A dream too far: Lessons from Selma


There is something tragic about the civils rights movement—the very fact that it was needed in the first place. Why did it have to be such a big deal to give Blacks the right to vote? By today’s standards, it seems downright absurd to deny Blacks, or anyone else for that matter, this fundamental right.

It was that simple notion of voting that lingered anxiously in my mind this past Shabbat as I walked for hours through the streets of Selma, Alabama. I was on a Martin Luther King weekend solidarity mission organized by my friend Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who runs the modern Orthodox Ohev Shalom synagogue in Washington, D.C. A few months ago, at his Shabbat table, Herzfeld invited me join his community for the three-day journey to honor the civil rights movement. Having a teenage daughter who loves any idea that includes the words “social” and “justice,” I signed up for the adventure.

Among the many things we did—including praying in a 117-year-old synagogue in Selma, visiting the home where Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spent the night before marching with King, and crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge that kicked off that famous five-day march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965—I think what stuck with me the most was that long afternoon walking with my daughter through the decaying town of Selma.

Two ideas clashed during our walk—hope versus despair. In a museum, I would see words of hope from heroic quotes such as this one, from President Lyndon Johnson in 1965:

“The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”

This is the part of Selma that reminds you of how oppressive things used to be during the days of segregation, when Blacks could not even pull up at an ice cream counter or register to vote.

But as we walked through streets with abandoned buildings and broken down homes, with one storefront after another peddling “pay day loans” and a boarded-up building with an old “Rite-Aid” sign, I couldn’t help thinking about the limits of Johnson’s “most powerful instrument ever devised by man.”

What good is the powerful freedom to vote if you’re living in a place that feels like an enormous prison with a Walmart?

What good is the right to pick your political leaders if those leaders keep betraying you?

President Johnson saw this coming in his 1965 speech, which is why he challenged Black leadership to move beyond the success of the civil rights movement:

“This act is not only a victory for Negro leadership. This act is a great challenge to that leadership. It is a challenge that cannot be met simply by protest and demonstrations.”

When you see the sad state of Selma today, it’s hard not to conclude that this town of 20,000 mostly Black residents is in need of strong leadership– at the local, state and federal levels.

One of the few remaining Jews in Selma shared some candid thoughts with me about how Selma is often used by political leaders at all levels for “photo-opportunities”— to burnish their street cred for fighting for Black rights.

Fighting for “rights,” though, doesn’t seem to be the dream of the day in Selma. They have every right to walk into a movie theater, but the theater burned down years ago and was never replaced. They have every right to vote for the candidate of their choice, but their lives are as miserable as ever.

No, the dream I saw as I walked through Selma on Shabbat was the dream to make a decent living and put those “pay-day loans” hustlers out of business. 

We saw a ray of hope at our Shabbat dinner Friday night. His name is Darrio Melton, the young new Black mayor of Selma. If he takes his job as seriously as he takes his city, there is hope. “Selma is the birthplace of American democracy,” he told us, meaning that until Blacks got their civil rights, America could not claim to be a real democracy. 

In speaking with us, both publicly and in private, it was clear that Melton would love nothing more than to attract more visitors to his little town. Maybe that’s why his key campaign promise was to address the city’s current crime problem. He understands that no city can succeed and attract jobs and businesses until it makes it safe to do so. 

Melton has benefitted from the Black right to vote. If he fails to deliver on his promises, he will diminish the power of this basic right. But if he does deliver, he will honor the “most powerful instrument ever devised by man” and the many who were forced to fight for something they should never have had to fight for.

ADL calls on Trump Jr. to retract ‘gas chamber’ comment


The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is calling on Donald J. Trump, Jr., the oldest son of the Republican presidential nominee, to retract an inappropriate Nazi reference he made in an ” target=”_blank”>Twitter, “An unsurprising Nazi reference from the ‘alt-right’ movement’s presidential campaign. This is the real Trump.” Hillary Clinton retweeted it on her official account.

“>tweets, the ADL called on the Trump Jr. to  retract his comments, which caused an internet firestorm. “We hope you understand the sensitivity and hurt of making Holocaust jokes. We hope you retract,” the ADL said in a tweet directed as Trump Jr. “Trivialization of the Holocaust and gas chambers is NEVER okay.”

“Your comment about gas chambers is out of line. Trivialization of the Holocaust is never acceptable,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt chimed in.

Trump Jr. has been accused in the past for tweeting alt-right and anti-Semitic memes. gone down similar paths before. Last week, he “>appeared along with a white supremacist while giving an interview on a conservative radio show.

What Martin Luther King Jr. would teach Black Lives Matter about Israel


American Jews, and not just those who call themselves “progressives,” have identified with, and participated actively in, the movement for racial equality in the US since the founding of the NAACP in 1909 as well as the post-WWII civil rights crusade that transformed America.

This is why so many of us have been shocked by the recent manifesto from the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) moving anti-Israel bigotry from the fringe to the center of its movement. The BLM Platform declares that Israel is an “apartheid state” that “practices systematic discrimination,” including “genocide . . . against the Palestinian people.” It supports the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israel, and declares that “via U.S. support of Israel in the global war against terror, America is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinians.”

There have been various reports about the origins and inspiration of the BLM’s new Anti-Israel platform that libels democratic Israel—which gives its Arab citizens full civil rights—by equating it with Apartheid South Africa.

Now, an organization has stepped forward to claim partial pride of authorship. The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) that describes itself as “the largest coalition in Palestinian civil society that leads the global [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] BDS movement… endorsed the inspiring and liberating policy platform issued last week by the Movement for Black Lives.”

The BNC claims that BLM’s anti-Israel platform grew out of 2015 meetings with “leaders from Black Lives Matter, the Dream Defenders and other organizations within the Movement for Black Lives. . . . The 2015 Black for Palestine statement shed a brilliant light on the organic relationship between the US’s domestic racial oppression and its racialized imperial oppression against people of color worldwide while sending a powerful message to all Palestinians about this movement’s commitment to solidarity with Palestinians and all oppressed people around the world.”

The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) cheers on the BLM Movement for having “shaken the system of racism and white supremacy that allows police to gun down black people with impunity, to cage black people in obscene numbers, and to systematically impoverish and degrade the black community as a whole.”

The Palestinian BDS National Committee singles out for special condemnation “anti-Palestinian groups in the U.S.”—that is, Jewish groups—“that work to protect Israel’s regime of colonial oppression by ensuring the unconditional flow of billions in US taxpayers money. . .  The latter feel that the growing joint struggle between Blacks and Palestinians, which is evolving through sustained and long-term intersectional grassroots efforts among our two communities and supported by progressive Jewish communities, may threaten US support for Israeli apartheid.”

Finally, the Palestinian BDS National Committee states that “the thinly-veiled racism”—that is, Jewish racism— “of the ‘white moderate’” is reminiscent of words spoken by Malcolm X.

Of course, these fanatics don’t remember that Malcolm, before his tragic assassination by hit men associated with Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic Nation of Islam (NOI), had second thoughts about his own earlier career with the NOI inflaming white-black relations in America. Nor do they remember that paragon of the civil rights movement and of African American-Jewish cooperation, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Just ten days before his assassination in Memphis in April 1968, King said: “I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can almost be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.”

Pro- Palestinian activists opportunistically showed up in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2015 carrying signs blaming Israel for anti-black police violence after riots erupted following the fatal shooting an 18-year-old African American man by a white police officer who was later exonerated.

Now, New York University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) alleges that Israel has African American blood on its hands. Under the hashtag— “#No Justice No Peace #From Gaza to Baton Rouge”—they accused Israel of responsibility for the shooting death in front of a convenience store by the police in Louisiana of an African American man Alton Sterling. An SJP post suggests that Sterling is the American equivalent of Ali Dawabsheh, a Palestinian baby killed in the West Bank.

Such false equivalencies libeling democratic Israel’s self-defense against Palestinian terrorism with the tragic consequences when African American men die, sometimes wrongly, at the hands of police are an insult to MLK’s memory. So too is the Black Lives Matter Movement’s new canard that Israel is guilty of “genocide” or “apartheid.”

African Americans and Jews need a new dialogue to build a revitalized civil rights alliance around issues like rectified police-community relations. Unfortunately, the Black Lives Matter Movement’s false screeds against Israel—encouraged and partly inspired by pro-Hamas fanatics—demonize American Jewry― including Progressive Jews who support Israel, and threaten future African American-Jewish cooperation.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean and co-founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center

White supremacist says he will air interview with Donald Trump Jr.


A white supremacist who was given press credentials for a Donald Trump rally in Tennessee said he interviewed the presidential candidate’s son for his radio talk show.

James Edwards, who hosts “Political Cesspool,” a Memphis-based syndicated radio show, on Saturday joined the media pool at the Memphis-area airport where Trump, the GOP front-runner, held his rally. Edwards said he secured a 20-minute interview with Donald Trump Jr.

“As the media watches its grip slipping away, they have become desperate to paint Trump as a ‘racist,’” Edwards wrote Tuesday on his website. “It’s the same old, worn out card they always play.”

The campaign in a response said it did not vet every application for coverage and that the younger Trump, to his knowledge, did not give Edwards an interview. Trump’s family is heavily involved in his campaign.

“The campaign provided media credentials to everyone that requested access to the event on Saturday in Memphis,” spokeswoman Hope Hicks said in an email to JTA.

“There were close to 200 reporters in attendance and we do not personally vet each individual,” she said. “The campaign had no knowledge of his personal views and strongly condemns them. Donald Trump Jr. was not in attendance, and although he served as a surrogate for his father on several radio programs over the past week, to his knowledge and that of the campaign, did not participate in an interview with this individual.”

Over the weekend, Trump came under fire for not unequivocally disavowing David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan who had endorsed Trump’s candidacy. Trump has since disavowed him.

Duke and other white supremacists and anti-Semites have appeared on the Edwards program over the years. Edwards regularly posts on his website the musings of Brother Nathanael Kapner, a Jewish convert to Eastern Orthodoxy who peddles conspiracies of Jewish control of markets, media and government.

On Wednesday, Edwards said he was not affiliated with the Trump campaign.

“In no way should anyone interpret our press credentialing and subsequent interview with Donald Trump, Jr. as any kind of endorsement by the Trump campaign,” he said on his website.

The Anti-Defamation League has said that Edwards gets mainstream media attention “in spite of his racist ideology and open affiliations with extremists.” The Southern Poverty Law Center lists Edwards as an extremist.

Tennessee was one of 11 states in contention on Super Tuesday. Trump won the state and six others.

Rap star B.o.B.’s latest track promotes Holocaust denier


The Grammy-nominated rap star B.o.B. in his new song offers support for Holocaust denier David Irving, along with reiterating a claim made on Twitter that the earth is flat.

The track, released Monday in response to a Twitter argument with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about the shape of the earth, focuses primarily on Simmons’ conviction that the earth is not round.

In the second verse of his stream-of-consciousness and wide-ranging lyrics, B.o.B., whose real name is Bobby Ray Simmons Jr., urges listeners to “Do your research on David Irving.”

“Stalin was way worse than Hitler,” the song continues. “That’s why the POTUS gotta wear a kippah,” presumably referring to President Barack Obama wearing the traditional Jewish head covering.

The rapper has released top-selling singles in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Irving, a notorious British Holocaust denier, has spoken at numerous neo-Nazi rallies and famously (and unsuccessfully) sued Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel.

movie about the trial, which Lipstadt published a book about, is in production, with Academy Award-winner Rachel Weisz playing the author.

Moving and shaking: Celebrating MLK Jr., Avraham Fried concert at the Saban Theatre and more


The Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH) sanctuary was overflowing, every one of the 1,000 seats downstairs and in the balcony filled on Jan. 18 with congregants, friends and guests from Los Angeles churches and other community groups. They came to celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a multicultural — mostly musical — program marking the 50 years that have passed since the civil rights leader spoke from the TIOH bimah at Friday night services on Feb. 26, 1965.

In his speech, excerpts of which were played during Sunday evening’s program, King spoke of racism, militarism and poverty as the defining problems of the time. 

In the evening’s keynote address, PBS talk-show host and author Tavis Smiley (“Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year”) raised those same problems as being just as relevant today. “Sound familiar?” he said, as he quoted excerpts from King’s 1965 sermon.

Keynote speaker Tavis Smiley apeared at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Photo by Ryan Torok

With a warning that he might offend some in attendance, Smiley also speculated on how King might have reacted to the cartoons in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which sparked a terrorist attack, as well as to the Sony Pictures film “The Interview,” which depicts the assassination of North Korean President Kim Jong-un. While clearly expressing his own disapproval of the terrorists in France and without condoning the leadership of the North Korean president, Smiley advocated for “civility” instead of criticizing another’s religion in cartoons and comic satires targeting the death of another country’s leader. 

“There can be no social mobility without social civility, and, frankly, as much as I treasure my free-speech rights, we can do better,” Smiley challenged the audience.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also spoke, vowing to tackle some of the serious challenges facing society that King focused on decades ago.

“Let us raise the minimum wage, as Dr. King called upon us to do. … Let us end homelessness on the streets of Los Angeles … for our veterans and, soon after, for all,” Garcetti said.

The evening also featured video reflections on their callings by area Muslim and Christian faith leaders, followed by brief appearances by each of them — including Greg Bellamy of One Church International, the Rev. Sam Koh of Hillside Church, the Rev. Ian Davies of St. Thomas the Apostle Hollywood and Imam Asim Buyuksoy of the Islamic Center of Southern California — as well as song and dance performances from church and community groups. Performers included the Life Choir (appearing with its founder H.B. Barnum) and the Leimert Park Community Program’s Harmony Project Youth Choir led by its music director, Kenneth Anderson. The latter performed Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which garnered the first standing ovation of several throughout the night. The 1964 song was an anthem for the civil-rights movement.

As a finale, a gospel-tinged performance, complete with hand clapping, of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” had approximately 75 singers onstage at once, including members of the TIOH choir, the Life Choir and the Harmony Project. The song closed out the concert portion of the evening, which began at 7:15 p.m. and ended around 9 p.m.

TIOH Chazzan Danny Maseng served as the night’s musical director, performing Elton John’s “Border Song” with a soulful singer identified only as MAJOR, of One Church Inernational. Demonstrating the range of musical styles, Shelly Fox, a member of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and a frequent TIOH soloist, performed Mozart’s “Great Mass in C Minor” in a duet with Andrea Fuentes. Two groups of colorfully costumed young Korean-American dancers, one of near-toddlers, from the Jung Im Lee Korean Dance Academy, also performed, including a traditional fan dance.

The mastermind and producer of the event was composer and TIOH board of trustees vice president Michael Skloff (best known for composing the theme song from TV’s “Friends”). To honor Skloff’s efforts, TIOH Rabbi John Rosove presented the impresario with a framed and autographed photograph of King shaking hands with the late Rabbi Max Nussbaum, who was the congregation’s spiritual leader when King visited the synagogue a half century ago. Marta Kauffman, Skloff’s wife, an accomplished TV showrunner (“Friends”), staged the fast-paced and multifaceted event. Monica and Phil Rosenthal sponsored the evening.

Attendees included Smiley’s mother, Joyce Smiley; West Hollywood Mayor John D’Amico; and David Levinson of Big Sunday, a co-sponsor of the event and which held a clothing drive the next day at its Melrose Boulevard headquarters in honor of the MLK holiday.

Alicia Bleier, 54, a TIOH member, said she had enjoyed the evening. Speaking to the Journal during a dessert reception that followed the concert, she described King as “the most inspirational leader in the past 50 years. I pray and hope for a new Black leader who is as insightful and pragmatic as he was. … I can only hope we have another Martin Luther King.”


Martin Luther King Jr. Day-inspired Shabbat services took place across Los Angeles last weekend. 

On Jan. 16, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple and singer/songwriter/community leader Craig Taubman (Pico Union Project) led an interfaith service at Sinai in Westwood. Guests included the Revs. Chip Murray, Mark Whitlock and Najuma Pollard, all of  USC’s Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement. The evening included a performance by H.B. Barnum’s Life Choir.

Nearby at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills that same evening, Temple of the Arts’ Rabbi David Baron officiated a service and performance that honored the Rev. Ronald Myers, a civil-rights activist and founder of the modern movement promoting the holiday of Juneteenth. The evening drew approximately 500 attendees. 

Speakers and performers included Consul General of France in Los Angeles Axel Cruau, and jazz harpist and pianist Corky Hale. Actor Gabriel Macht (“Suits”) appeared, and television editor Ari Macht served as keynote speaker. Stephen Macht, an actor/director and the father of Gabriel and Ari, produced the event.

Events took place at Temple Aliyah and Beth Shir Shalom, as well. 

At Temple Aliyah, a Conservative synagogue in Woodland Hills, congregants came together on Friday with St. Bernardine of Siena Catholic Church, the Mohammedi Center and the Islamic Society of West Valley in “prayer, music and mutual respect” in celebration of King, a press release said.

Titled “Voices of Freedom: The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King,” the event featured Life Choir; gospel artist DeBorah Sharpe-Taylor, singer John Bilezikjian, Arabic singer and actor Ben Youcef, the Voices of Peace Choir, the  Kolot Tikvah (Voices of Hope) choir and others. 

Meanwhile, Beth Shir Shalom, which is based in Santa Monica and describes itself as a “progressive, Reform synagogue,” paired with the Watts congregation Macedonia Baptist Church for the weekend. Approximately 175 individuals turned out for Friday night services, which celebrated King, at Beth Shir Shalom. On Sunday, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom served as a guest preacher at Macedonia. 

“It’s an amazing, joyous spiritual experience for a rabbi to address this combined congregation of my people along with people from Macedonia,” he said in a phone interview about the Sunday event, which also featured Macedonia’s the Rev. Everett Bell. “It’s just a privilege and an honor, and we are so committed to doing more with each other than a once-a-year celebration.” 

Nearly 1,800 people packed the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on Jan. 11 to see Avraham Fried in concert during a musical extravaganza presented by the Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation and the synagogue’s  Cantor Arik Wollheim. Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau also took to the stage and delivered an impassioned address, according to a press release.

Avraham Fried (right) sings during a concert at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. Photo by Joe Shalmoni © 2015. All rights reserved

Born and raised in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Fried is a Jewish singer, songwriter and musician whose musical style integrates variations of rock, pop and jazz, and features Jewish lyrics and themes. His hits include works sung in English, Hebrew and Yiddish. He has performed worldwide to large audiences, including a 2007 show in Jerusalem with Charedi superstar Yaakov Shwekey commemorating the 40th anniversary of the reunification of the city.

The event attracted large groups from Beth Jacob, Chabad yeshiva schools, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, Maimonides Academy, Beverly Hills High School, and YULA boys and girls high schools, as well as casual Jewish music fans, the press release stated.

Sunday night’s concert was a festive occasion, as Fried and Wollheim involved the audience from the outset, imploring them to participate by singing along, dancing and forming conga lines in the aisles. Wollheim asked why a city like Los Angeles, with such a vibrant Jewish community, isn’t host to more events like this.

A conga line formed during the Fried concert at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. Photo by Joe Shalmoni (C) 2015. All rights reserved

“What is it about Jewish-American culture that prevents this from happening, and why does Jewish music tend to be limited to weddings in this city?” the Israeli-born cantor asked, according to the press release. “Why are we not a major consumer of Jewish music?” 

Wollheim indicated that he hopes to change this trend in Los Angeles and is already mapping out ideas for a large-scale Jewish music event in 2016.

— Oren Peleg, Contributing Writer


Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles has appointed Erica Rothblum as its new head of school.

From left: Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Sheryl Goldman (executive director of Temple Beth Am), Erica Rothblum, Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny, Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman (director of Youth, Learning & Engagement) and Rabbi Ari Lucas. Photo by Lee Salem

“I am excited to help Pressman continue to push forward and continue to grow its excellent programs and reputation in the community while maintaining its warm, inclusive community,” Rothblum, who started July 1, told the Journal.  

Pressman Academy houses an early education center, the temple’s religious school and a Solomon Schechter Day School. Prior to Rothblum’s arrival, Rabbi Mitchel Malkus was head of school for 12 years. He left in 2013 to work at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md.; Temple Beth Am Rabbi Emeritus Joel Rembaum served as the interim head of school.

Rothblum grew up in suburban Boston, received an Ed.D. in educational leadership from UCLA and began her teaching career in Compton as part of the Teach for America program. Before taking the position at Pressman, she was head of school at Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village.  

Rothblum said she was drawn to Pressman because of its national reputation for strong academics, particularly Judaic studies, and its local reputation for a strong community and “menschlikayt” behavior. She noted that there are many challenges the academy and Jewish day schools in general face. 

“We face what many Day Schools are facing. The rising costs of tuition, along with the expensive nature of being a Jew in Los Angeles, create a strain for our families. We need to continue finding ways to offer an excellent program to every Jewish child who wants a Jewish education,” Rothblum said.

— Rebecca Weiner, Contributing Writer


The Levantine Cultural Center’s 13th anniversary gala on Dec. 13 raised $50,000 for the nonprofit, which hopes to open a second, $1 million facility in either North Hollywood or Westwood by June 2015. 

Executive director Jordan Elgrably said the organization has come a long way since its inception but that the work it does is as necessary as ever. Located on West Pico Boulevard, the center presents arts and education programs on the Middle East and North Africa, according to its mission statement.

Levantine Cultural Center executive director Jordan Elgrably appears at the organization's 13th anniversary gala. Photo by Sheana Ochoa

“The need for this, I guess for better or worse, hasn’t diminished, it has only increased,” Elgrably said in a phone interview. “If you look at the events of this past summer — with the Gaza conflicts, the events in Ferguson [Mo.] — and the events in Paris last week, intolerance and racism and misunderstanding about each other is manifest, and our work — it sounds cliche to say it —  has only just begun. All I have done is scratch the surface of this.”

The gala, which took place at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach, drew approximately 500 attendees and featured a “Sultans of Satire: Middle East Comic Relief” comedy show, with performers Aron Kader, Sammy Obeid, MT Abou-Daoud, Melissa Shoshani, Sherwin Arae and Tehran.

Guests included Bana Hilal and Josh Elbaum, members of the center’s national advisory board; Ani Zonneveld, president and co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values; Bassam Marjiya, an immigration attorney born and raised in Nazareth who has previously appeared at the center; and Nikoo Berenji, who has supported past Levantine events.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com.

The rabbi missing from ‘Selma’


Ava DuVernay's film “Selma” is a remarkable depiction of a key moment in the civil rights movement, highlighting the strategic savvy, relentless courage, and human frailties of Rev. Martin Luther King, his inner circle of advisors, local grassroots activists, and the many other crusaders who traveled to this rural town to draw attention to the need for a voting rights bill in 1965.  Although “Selma” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Film, critics are justifiably outraged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences'  failure to nominate director DuVernay and star David Oyelowo  (who plays King).  

“Selma” has triggered controversy for its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant ally of the civil rights movement.  That debate is over a contentious sin of commissionBut critics could also fault the film for a glaring sin of omission  the absence of identifiable  Jews and Jewish clergy, particularly Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

DuVernay was understandably and justifiably making a movie about a movement led and populated primarily by black people. Indeed, we don't need another film about the civil rights movement — like “Mississippi Burning,” “Ghosts of Mississippi,” and “The Help” — that focuses primarily on white allies and sympathizers.  

The campaign for voting rights in Selma was started by local African American activists and boosted by organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Their work made it possible for King to pick Selma as a launching pad for a renewed drive to push LBJ and Congress to enact a federal law guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote without poll taxes, literacy tests, and other restrictions.   King urged civil rights activists – black and white — from around the country to come to Selma in order to attract the national media to cover the protest.

In addition to King and his wife Coretta, the film portrays many of the movement's key leaders, including John Lewis, James Forman, and Diane Nash of SNCC, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, Andrew Young, and James Orange of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (King’s organization), veteran Selma activist Amelia Boynton, King's sometime rival Malcolm X, and many unsung rank-and-file activists (one of them, Annie Lee Cooper, brilliantly played by Oprah Winfrey).

“Selma” does show that the Selma-to-Montgomery march involved a significant number of white supporters.  The film also reveals that many white clergy, wearing clerical collars and other religious garb, participated in the Selma events.  In one scene, King hugs a Greek Orthodox prelate (surely meant to be Archbishop Iakovos) who made his way to Selma.  Another scene shows a group of white segregationist thugs beating and killing James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston who came to Selma to join the march. 

But missing from the movie is any depiction of even one Jewish rabbi participating in the Selma crusade.  The omission of Heschel is particularly conspicuous because of the well-known iconic photograph of him — with his long white beard and his yarmulke/beret, looking like the stereotype of a Biblical prophet — joining King in the front row of the Selma protest.  Including Heschel would not diminish the film's emphasis on the centrality of African Americans in the civil rights struggle, but it would have lent the film more historical accuracy, not simply about one man but as a representative of the role Jews played in the freedom struggle.

Three Marches

As the film reveals, there were actually three marches that began in Selma and were supposed to end in Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, as part of the civil rights movement's campaign to pressure Johnson and Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.   The first march began on March 7 with 600 marchers.  State troopers and local cops attacked the unarmed marchers with tear gas and billy clubs while the activists were trying to cross Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge.  The march, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” ended on the bridge.  Two days later, the marchers tried again. The presence of national media intimidated the state troopers, who stepped aside the let the marchers pass, but — as depicted in the film — King, after getting down on his knees to pray,  had second thoughts.  He turned around the led the marchers back to a church. He later contacted federal officials, demanding that they protect the protesters along the entire 54-mile march because Alabama Gov. George Wallace refused to do so. 

On March 15, President Johnson delivered his most famous speech before a televised joint session of Congress, where he announced that he would introduce a voting rights bill and uttered the phrase “we shall overcome” to declare his solidarity with the civil rights movement.  King believed that the momentum had shifted and decided to resume the march.   LBJ committed to send in the U.S. Army, the Alabama National Guard (under federal command), federal marshals and the FBI to guarantee the marchers' safety.  The third march began on March 21. They arrived in Montgomery three days later and held a huge rally the following day at the State Capitol building.

Rabbis and the Civil Rights Movement

Among white activists in the civil rights movement, Jews – secular and religious — were disproportionately involved.  But rabbis, mostly from the North and California, were particularly visible because they usually wore yarmulkes at rallies, meetings, and protests. Rabbis were part of the lunch counter sit-ins, the perilous Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington (where Rabbi Uri Miller gave the opening prayer and Rabbi Joachim Prinz  spoke prior to King's “I Have a Dream” oration),  and local efforts to integrate schools and challenge racial discrimination in housing.  In 1964, King asked his friend Rabbi Israel Dresner of Temple Sha'arey Shalom in Springfield, New Jersey to recruit  other rabbis to participate in a protest campaign in St. Augustine, Florida, a hotbed of segregationist resistance.  All 16 rabbis, including Dresner, were arrested for engaging in a nonviolent demonstration at the segregated Monson Motor Lodge.

Only a few Southern rabbis participated in the movement, as documented in Mark Bauman and Berkley Kalin's The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s and Clive Webb's Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights.  Most Southern rabbis were reluctant to be too conspicuous in light of Jews' precarious social position in the South during the 1950s and 1960s.  Only a handful of Southern Jews were hard-line segregationists. Most Southern Jews were moderates on racial issues and quite a few were liberals. Some were openly supportive of civil rights and many were quietly helpful – for example, by making financial contributions to civil rights organizations.

Many Southern Jews feared that visible Jewish activism in the movement would trigger a hostile backlash among anti-Semites, including boycotts of Jewish-owned stores, Jewish lawyers and other professionals, and violence targeted at Jewish homes.  Many Southern synagogues were bombed and burned during the civil rights movement. In October 1958, for example, segregationists bombed Atlanta's Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, whose Reform rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, was an early and outspoken supporter of racial integration and a friend of Dr. King.  This and other violent incidents certainly led many Southern rabbis and congregations to fear it could happen to them if they lent their support to the movement for racial equality.  

Most of the rabbis who came to Selma 50 years ago represented Judaism's Reform wing, the most liberal of the factions within organized Jewry, but a number of rabbis from the more religiously traditional Conservative wing joined them.  In addition to Dresner, the marchers included rabbis Saul Berman (Congregation Beth Israel, Berkeley, CA), William Braude (Temple Beth-El, Providence, R.I.), Maurice Davis (Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation),  Maurice Eisendrath (president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), William Frankel (Beth Hillel Congregation, Wilmette, Illinois), Albert Friedlander (rabbi for Jewish students at Columbia University), Jerome Grollman (United Hebrew Congregation, St. Louis), Joseph Gumbiner (director of UC-Berkeley's Hillel), Wolfe Kelman (the Rabbinical Assembly), Saul Leeman (Cranston Jewish Center, Rhode Island),  Arthur Lelyveld (Fairmount Temple, Cleveland), Allan Levine (Temple Emanuel, Rochester, N.Y.), Gerald Raiskin (Peninsula Temple Sholom, Burlingame, CA), Steven Riskin (Lincoln Square Synagogue, New York),  Nathan Rosen (director of Brown University's Hillel),  Sanford Rosen (Temple Beth El, San Mateo, CA),  Murry Saltzman (Temple Beth-El, Chappaqua, N.Y.), Sidney Shanken (Temple Beth-El, Cranford, N.J.), Matthew Simon (Temple Ramah,  Los Angeles),  Herbert Teitelbaum (Temple Beth Jacob, Redwood City, CA), Andre Ungar (Temple Emanuel, Pascack Valley, N.J.), Joseph Weinberg  (Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco),  and Perry Nussbaum (whose synagogue, Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, MS, was bombed in 1967).

But in the front row of the march, only two persons to the right of King (with Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche between them), was Heschel.  The iconic photo shows the marchers in the front line incongruously wearing flower leis, which a minister from Hawaii had just given them.  

Anyone familiar with the events at Selma is aware of that photo and of Heschel's presence.  All film directors have the artistic freedom to decide how they want to portray historical events,  but Heschel's absence from that scene in the movie could not be an simple oversight.

King – who was close to many Jews, including Jewish clergy — called Heschel  “my rabbi.”   In many ways, Heschel was an unlikely activist. His transformation from Talmudic scholar to civil rights and anti-war protester is a remarkable story on its own.

Heschel: Scholar and Activist

Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland. His parents were Chasidim, members of a spiritually intense Orthodox Jewish sect, and descended from generations of distinguished rabbis. As a teenager, he demonstrated a precocious ability to understand lengthy treatises of Jewish law and to write his own commentaries on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. He also had a personal charisma that others saw as confirmation of his spiritual and leadership qualities.

But Heschel resisted this destiny. On a daily basis, he continued to practice Orthodox rituals, but his intellectual curiosity would not allow him to follow the path chosen for him. He convinced his family to let him attend a secular university and a liberal nontraditional rabbinical college. He first went to a secular high school in Vilnius, Lithuania, then to the University of Berlin, where he received his Ph.D. in 1933 for a dissertation on the Hebrew prophets. The next year, he completed his studies at the rabbinical college. He emerged from this education well versed in Western philosophy, history, and art as well as Jewish subjects. 

The 1935 publication of his revised dissertation made his reputation as a major scholar. The book advanced the then-radical thesis that the Hebrew prophets were serious critics of the social injustices of their eras but that their ideas remained relevant to injustices in contemporary times.

It would have been difficult for Heschel to avoid thinking about social injustice; his academic career began just as the Nazis took power in Germany. He was deported back to Poland in 1938, then fled to England. In 1940 he found haven at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, the seminary that trained Reform Jewish rabbis, as part of an effort to rescue European Jewish scholars from the Nazis. While living in Cincinnati, he tried to rescue his family members, including his mother and three sisters, but without success: they were murdered by the Nazis.

In 1945 Heschel moved to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City, the rabbinical seminary linked to Conservative Judaism, a branch more closely aligned with Heschel's religious views but less comfortable with what would become his progressive political activities. At JTS he published several important books on Jewish theology, including Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (1951),The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951), God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1952), andMan's Quest for God (1954). 

Heschel's knowledge of Christian theology led the Vatican to seek his advice when, in 1960, Pope John XXIII sought to repair relations between Catholics and Jews as part of the Ecumenical Council, the original name of the Second Vatican Council. Over four years, Heschel met with the pope's representatives and with the pope himself. He had a significant influence on what became the landmark 1965 statement “Nostra Aetate” (In our time), a turning point in Christian-Jewish relations. It reversed centuries of standard Christian teachings about Jews, including no longer blaming Jews collectively for the death of Jesus and refraining from calling for Jews to convert to Catholicism.

Heschel and King

In January 1963, as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, the National Conference of Christians and Jews sponsored a conference in Chicago entitled “Religion and Race.”  It was there that Heschel (who was asked to deliver the opening address) first met King (who gave the closing speech). 

Heschel, with a thick Yiddish accent, began his speech by linking biblical history to contemporary struggles:

“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses's words were, 'Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.' While Pharaoh retorted: 'Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.' The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”

Later that year, Heschel was invited to a meeting of religious leaders with President John F. Kennedy. The day before the event, Heschel sent the president a telegram about civil rights, asking him to declare the nation's racial inequality a “state of moral emergency” and to act with “high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

King and Heschel  stayed in close touch, sharing both theological and political ideas. After the first Selma march, “Bloody Sunday,”  Heschel led a delegation of 800 people to FBI headquarters in New York City to protest the agency's failure to protect the demonstrators.

On Friday March 19,  Heschel received a telegram from King inviting him to join the third march from Selma to Montgomery. Heschel flew to Selma from New York on Saturday night and was welcomed as one of the leaders into the front row of marchers, with King, Ralph Bunche, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The photograph of Heschel walking arm in arm with King has become iconic of the coalition of Jews and blacks during the civil rights era. 

Heschel later wrote: 

“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Anti-war Crusader

Heschel was also the most visible traditional Jew in the antiwar movement. Having escaped Nazism, Heschel was acutely aware of the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy. “In regard to the cruelties committed in the name of a free society,” he wrote, “some are guilty, all are responsible.” In announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War, he cited Leviticus: “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.” Opposition to the war, he declared, was a religious obligation, “a supreme commandment.”

He worried that most Americans were indifferent to what he described as the criminal behavior of their elected government. “I have previously thought that we were waging war reluctantly, with sadness at killing so many people,” he wrote about President Lyndon B. Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam. “I realize that we are doing it now with pride in our military efficiency.”

In October 1965 Heschel spoke at an antiwar rally at the UN Church Center and proposed a national religious movement to end the war. He quickly went to work putting that idea into practice. The National Emergency Committee of Clergy Concerned About Vietnam was founded in January 1966, with Heschel, Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, and Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus as cochairs. Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain, agreed to be acting executive secretary.

Their first act was to send a telegram to LBJ, signed by twenty-one clergy, including King and prominent Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, urging the president to extend the bombing halt that had begun the previous Christmas and to pursue negotiations with the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese. Over the next few months, the group recruited additional clergy and organized rallies, fasts, vigils, and other forms of protest. Heschel drafted position papers, raised money, recruited Jewish clergy, gave numerous speeches, and led a two-day fast at a New York church to push for an end to US bombing of North Vietnam.

On January 31, 1967, the organization–renamed Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) to be more inclusive–organized its first Washington, DC, rally. More than 2,000 people, clergy and laity, from forty-five states participated, including the leaders of the nation's major Jewish and Protestant denominations. They met with their congressional representatives and picketed in front of the White House. Heschel electrified the audience with his speech, “The Moral Outrage in Vietnam,” later published inFellowship, the magazine of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation:

“Who would have believed that we life-loving Americans are capable of bringing death and destruction to so many innocent people? We are startled to discover how unmerciful, how beastly we ourselves can be. In the sight of so many thousands of civilians and soldiers slain, injured, crippled, of bodies emaciated, of forests destroyed by fire, God confronts us with this question: Where art thou?”

The next day, Heschel joined a small CALCAV delegation in a forty-minute meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. They attempted, without success, to persuade him to suspend the bombing of North Vietnam and begin peace negotiations. By early 1967, CALCAV's leaders knew that King was preparing to make public his growing opposition to the war. Heschel, along with other major religious figures, accompanied him as he delivered his major antiwar address at New York's Riverside Church on April 4.

During the 1968 annual meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly, Heschel was honored by his fellow Conservative rabbis for his social activism and his contributions to Jewish scholarship. King was the keynote speaker, and the rabbis feted him by singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew. 

King was looking forward to attending a Passover Seder at Heschel's home that year, but he was assassinated a few weeks before the Jewish holiday. Heschel was the only Jew to deliver a eulogy at King's funeral service.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.

We are far from justice


Following is the text of remarks delivered at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington  by Alan van Capelle, CEO of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice. The speech was part of the Let Freedom Ring Commemoration and Call to Action event at the Lincoln Memorial, which celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

Fifty years ago a Rabbi shared these steps with Dr. King and began his remarks by saying, “I speak to you as an American Jew.”

My name is Alan van Capelle, and today I speak to you as an American Jew. I represent the Jewish Civil Rights Group Bend the Arc, and the more than thirty organizations collectively called the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.

The vision Dr. King offered us fifty years ago wasn’t only a dream. It was a call for equality but it was also a demand for justice.

We may be closer to legal equality but we are far, far, far from justice. We are far from justice when young black men are stopped and frisked and disrespected on the streets of New York City.

We are far from justice when students carry the burden of loans.

We are far from justice when 11 million immigrants work every single day without protections or a pathway to citizenship.

We are far from justice when a gay, lesbian, or transgender person can be fired from their job simply for being who they are.

We are far from justice when we accept the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and we allow American children to go to bed hungry.

Yes, the moral arc of the universe is long and it does in fact bend towards justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because of people like Bayard Rustin, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner. It bends because of you and me. We make the arc bend.  And for many of us, it’s not bending fast enough. 

Every year Jews around the world recall how Moses led his people out of slavery and towards the Promised Land. But the desert came first.

Jews believe that the only way to the Promised Land is through the desert. We are taught that “there is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.*”

Fifty years after Dr. King delivered his speech from these very steps we are still a people wandering through the desert. But don’t be discouraged. Because I’m not. 

When I look around this Mall, at all of you – so diverse, so impassioned, so bonded together by shared values, hopes, and dreams – then I can hear in your voices the echo of Dr. King, and I know that the edge of the desert is near, and the promised land within sight.


Alan van Capelle is CEO of Bend the Arc.

The back of the bus


If Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy teaches us one thing, it’s that the fight for civil rights is not particular to a time, a place, a people or a gender.

It’s still shocking to watch vintage 1960s TV footage and see moms and dads yelling at someone else’s children for simply walking up the steps of a high school.

Now, we watch all-too-similar images on YouTube as we confront what’s happening to women and girls in Israel.

In Beit Shemesh just last month, TV cameras captured a frightened 8-year-old child walking to school with her mother. That girl, Na’ama Margolese, was terrified because Charedi Jews who don’t like the length of her skirt or the sleeves on her shirt regularly have spit on her and cursed her. The girl’s mother, Hadassa Margolese, who grew up in Los Angeles, talked to our reporter, Larry Derfner, in this issue of The Journal (p. 13) about her fight to maintain her child’s rights and dignity in their hometown of Beit Shemesh.

In recent years, ultra-Orthodox Charedi Jews in Jerusalem routinely have forced women riding bus lines that pass through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to sit at the back.  And now, as the freedom fighters did in the American South, in Israel, protesters have come together to defy such rules. Earlier this month, groups of men and women boarded buses in Jerusalem and Ramat Gan, sitting together to draw attention to the gender segregation on public transportation that the Charedi community has demanded.

It would seem a no-brainer that, in a democracy, public spaces belong to all people — the civil rights of all human beings cannot be limited by the desires or wishes of a single group. But that is what has been going on for years in some neighborhoods of Israel, where not only are rules of segregation enforced through harassment, but the government has not stepped in to right these wrongs.

Whether by race or by gender, segregation in public spaces defies the dignity of human beings. No democracy can tolerate this.

As we remember Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend, let us remember a story he told at a Friday night Shabbat service at Temple Israel of Hollywood, right here in Los Angeles, on Feb. 26, 1965.

“Some time ago, Mrs. King and I journeyed to that great country known as India, and we had some marvelous experiences. … I remember one afternoon that we journeyed down to the southernmost point of India in the state of Kerala. And I was to address that afternoon some high school students who were the children mainly of parents who had been ‘untouchables.’ And I remember that afternoon that the principal went through his introduction, and when he came to the end, he said, ‘I’m happy to present to you, students, a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.’ And for the moment, I was peeved and shocked that he would introduce me as an untouchable, but pretty soon my mind leaped the Atlantic, and I started thinking about conditions back home. And I started thinking about the fact that I could not go in to most places of public accommodation all across the South.

“I started thinking about the fact that 20 million of my black brothers and sisters were still at the bottom of the economic ladder. I started thinking about the fact that Negroes all over America, even if they have the money, cannot buy homes and rent homes of their choices, because so many of their white brothers don’t want to live near them. I started thinking about the fact that my little children were still judged in terms of the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. And I said to myself, ‘I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States is an untouchable.’ And segregation is evil, because it stigmatizes the segregated as an untouchable in a caste system. We’ve been in the mountain of segregation long enough, and it is time for all men of goodwill to say now, ‘We are through with segregation now, henceforth, and forever more.’ ”

King’s uplifting words — here and throughout his writings — can give to us, today’s untouchables, the inner peace to turn the other cheek, to keep walking forward with our daughters toward a better tomorrow.

Let us honor King’s memory and walk to school with Hadassa and Na’ama Margolese; let us send our support to the freedom fighters in Israel who refuse to have their children spat upon or to sit at the back of the bus.

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


Rabbi Israel Dresner, 81, says he’s the most arrested rabbi in America.

At least that was the case in the 1960s, he says, when Dresner 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.

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 Paterson, N.J., along with eight Protestant ministers, formed the first interfaith clergy Freedom Ride. Their bus was part of a summerlong 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, now rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Wayne, N.J. “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 on a table in that office drafted 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 Congregation 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 kipot, or yarmulkes, with them.

“At that time, black people in the South were wearing kipot 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.”

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.”

(Amanda Pazornik of the j weekly contributed to this report from San Francisco.)