faith-based initiative,’ and appropriate government support for the work of religious organizations, we at the Orthodox Union find Ms. Kagan’s review and revision of her views encouraging,” he wrote on his blog Tuesday.

Saperstein noted that the Religious Action Center — along with other Jewish civil liberties groups, like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee — is preparing questions for Kagan to be submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee. RAC is soliciting questions from the public as well at a Website, AskElenaKagan.com.

These groups have welcomed the nomination; the National Council of Jewish Women has endorsed it. NCJW President Nancy Ratzan cited Kagan’s affirmation during her solicitor general confirmation hearings of Roe v. Wade as established law protecting a woman’s right to an abortion, and her defense of federal campaign funding restrictions as solicitor general before the Supreme Court — a case the government lost.

“She gave us clarity as a champion for civil rights,” Ratzan said of Kagan. “We think she’s going to be a stellar justice.”

Other groups say that whatever she argued as solicitor general — or whatever she said in seeking the job representing the U.S. government before the high court — might be seen more as reflecting the will of her boss, Obama, and is not necessarily a sign of how she would function as one of the nine most unfettered deciders in the land.

“There’s a lot we have to learn,” said Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of national and legislative affairs, even after 15 years of interacting with Kagan dating to her days as a Clinton White House counsel on domestic policy.

Foltin and others who have dealt with Kagan say she is affable and easy to get along with, simultaneously self-deprecating and brimming with confidence. She accepts with equanimity the nickname “Shorty” that Marshall conferred upon her, and charmed her Senate interlocutors at her solicitor general confirmation hearings when she said that her strengths include “the communications skills that have made me — I’m just going to say it — a famously excellent teacher.”

In addition to his interactions with Kagan during her Clinton years, Foltin — a Harvard Law alumnus — was impressed as well by her ability as dean of the school to bring conservatives and liberals together.

“This is an incredibly smart attorney who is able to reach out to people, take in diverse perspectives, and bring people together,” he said.

Obama cited Kagan’s outreach in announcing her nomination.

“At a time when many believed that the Harvard faculty had gotten a little one-sided in its viewpoint, she sought to recruit prominent conservative scholars and spur a healthy debate on campus,” he said.

Saperstein, who also recalls Kagan from her Clinton White House days, says she brings the same deep understanding of all sides of a debate to the Jewish community.

“She was quite aware of where there were differences — aid to education, government funding of religious institutions,” he said.

Kagan, whose nomination is believed to be secure — Republicans have said they are not likely to filibuster over it — would bring the number of Jews and women on the highest bench in the United States to three. That’s unprecedented in both cases. She would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer as Jewish justices. Sonia Sotomayor, like Kagan a native New Yorker, is the third female justice.

Stephen Pease, whose book “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement” chronicles disproportionate Jewish representation in the law, in academe, and in the arts, said a third Jewish justice was not remarkable. Kagan would be seen as getting the job on her merits: clerking to two famous judges, teaching at the University of Chicago, advising the Clinton White House, heading Harvard Law, and then as the administration’s second most important lawyer, all by the age of 50.

“She’s done some pretty incredible stuff fairly quickly in her career,” Pease said.

Despite Kagan’s familiarity with the Jewish community, there are few clues as to her Jewish preferences. Her late father was on the board of West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist shul in Manhattan, where she grew up on the Upper West Side. She had a bat mitzvah at the synagogue and, according to a New York Times profile, argued with the rabbi — over what it’s not clear.

Like Obama, she is close to Abner Mikva, a former federal judge and a law professor at the University of Chicago. It’s not clear, however, whether she shared Mikva’s deep involvement in the Jewish community. During her years as a lecturer at the University of Chicago, from 1991 to 1995, she was not involved with the local federation.

The White House did not shy away from Kagan’s Jewishness in making the announcement, nor did it make her faith explicit. Invitees to the announcement included the usual array of representatives from Washington offices of national Jewish groups: the AJC, ADL, NCJW, and RAC, along with the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“Elena is the granddaughter of immigrants whose mother was, for 20 years, a beloved public schoolteacher — as are her two brothers, who are here today,” Obama said.

Kagan added that “My parents’ lives and their memory remind me every day of the impact public service can have, and I pray every day that I live up to the example they set.”

JTA

 
 

In response to vague talks, Jewish groups deliver vague message

WASHINGTON – Two weeks before their launch, the promised renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks has already engendered a first: a joint statement of welcome by mainstream U.S. Jewish and Palestinian groups.

“We congratulate the Obama administration on succeeding in getting direct negotiations back on track,” said a statement issued jointly last Friday by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Task Force on Palestine. “Both parties must now show courage, flexibility, and persistence in order to move towards a negotiated end of conflict agreement.”

Other than its joint letterhead, the document was mostly unremarkable — as were many of the reactions to the announcement — in part, because Jewish leaders were endeavoring to make sense of the vague outline of the proposed talks. The terms of the talks, set to begin Sept. 2, have yet to be determined, including whether and how the sides will discuss final status issues, such as borders, Jerusalem, and refugees.

In an off-the-record conference call with top White House staff just before the Sabbath last Friday, Jewish leaders pressed for details: Is there a deadline? Will there be preconditions? In response, according to people on the call, they got little more than the vague back-and-forth that had characterized the announcement of the talks earlier in the day by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

How often would the lead parties to the talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meet, one participant asked — and how often would the teams meet?

“Periodically,” Dennis Ross, Obama’s top Iran policy official said, referring to the leaders. “Regularly,” he said of the negotiating teams.

Dan Shapiro, the top National Security Council staffer handling Israel and its neighbors, broke in to add that the talks would be “intensive.”

What about the yearlong time frame announced by Clinton and the top Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, another Jewish leader asked. Was that a deadline? A goal?

“Feasible,” said David Hale, Mitchell’s deputy. A year was the “objective.”

What about the U.S. role?

“Very active,” said Hale. But then: “We will need to play a role, but they still need direct talks.”

Much was made by the administration officials of the dinner that is to take place Sept. 1, bringing together President Obama, Netanyahu, Abbas, and the Jordanian and Egyptian leaders. “The dinner will help to restore trust,” Ross said.

Administration officials have suggested that the outlines will be clearer after Netanyahu, Abbas, and Clinton meet on Sept. 2.

P. J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, told reporters Monday that extending Israel’s partial moratorium on settlement building would be on the agenda that day. Abbas has threatened to quit the talks without such an extension.

“The issue of settlements, the issue of the moratorium, will be — has been — a topic of discussion and will be a topic of discussion when the leaders meet with Secretary Clinton on Sept. 2,” he said.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who has been closely tracking the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process, said he is confident that with months of indirect talks behind them, the leaders would be able to come up with a coherent outline for the direct negotiations.

“If there isn’t total clarity about the ground rules yet, there surely will be before Sept. 2,” Saperstein said. “They bring months and months of talks behind the scenes that will make a major contribution.”

Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, wondered nonetheless if the sides were prepared for success. If the talks work out, he said, Netanyahu and Abbas would have to pitch major compromises to skeptical constituencies — Netanyahu to the hard-liners who support him in government, and Abbas to a Palestinian electorate he hopes to wean away from Hamas, the terrorist group that continues to seek his ouster.

“You sometimes get what you wish for,” Reich said, referring to Netanyahu’s vocal insistence for months on direct talks. “But then you’ve got to put up or face the consequences.”

Given the vagaries surrounding the proposed talks, it was no surprise that the response from organizations was as noncommittal as the Obama administration’s announcement, focusing principally on the benefits of face-time.

“Sitting together, face-to-face, leader-to-leader, in direct negotiations is the only path to achieving the ultimate goal of peace, reconciliation, and the end of all claims,” AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, noted in a statement.

That message was echoed by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations: “We welcome the beginning of direct, face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that will address the complicated and difficult issues in the hope of bringing about an end to the long-standing conflict.”

There were subtle indications among the statements of how groups might act should the talks take off — or should they break down. AIPAC made clear whom it would blame if such a breakdown occurs: “For talks to succeed, the P.A. must match Israel’s commitment to conducting peace talks without preconditions or excuses, abandon its longstanding attempts to avoid making difficult choices at the negotiating table, and cease incitement against Israel at home and abroad.”

The joint statement by the American Task Force on Palestine and the consensus-driven Jewish Council for Public Affairs was more careful to balance responsibility between both sides. “Both sides must take concrete steps in the short term to instill greater mutual confidence in this process and to demonstrate resolve to stay at the negotiating table as long as it takes to achieve an agreement,” the statement said.

On background, Jewish organizational leaders said that the talks — at their launch, at least — were so vaguely defined that top pro-Israel officials would not even consider cutting short their pre-Labor Day vacations in order to meet with Netanyahu when his team arrives on Sept. 1.

JTA

 
 

U.S. rabbis offer rare rebuke of Israeli edict

An edict signed by dozens of Israeli rabbis barring the sale or rental of homes to non-Jews in Israel has led to a rare consensus among American rabbis, who have issued a nearly unanimous condemnation of the ban.

Statements by the American Modern Orthodox and Conservative rabbinic associations, and by the spokesman for an American haredi Orthodox umbrella group, all denounce the Israeli rabbis’ directive. So does an online petition signed by more than 900 rabbis, most of them affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations.

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Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, says that the Israeli rabbis’ statement “couldn’t be left on the record without a response.”

Controversial proclamations by Israeli rabbis are not unheard of, but this sort of broad American rabbinic response is rare. Now it appears that the collective response has reached a tipping point — so many American rabbis have spoken against the edict that others may feel compelled to concur.

“The halachic issues here are complex,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largely Modern Orthodox rabbinic group. “But a blanket statement that singles out a certain population and says ‘don’t rent to them; don’t sell to them’ in such a blanket fashion is something that struck a very raw nerve.”

The Israeli letter was drafted in support of an effort by the chief rabbi of Safed to bar home rentals to Arabs. Tensions have run high in recent months between haredi Orthodox and Arab students in that northern Israeli city.

Exactly how many rabbis signed the edict is unclear. Some right-wing Israeli news outlets reported that the letter had 300 signatories, while other news organizations pegged the number at fewer than 100.

Regardless, the edict drew attention in the Israeli and international media because dozens of those who signed it were municipal rabbis employed by the government.

Israel’s leading Lithuanian haredi leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, refused to sign the letter, as did, according to one report, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas Party. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the letter.

In America, rabbinic opposition to the letter came quickly. An online petition for rabbis posted by the New Israel Fund on Dec. 10 had received 914 signatures by Dec. 15.

“Statements like these do great damage to our efforts to encourage people to love and support Israel,” the NIF statement read. “They communicate to our congregants that Israel does not share their values, and they promote feelings of alienation and distancing.”

Signatories of the NIF petition included Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Most signatories appeared to be members of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, with a few notable exceptions including prominent New York, liberal-leaning Orthodox Rabbis Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school and Marc Angel of Cong. Shearith Israel.

Some Orthodox rabbis said the sponsorship of the petition by the NIF, which is identified with left-wing causes, may have discouraged the participation of rabbis who otherwise might have agreed with the petition’s sentiment.

The RCA’s statement, released Dec. 14, criticized the Israeli rabbis’ letter in somewhat gentler terms.

“We are surely sympathetic to the impulse to protect a Jewish community in the face of intermarriage, communal conflict, or unsafe neighborhoods,” the statement read. “It is our view that in spite of the concerns of the authors of the statement, it is wrong and unacceptable to advocate blanket exclusionary policies directed against minorities of other faiths or ethnic groups.”

Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, said the RCA felt compelled to speak because, unlike an off-the-cuff comment by Yosef, who is known for making provocative remarks, the Israeli rabbis’ edict was a formal statement of Jewish law.

“That is what drew our attention — that once such a formal statement is issued, we felt that it couldn’t be left on the record without a response,” he said.

“It’s always easy to criticize those with whom you fundamentally disagree,” he told The Jewish Standard. “It takes greater courage … to publicly differ when someone from your own camp steps over the line. The rabbis who signed the document are zionist Orthodox rabbis with whom the members of the Rabbinical Council of America share great affinity on so many issues. Precisely because of that affinity, I am proud that the Rabbinical Council of America was willing to speak up on this matter.”

The RCA’s statement came hours after the posting of a translated version of a letter opposing the edict written by prominent centrist Orthodox Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, an American living in Israel, to a widely read Orthodox blog. Some observers saw the RCA’s response as a gambit to protect the group from recriminations for not speaking out on the issue.

“They came up with it because they had no choice, because everyone else was already speaking out and they felt, ‘We better say something so people don’t think we’re in favor of this,’” said Angel, a former president of the RCA and a frequent critic of the group.

“They’re facing the reality, political realities, that this is not an issue that you want to have your name stamped on,” Mendy Ganchrow, former president of the Orthodox Union and a retired executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, said of the RCA.

In an e-mail, Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the American haredi Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, said his organization concurred with Elyashiv and Yosef.

“The rabbis who signed the letter [banning the rentals] were simply misguided,” Shafran wrote.

Though the mainstream American rabbinical associations appear to oppose the Israeli rabbis’ letter, at least one prominent Orthodox rabbi was sympathetic.

“I think it’s part of a concern — and I believe a rightful one — that there’s a war going on, and we’re trying our best to maintain normalcy,” said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a rosh yeshiva, or dean, of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University and a major rabbinic arbiter.

The Forward

The Jewish Standard contributed to this report. For an opinion piece by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, chair of the Depts. of Bible and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and religious leader of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, go to The Rental Controversy and Halakhic Decision-Making.

 
 

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

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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.

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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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