10 years on, Katrina echoes for Mississippi Jews


Standing on an empty lot at the corner of Camellia Street and Southern Avenue, Brad Kessie wistfully inspected one of two sago palms that marked the pathway to Congregation Beth Israel, which had stood here for nearly five decades before Hurricane Katrina struck 10 years ago this month.

The circular, two-story brick building’s framework and sanctuary survived the storm, although devastating winds ripped apart its roof and facade. The synagogue in this coastal city of roughly 45,000 was razed in 2008, but a “For Sale” sign remains on the property.

“Know anyone looking to buy?” said Kessie, 49, a longtime congregant and the synagogue’s president. He can afford that sort of wry humor; the Jewish community here is still standing, even if its original home is not.

Jewish settlement in Mississippi dates back to the mid-19th century, when Central and Eastern European merchants arrived in the city of Natchez — the so-called “Antebellum Capital of the World” — and began selling dry goods to local farmers. Jews made their way south to Biloxi and neighboring Gulfport around the same time, but no congregation formed until Beth Israel did so in 1953. Members erected the synagogue five years later less than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico, the first along the 145-mile stretch of coast between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, and the only Conservative congregation in the state.

Brad Kessie signing the Congregation Beth Israel foundation at a groundbreaking ceremony, October 2008. Photo from Congregation Beth Israel

In 2005, Beth Israel served about 100 people from Biloxi and Gulfport (total population 71,000) — less than 10 percent of the state’s roughly 1,500 Jews, the majority of whom live 170 miles north in the capital city of Jackson. Rabbi Akiva Hall, 25, the Chabad emissary in Gulfport, grew up in nearby Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and attended Beth Israel as a teenager.

“It seemed to me to be an active community,” Hall told JTA in an email. “I had some wonderful experiences there.”

Thirteen of Beth Israel’s 65 or so families saw their homes destroyed when Katrina slammed Mississippi’s shores on Aug. 29, 2005. Nearly all were displaced. Kessie, an on-camera reporter at the local WLOX-TV at the time of the storm — he’s now the news director at the station — recalled Biloxi as a sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland. Many of the coastal highway’s boardwalks, restaurants, Civil War-era homes and casinos, mainstays of the region’s tourism industry, were severely damaged. Debris was scattered across the white-sand beachfront. The storm claimed 238 lives in Mississippi.

Like most area residents, the Jews here were traumatized, said Noah Farkas, who visited the devastated congregation more than 50 times between 2006 and 2008, when he was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“You could set someone off very easily,” said Farkas, now the rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, in Encino, California. “Everyone was just trying to get their stuff done.”

Despite the overall devastation, and the destruction at Beth Israel, the community as a whole was in a relatively good place, said Steve Richer, 68, Beth Israel’s president at the time. UJA-Federation of New York and the United Jewish Communities, now the Jewish Federations of North America, poured millions of dollars for Katrina relief into the Gulf Coast region. Richer said Beth Israel accrued about $600,000 from national organizations and private donations.

Before Katrina made landfall, Beth Israel’s caretaker, who lived in an apartment above the sanctuary, had managed to save the Torah scrolls. Several synagogue fixtures, including the stained glass windows and memorial plaques, were later deemed salvageable.

Richer, who retired as executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau in 2007, noted that many of the Jewish volunteers who descended on the Gulf Coast were redirected to hard-hit towns like Bay St. Louis and Waveland, where there were no Jews.

“I think we had consensus about that,” he said. “We did it in the way that our religion teaches us to do it: You put everybody out there first.”

For three years after the storm, the homeless congregation held Sabbath services at Beauvoir United Methodist Church and High Holidays in a chapel at Keesler Air Force Base, both in Biloxi. Farkas, who slept on a blow-up mattress in a Beauvoir classroom during his visits from New York, led a minyan on Friday nights and a small Torah study on Saturday mornings. With the church occupied on Sunday, Hebrew school classes occupied the offices of a company that sold housecleaning products. The congregation grew closer. It was an environment, said Lori Beth Susman, a magazine editor who moved to Gulfport from Las Vegas two decades ago, where everyone knew everyone.

When it came time for the community to address its own damage, there was less unanimity than before. Many felt it made the most sense to build a new synagogue far from the coast. Several elderly congregants insisted that Beth Israel renovate the old site, even though it was in a recognized flood zone and construction would cost more than the community’s $1.2 million budget.

“There were a lot of people who felt that this was the home of the Jewish community, and it was an area that we didn’t want to leave,” said Kessie, a Chicago native who moved to Mississippi in 1988.

In the end, the congregation decided to plant new roots in Gulfport, about 15 miles from the old Biloxi site, on land donated by the Goldins, a prominent Jewish family in the area. It opened in May 2009.

Behind a wide lawn, on a leafy street lined with churches, the pillared synagogue looks more like a stately suburban home than a place of worship. Accouterments from the old building — the Shabbat lamp and the memorial plaques in the front foyer — can be found throughout. There are two classrooms for Hebrew school students, ages 4 to 13, and a pergola-covered patio abuts a kosher kitchen.

Only 45 or so dues-paying families make up the current congregation, and 10 students are signed up for Hebrew school in the fall. While Beth Israel’s membership has declined about 30 percent since Katrina, and lay leaders conduct the weekly services — the synagogue has never had a full-time rabbi — there is little worry that Jewish life on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast will begin to fade.

Hall, who opened the Chabad center in Gulfport last year, hopes he can help. He said 30 people attended an event he organized for the Shavuot holiday earlier this year, and he studies with 12 or so people on a weekly basis. Chabad’s goal, Hall said, is to complement Beth Israel, not to compete with it.

“As a rule, we do not schedule conflicting events or publicize Friday night services in deference to Beth Israel,” the rabbi said. “There are not enough Jewish people here for two communities. We have this in mind whatever we do. We are interested in serving the greater Jewish community, not creating our own.”

More than anything, the new synagogue represents permanence for Beth Israel. And the residential design, Susman said, is affirmation that Beth Israel, however small, is “one big family.”

In fact, the groundbreaking ceremony in October 2008 reminded some of a family reunion. Dressed in suits and dresses, congregants took turns signing chunks of the synagogue’s cinderblock foundation.

“Those signed stones,” Kessie said, “are something we hope and pray we never see again.”

Fifty years after Freedom Summer, civil rights volunteers reflect on activist lives


At the Freedom Summer anniversary conference in Jackson, Miss., the activists who registered black voters and taught in Freedom Schools under the threat of violence 50 years ago stood up to introduce themselves.

It took three hours to hear what they did in the Magnolia State back in 1964 and have gone on to do in the half-century since.

“Almost everyone had a social justice connection,” said Heather Booth, who went to Mississippi as a college freshman from New York before moving on to a career as a nationally prominent liberal activist. “The former volunteers went on to work as teachers, environmental activists and in the field of health care.”

Organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, Freedom Summer sent mostly white college students to Mississippi to confront the violent racism in the state.

In the summer of 1964, some 1,500 volunteers worked registering blacks to vote, teaching in Freedom Schools and organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which aimed to challenge the state’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention that year.

Jews were represented among the young civil rights volunteers in numbers far exceeding their share of the population.

Debra Schultz, the author of “Going South: Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement,” said that like other SNCC activists, Jewish Freedom Summer volunteers were motivated by a desire to hold the country to its full promise of democracy. Many were inspired as well by their Jewish and often left-leaning backgrounds.

“Among particularly ‘Jewish’ motivations, we can cite: an identification with another racialized people and a passion for racial justice, born of the recent experience with the Holocaust,” Schultz told JTA via email.

Booth said that she came to Mississippi a year after visiting Israel, where she made a commitment at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial to struggle for justice. Schultz noted that her synagogue had funded the $500 bail money required to participate in Freedom Summer in the case of an arrest.

The first days of Freedom Summer saw the murder of three civil rights workers — Jewish New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and black Mississippian James Chaney, who had been investigating the burning of a black church. During the weeks-long search for the workers, the bodies of eight murdered black men were found in the Mississippi countryside before the discovery of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner’s remains.

Tension and danger lurked throughout the summer.

There were another four people critically wounded, 80 activists beaten, 1,000 arrests, 37 churches and 30 black homes or businesses bombed or burned.

Booth recalls feeling frightened all the time that summer.

“But it was also very exhilarating,” Booth said. “There were nightly meetings at black churches, with a lot of singing.”

In Shaw, Miss., where blacks were neglected, Booth said she felt honored that her hosts generously gave up their beds for her and three other volunteers.

“In the black part of town, there were no toilets, no sewers and no street lights,” Booth said.

Booth continued her activism after Freedom Summer. She became involved in the women’s movement, founding Jane, an underground abortion counseling and referral service in Chicago. She went on to serve as the founding director of the NAACP National Voter Fund and Americans for Financial Reform. She also coordinated grassroots efforts to win passage of President Obama’s first budget.

Based in Washington, D.C., she currently consults for and advises a variety of liberal advocacy groups.

At the anniversary conference in late June, Booth was one of more than 200 former Freedom Summer volunteers in attendance. They met with nearly 2,000 younger activists.

Larry Rubin, a veteran labor movement activist who came to the reunion from Takoma Park, Md., worked on the SNCC staff as a young man from 1961 to 1965, first in southwest Georgia. In early 1964, he went to Mississippi to set up the infrastructure for Freedom Summer.

Rubin said that when he trucked donated books to the Freedom Schools, he was pulled over, roughed up and arrested by police who expressed anti-Semitic sentiments. (But when he came back to Mississippi later as a labor organizer, he recalled, a policeman who had once threatened to kill him if he ever again showed his face in his town praised his efforts to unionize a local business.)

When local blacks faced harassment, he said, all the civil rights workers could do was offer to report it to the federal government.

Rubin left the SNCC in 1965 as it was turning toward Black Power and whites were being pushed out of the organization. Rubin recalls feeling a sense of relief, like he was dismissed and could go home.

He returned to university studies to learn more about his Eastern European Jewish roots, just as the Black Power movement was encouraging African-Americans to embrace their heritage.

Rubin, who grew up in Philadelphia, said his civil rights work was influenced by his parents, who taught him to fight for social justice because of what his grandparents went through fleeing Europe.

But while many volunteers were Jewish, their backgrounds were not necessarily at the forefront within the movement.

“In the 1960s we didn’t discuss being Jewish, and we didn’t bring up our motivation for getting involved in the movement,” Rubin said. “There was no space to discuss Jewishness.”

Bob Moses, the well-known black civil rights leader and Freedom Summer organizer, told JTA that he was not aware at the time of participants’ Jewish identities.

“I didn’t know if Freedom Summer people were Jewish,” he said.

At the anniversary gathering, however, it was a topic of discussion, with a breakout session focused on Jewish participation. Also, concurrent with the reunion, the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life organized events on Jewish involvement in civil rights and social justice activism.

Freedom Summer volunteer Annie Popkin said her family was very aware of discrimination because her father was shut out of Harvard Medical School due to quotas that limited the numbers of Jewish students. At times her family embraced their Jewishness. Other times they turned away from it, seeing it as a painful liability, she said.

She said she was “so ready to go” south when organizers recruited students like her at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass.

Popkin started early in her activism. When she was 12 or 13, Popkin said, her mother took her to a picket line to demand fair housing in her hometown on New York’s Long Island after a black family who moved into the white section had their house burned.

Later, in ninth grade, she and a friend organized pickets of Woolworth’s in New York City in support of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South. Once when she was picketing, Popkin said, a woman shouted at her, “You’ll make my husband lose his job, and that’s not nice of you!”

“I realized I was not going to be a nice 1950s girl,” Popkin said in a telephone interview from her home in Portland, Ore., where she works as a counselor.

By the time of her Freedom Summer orientation in Oxford, Ohio, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had already disappeared. Freedom Summer organizers feared the worst.

But Popkin remembers feeling optimistic as hundreds of black and white SNCC volunteers locked arms, held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

“Just imagine if everyone in the country could feel this spirit and see this vision. Wouldn’t people want to end segregation?” she recalled thinking.

Popkin calls her optimism naive.

“It was so moving to be part of the embodied vision of beloved community we were creating in working together, singing together, risking our lives together, believing together,” she said. “We knew what was right, and we spent our days and nights organizing for it.”

She went to Vicksburg, Miss., where she gathered signatures for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She witnessed the threats and reprisals — economic and physical — that kept blacks from attempting to register to vote.

“We got to see the strong consequences of what we were doing,” Popkin said.

Popkin, who went on to become involved in the women’s movement and teach women’s studies at various universities, pointed to the value of recalling the experiences of rank-and-file civil rights activists like her.

“There’s been a media emphasis on leaders in the civil rights movement and not the individuals who participated,” Popkin said. “All of our stories can be inspiration. If we could make change at 18, 19, 20, so can others today.”

Santorum’s Southern sweep mars Romney’s front-runner status


Rick Santorum swept two Southern states in Republican primaries, complicating Mitt Romney’s status as front-runner and all but burying Newt Gingrich’s chance for the nomination.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who emerged from last place in polling as recently as December to become the conservative challenger to Romney, scored 33 percent of the vote in Mississippi and nearly 35 percent in Alabama. Gingrich, the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker, finished second in both states, with 31 percent in MIssissippi and 29 percent in Alabama. Romney was third with 30 percent in Mississippi and 29 percent in Alabama.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) came in a distant fourth in both races after barely campaigning in either state.

Romney, who during the campaign has tried to shuck his reputation as a moderate, had campaigned hard in a bid to prove he could win in conservative Southern states. The former Massachusetts governor is leading substantially in delegates, but his path to the nomination has been far from smooth as conservative candidates continue to mount substantive challenges.

Gingrich had suggested that if he failed to win in Mississippi and Alabama, his campaign was in trouble, predicated as it was on winning Southern states.

If Gingrich leaves the race, campaign watchers will look to see who his main backer, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, decides to support. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, twice salvaged Gingrich’s campaign with huge cash infusions; Gingrich and Adelson have been friends since the 1990s, in part because they share hard-line pro-Israel positions.

Romney has the backing of much of the Jewish Republican establishment, having attracted the bulk of Jewish donors and advisers. His appeal to Jews is based partly on his moderation and ability during his governance of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 to appeal to liberals and independents.

Additionally he and his wife, Ann, have referred in talks to Jewish groups to their Mormon faith, likening themselves to Jewish Republicans who have pushed for prominence in a party that still draws much of its support from a Protestant base.

Both Santorum and Romney have battered President Obama for what they depict as his hostility to Israel and his fecklessness on dealing with Iran, and both say that they will repeal much of the heath care reform package passed by Obama.

Some of Santorum’s domestic policies, including statements suggesting that a “Jesus guy” is most suitable for the presidency, have alarmed some Jewish groups.

Miss. Jewish casino worker wins discrimination lawsuit


A federal jury found that a Mississippi man was fired from his casino job because he’s Jewish.

Marc Silverberg was fired from his job as food and beverage director at Sam’s Town Casino in August 2008 because of what his former employer claimed was poor performance.

Silverberg disagreed and sued. The jury found for Silverberg, awarding him $102,000 in back pay, $76,500 for mental anxiety and $400,000 in punitive damages.

“I didn’t do anything wrong. They put together a concerted effort to get rid of me because of my Jewish heritage,” Silverberg told The Clarion-Ledger. “The jury vindicated me.”
He now teaches at a culinary school in Memphis, where he said he makes 60 percent less than he did at the casino.

Silverberg said in his lawsuit that the trouble started when a new general manager was hired at the Tunica, Miss. casino. The manager apparently was prejudiced against people who didn’t share his ethnicity, and particularly “despised Silverberg because he was Jewish,” according to the lawsuit.

Two former casino employees testified they heard the man refer to Silverberg as a goddamn “Jewish slug.”

The Road to Mississippi


Driving through the deserted streets of New Orleans, we peered through the windows of our charter bus and watched as we drove past miles of destroyed homes. As we approached our destination, Waveland, Miss., the houses became increasingly tattered and decayed; on some lots, only kitchen floors remained. As we approached the shore and our worksite came into view, the entire bus was silenced by the broad stretches of land where only the scattered debris of homes remained.

We were 100 sophomores and juniors from Milken Community High School who traveled to the Gulf Coast April 2-6 to help rebuild areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. We were sponsored by Milken’s Yozma (initiative) Leadership for Social Action program, which, every year, arranges a project to assist those in need.

Stepping off the bus in Waveland, we were handed shovels and gloves by volunteers for the Gulf Side Assembly of the United Methodist Church. For the next six hours, we submerged ourselves in strenuous physical labor, leaving our sheltered-life inhibitions on the air-conditioned bus. While clearing the site of destruction, we came across pieces of lives left behind. Our eyes lingered on purple Mardi Gras beads crusted with dirt, and dresses hanging on tree limbs. Instead of buildings there were scattered tiles, buried wires and remains of refrigerators and toilet seats.

Cleaning the site at Waveland was our first encounter with the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. In the next few days, we also were exposed to the aftermath of the hurricane in the small cities of Natchez and Utica in Mississippi. In those places, we undertook social action projects to support the Jewish and secular local communities both emotionally and financially.

Some in our group began by going to the local Wal-Mart and filling shopping carts with items requested by a shelter, while keeping within a $45 budget. The money we were spending was taken from the $15,000 Milken students had raised to help the citizens of Natchez, which we had adopted as our sister city.

In our short visit to Wal-Mart, we witnessed a culture drastically unlike our own. Many of the residents were poverty stricken, and we were surprised by their habit of counting every last penny of change. They in turn were surprised by our willingness to contribute our own time and money to help people whom we have never met.

Wal-Mart was not the last place we encountered poverty. On another day, we traveled to residential areas where we worked alongside volunteers of Habitat for Humanity to rebuild damaged homes. Families of at least five lived in houses that resembled shacks. The news became reality; we were finally seeing the destruction we were never able to picture.

Although residents of Natchez were affected by devastation and lack of supplies, they succeeded in maintaining faith and spirit. On a Tuesday night, we joined the AME Zion Chapel for a gospel service. We sang along with the gospel choir with the sense that religion and race were unimportant. We were unified by our past experiences of slavery and struggle. Seeing the grateful congregation inspired us to appreciate our own lives and to hope that soon, all of those affected by the hurricane would recover and restore their rich culture.

We have been repeatedly asked, “Why are you going all the way to Mississippi? If you want to help, why don’t you just donate money?”

The answer lies in the power of human connection. Our mere presence in Mississippi gave hope to the community there, which has been ignored by the media and fellow Americans. Money could never replace the relationship formed between Milken and the Natchez community. Not only did we each learn about Southern culture and get to know people there, but we discovered that we have the ability to overcome personal limits and fears. The trip to Mississippi opened our eyes to a culture unlike our own and pushed us out of our comfort zones. In the process we built a friendship with the grateful people of Natchez. It is an experience that will forever stay with us.

Sophia Kamran and Eve Arbel are 10th graders at Milken Community High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the June issue is May 15; Deadline for the July issue is June 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

 

Jewish-Black Ties Loosen Over Years


 

The storied tale of Jewish Northerners heading South in the 1960s to fight for blacks’ voting rights has taken its place as one of the most distinctive cross-cultural relationships in U.S. history.

Until now, the 1964 murders of three civil rights campaigners has been unresolved. The recent arrest of a suspect in the Mississippi murders of Andrew Goodwin and Michael Schwerner — both Jews — and James Chaney, a black man, has re-focused attention on a relationship once bound in blood.

As Jews prepare to mark Martin Luther King Day, however, to what extent have black-Jewish relations shifted from their historic marriage?

A long way, academics and Jewish community officials say.

The black-Jewish relationship began in the 1920s and 1930s as blacks moved into neighborhoods Jews were leaving. Still, Jewish businesses often remained, serving the black community.

A common bond rose in response to anti-Semitism and racism in the United States, culminating in the civil rights movement. But black riots against Jewish-owned businesses in the mid-1960s and the rise of black nationalism that carried undertones of anti-Semitism often polarized the groups.

Today, many of the flashpoints in the relationship, like Jesse Jackson’s 1984 reference to New York as “Hymietown” and the 1991 Crown Heights riots — when blacks rioted against Jews after a Lubavitch-driven vehicle accidentally hit and killed a black child in Brooklyn — are in the past. Reports of anti-Semitic remarks by black nationalists such as the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan also have tapered off.

Now, a new phase has dawned as both groups focus their energies on internal issues, and quieter ties have emerged. Whether the new phase will lead to a new, strengthened relationship or a cooler approach to one another remains in question.

“We’ve passed through a period of hostility and animosity,” said Murray Friedman, director of Temple University’s Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History and author of “What Went Wrong: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance” (Free Press, 1994).

“The black-Jewish alliance as it once was is dead,” he said. But “it has moved in the direction that has been normal in American life, where groups join together on certain issues and break apart on certain issues.”

Rabbi Marc Scheier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Russell Simmons, the foundation’s chairman, said in a statement that the recent arrest in the Mississippi murder case calls to mind the historic black-Jewish alliance and challenges members of both groups “to continue the ongoing struggle for human justice.”

In fact, blacks and Jews continue to come together to advocate for political issues ranging from civil rights legislation to Israel.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that the Black and Jewish caucuses on Capitol Hill don’t work together,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, who is also on the NAACP board.

Saperstein said young, black NAACP board members also show an increasing interest in the Jewish community.

According to Saperstein, collaboration among blacks and Jews is strong across the country, and his own group’s black-Jewish activities are as robust as he can remember. Because of that, when tensions do arise, “there’s much greater disappointment and sometimes anger than when either of us has similar kinds of problems with other ethnic or religious minorities,” Saperstein said.

Sherry Frank also says that in her 24 years as director of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee), black-Jewish relations have grown stronger.

A black-Jewish coalition initiated by the American Jewish Committee has a mailing list of about 400 people, with approximately equal numbers of blacks and Jews, she said. Top black leaders in Atlanta invite local rabbis to speak at their pulpits, and Atlanta’s black mayor has helped raise funds for the local Jewish federation’s Super Sunday.

But Ann Schaffer, director of the AJCommittee’s Belfer Center for American Pluralism, said national relations aren’t so rosy. In comparison to Jews’ relations with other groups, “we’re not seeing the kind of reciprocity that we would like to see in the relationship” with blacks, she said.

Many black leaders are consumed with internal issues, such as job discrimination and lifting their people out of poverty, Schaffer explained. In addition, the black community “is not forthcoming” in defending Israel and condemning anti-Semitism, she said. In part, that’s because blacks identify with the Palestinians, who they see as disenfranchised like themselves, Schaffer added.

An AJCommittee 2000 study showed that few blacks feel much in common with Jews.

Yet anti-Semitism has never been as strong among blacks as among the mutual enemies of blacks and Jews, said Marshall Stevenson Jr., dean of social sciences and director of the National Center for Black-Jewish Relations at Dillard University in New Orleans, a black college heavily endowed by Jews. Anti-Semitism among black Muslims, for example, rarely is translated into action against Jews, he said.

Academics say the turning point in the black-Jewish relationship was the 1967 Six-Day War, which they say prompted Jews to turn inward and focus on Israel and the Jewish community’s concerns. In subsequent years, the Soviet Jewry movement occupied the energies of Jews who once had worked for civil rights, Temple University’s Friedman explained.

Around that time came the rise of black nationalism, which as part of its quest for black empowerment aimed to muster internal strength and resources and rejected Jewish outreach.

“Would Jews allow blacks to run their organizations?” was the rationale of the time, Stevenson said.

Both groups largely turned inward, a trend that continues today. The relationship is “more or less neutral today,” Stevenson said.

It takes a common threat to revive the relationship, he said — citing, for example, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s runs for the U.S. Senate and the Louisiana governorship.

“For there to be any kind of serious dialogue, there would have to be a major kind of racial backlash in this country that would affect African Americans and Jews,” Stevenson said.

Renewed relations also could come about as a result of efforts to strengthen the Democratic Party, he said. In the 2004 presidential election, about 75 percent of Jews voted Democratic. Among blacks, the proportion was even higher, 89 percent.

Friedman, who views the landscape of relations as a “return to normalcy,” frames Jews’ civil rights agenda as a Jewish quest for identity. Jewish civil rights workers would cite the Jewish values of social justice, but “they didn’t know a blessed thing about Judaism.” Goodwin and Schwerner were even buried as Unitarians, he said.

“We were finding our own identity by working through another group,” said Friedman, who himself labored for civil rights until a growing sense of Jewish identity landed him squarely in the field of Jewish studies.

Jewish groups also are less involved in race relations today than they once were, focusing now on buttressing Jewish causes and identities.

“Saperstein believes both agendas are intertwined.

“In America, the treatment of the black community remains a symbol of the hope for equality and justice for all people in America, and we who have been persecuted so often as a minority have a deep feeling that we have to stand by those who are persecuted more than we are today in America,” Saperstein said.

“What we do on behalf of a group like the African American community and with the African American community,” he continued, “is a test of whether or not we’ll live up to the values and the lessons of our history.”