Between 1939 and 1977, as rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, then in Livingston, Joachim Prinz was one of the most influential and controversial leaders of American Judaism.
Nineteen years after his death in 1988, his work as an anti-Nazi crusader in his native Germany and his strong backing of the American civil rights movement is the subject of a documentary film-in-progress, Prinz: The Courage to Speak.
Two local filmmakers, Rachel Pasternak of Short Hills and Rachel Fisher of Maplewood, will present an excerpt of their work on Thursday, March 31, at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, as part of the 11th annual New Jersey Jewish Film Festival.
“We believe Rabbi Prinz’s story belongs in the pantheon of great 20th-century Jewish stories and American stories,” said Fisher, in a March 21 telephone interview.
Pasternak, who grew up in South Orange, was inspired by hearing “exciting stories” from her grandfather, Jack Mayers, a close friend of the rabbi’s.
Key among those stories were his memories of Prinz’s relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King — who spoke at the synagogue and invited the rabbi to address the August 1963 March on Washington. Prinz was the last speaker before King delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
As a young rabbi in Berlin in the 1930s, Prinz defied the Nazis and warned congregants about their intentions. Tipped off in 1937 that the Gestapo had had enough, Prinz immigrated to the United States and assumed the pulpit of Newark’s, and New Jersey’s, largest congregation.
Prinz’s experience as a Jew in pre-Nazi Germany affected his views on American race relations “on a very deep level,” said Pasternak, a writer and editor with a master’s degree in Jewish studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary. “When Dr. Prinz came here, he soon realized that there was rampant racism here, and he had to do everything he could to uphold democracy, since this was the place where he chose to live.”
In 1958, as president of the American Jewish Congress, Prinz invited King to speak at its convention in Miami. Two years later, King spoke from Prinz’s pulpit at B’nai Abraham.
“King was not received well at all by the Jewish community when he came to Newark,” said Deborah Prinz of South Orange, the youngest of the rabbi’s five children and chair of the JCC MetroWest-sponsored film festival. “Some people in the community were not happy. A lot of tensions were building. There were people in the synagogue who were never happy with the things my father did.”
Fisher, raised in an interracial area of Philadelphia, has long been interested in “where the African-American and Jewish cultures intersected.”
In his speech at the March on Washington, Prinz said that “as a Jew he had a deep sense of what African-Americans were experiencing,” added Fisher, founding director of the Genealogy Institute at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. “It was almost a visceral experience when he came here and saw the racism and heard white people use the kind of language they used. It brought back what he had experienced in Germany.”
Prinz remained vocal on civil rights throughout the 1960s, organizing picket lines and boycotts of department stores that discriminated against blacks. His iconoclastic streak extended to Temple B’nai Abraham, where he severed its affiliation with the Conservative movement and turned the congregation independent.
“What is probably most important about the film is that it will make people more aware of the broader impact he had and the kind of thinker he was and the original and audacious thinking he had,” said his daughter.
“If he were alive today he would be catching at least as much flak from the Jewish community as he did in his lifetime — even from the time he took his first pulpit in Berlin.
Rabbi Prinz resisted the call to relocate his congregation to the suburbs, holding out until 1973 despite the unrest in mid-1960s Newark and the flight of its Jewish residents to the suburbs.
“It took a long time,” said Deborah Prinz. “He didn’t want to abandon Newark.”
The synagogue eventually moved to Livingston.
Documentarians Fisher and Pasternak are hoping to buy rights to some of the rabbi’s speeches and television appearances, an expensive proposition.
They are determined to complete the project.
“We are making the film because if we don’t, his story may be relegated to a footnote in history, and we think it deserves to be a chapter, not a footnote,” Fisher said.