‘The Most Tragic Problem Is Silence’

‘The Most Tragic Problem Is Silence’

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the Voting Rights Act, and the Marches on Washington

As we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington over the past week, I imagine many people’s thoughts  turned  to places like the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and, of course, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

I can’t stop thinking about Temple B’nai Abraham in my hometown of Livingston.

No, B’nai Abraham was not the site of any great or terrible moment in the civil rights movement.  It was, however, the home of one of its iconic champions—Rabbi Joachim Prinz.  As President Obama noted at a state dinner at the Residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres earlier this year:

Rabbi Joachim Prinz was born in Germany, expelled by the Nazis and found refuge in America, and he built support for the new State of Israel.  And on that August day in 1963, he joined Dr. King at the March on Washington. 

Clifford Kulwin, B’nai Abraham’s current rabbi, wrote recently of what drew Rabbi Prinz to the civil rights struggle:

When Prinz arrived here in 1939, he was every bit as outraged at the treatment of African-Americans as he was by the treatment of Jews in the Germany he had just left.

And so, it was at Hebrew school at B’nai Abraham, passing around photos of Rabbi Prinz and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that I learned about the March on Washington and the civil rights movement.  I heard about how Rabbi Prinz, then president of the American Jewish Congress, was the last to speak before Dr. King delivered his incomparable “I Have a Dream” speech.  And I learned that the March on Washington was about the rights and obligations not only of African Americans, but of all Americans.  As Rabbi Prinz said on that day:

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

. . .

America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America.

When I first heard those words, I could not imagine that I would one day work just a couple miles from the Lincoln Memorial—or that the American people would in 2013 be called upon to once again break their silence and demand the civil rights that were so desperately fought for and triumphantly won five decades ago.

Today, as Director of Justice Programs for the Alliance for Justice, I spend my time working to make sure our federal courts ensure equal rights and equal access to justice for all Americans.  In June, five justices of our nation’s highest court failed to live up to that ideal when, as I wrote at that time, they “tore out the heart of the Voting Rights Act, arguably the most successful civil rights law in our nation’s history.” 

With voter suppression efforts taking place across the country, the 50th Anniversary March on Washington this past Saturday was a wake-up call for all Americans to raise their voices to demand that Congress immediately restore the Voting Rights Act to its full force.  There are many ways for Americans to heed this call to action; Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy initiative surveyed just a few suggestions for voting rights advocates soon after the Supreme Court’s decision, including organizing and engaging more Americans in the struggle for civil rights, challenging restrictive and discriminatory voting laws, and pushing for new laws that make it easier for all citizens to vote.

Last month, I had the honor of learning from another speaker at the original March on Washington, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), when he keynoted AFJ’s annual intern and summer associate luncheon. Rep. Lewis urged the young audience to “Find a way to get in the way.”  He added, “Find a way to get into trouble, good trouble.”  If Rep. Lewis’s fellow marcher Rabbi Prinz were still with us, I suspect he would concur.  After all, it’s awfully hard to “get in the way” and into “good trouble” when you’re being silent.

Until his passing in 1988, when I was 12 years old, Rabbi Prinz continued to serve as the rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham.  My interactions with him were confined to Yom Kippur, when he would signal the end of the Day of Atonement (and the end of the fast) by inviting all the children in the congregation to the pulpit for the final blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn used as a call to worship. 

The shofar is sounded throughout the 10-day period stretching from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, known as the “Days of Awe,” to snap us out of our ordinary routine, to awaken us—to break the silence.  The Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act, the efforts to suppress the vote across the country, and the anniversary of the March on Washington are combining to emit just such a clarion call.  I will be raising my voice in response, and I hope all Americans will join in making some noise and creating some “good trouble.”

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