Normally, missions sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ are visits to Israel or other parts of the world where the focus is to visit Jewish communities and projects supported by federation funds.
But from March 5 to 8, the federation’s Women’s Philanthropy department’s Civil Rights Journey took its 44 participants out of the comfort zone of the Jewish community and brought them to the South, where they toured major landmarks of the 1960s civil rights movement, including sites where demonstrators often encountered violence in Atlanta, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma.
Based on conversations with a number of them, the mission members returned to New Jersey moved, inspired, and even shaken by their experiences.
The aim of the mission was to learn the lessons of fighting racism from African-Americans who were involved then, and those who are fighting it now. Along the way the New Jerseyans visited historic synagogues to discover what members of the southern Jewish community did — and did not do — to help battle the segregation and discrimination that surrounded them.
The trip was dedicated to Jacqueline Levine, a West Orange woman who has been active in social causes since the 1950s. Now 91, she was unable to repeat the journey she made in 1965, when she marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., with other civil rights activists.
But, Levine told NJJN, she was “thrilled that 44 valiant women from my community would make the same trip with love in their eyes, not hate.”
She had arrived in Selma after the “Bloody Sunday” beatings on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Levine said, and was not physically injured along the way to Montgomery. But, she said, “I felt frightened by the white men who stood along the road with hate in their eyes.”
Although some people criticized her for leaving her husband and young children for the march, Levine said, “I felt the necessity. It was a moral issue for me, and I had made that decision.”
Her daughter, Ellen Cramer of South Orange, cochaired the mission.
Another heir to civil rights history on the mission was Deborah Prinz, the daughter of the late Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany who introduced Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington. Prinz was the longtime religious leader at Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, and later in Livingston.
His daughter, a South Orange resident, said her father’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial was “a big event in his life and our lives.” In 1963 she was an 11-year-old girl on vacation in Switzerland with her parents when her father was called by march organizers. “So, on a pretty quick turnaround, he went back to the United States,” while she and her mother scouted out a home with a television. They watched as Rabbi Prinz told the world “America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent.”
For many women on the federation trip, the first stop provided its most emotionally wrenching moment. At the Center for Civil & Human Rights in Atlanta, they sat at a lunch counter built to replicate one where black college students in the early 1960s sat to protest being denied service. Their protests were nonviolent ones, as they resisted the temptation to fight back against the fists and cigarette burns and verbal torment that white racists heaped upon them.
“It was so vivid and so real,” said Sylvia Steiner of West Orange. “It was frightening — the crowds, the screams, the dogs barking. It was amazing. So powerful.”
Alice Goldfarb of Livingston, the other cochair, said she found the simulated experience upsetting.
“We put headphones on and we heard dogs barking, hoses turned on people, and people moaning in pain and not fighting back,” she said. “We all walked away very much shaken and crying.”
Goldfarb is a southerner by birth. She grew up in Morristown, Tenn., a town of 40,000 with only 12 Jewish families. “During the civil rights movement, we were so insecure as Jews in a small town that people didn’t know what to make of us socially,” she said. As a young child she said she saw water fountains labeled “colored” and “white.”
In later years, she told NJJN that she felt terrible that she had “just accepted it. As an adult I wished I had asked my father if he had done anything to help promote desegregation privately because he could not have done anything publicly.”
In Atlanta, the group visited the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple, a Reform synagogue commonly called “The Temple.” During much of the 1940s its members were so fearful of anti-Semitic attacks that they held worship services on Sunday mornings to emulate Christians. At one point no bar or bat mitzvahs were celebrated, and there was no lighting of candles on Shabbat.
When Rabbi Jacob Mortimer Rothschild became the Temple’s religious leader in 1947, he restored many Jewish rituals and began speaking out against segregation. There were consequences. On Oct. 12, 1958, 50 sticks of dynamite were detonated by the northern entrance to the Temple, exploding a massive hole in the building’s outer wall. No one was injured.
According to mission member and former federation president Ellen Goldner of Mountain Lakes, the rabbi’s widow, Janice Rothschild Blumberg, told the group that prior to her husband’s arrival, the congregation’s attitude was “keep your head down and don’t make waves.”
In Birmingham, they visited with the Rev. Calvin Woods at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where, on Sept. 15, 1963, four young girls were killed during Sunday school in a bombing by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Federation president and mission member Leslie Dannin Rosenthal of South Orange said Woods, who was an activist during the civil rights era, told his guests that he and his fellow demonstrators “believed they were doing the right thing. They didn’t know what the results would be, so to walk in their footsteps was so inspiring.”
“Back in the 1960s, the racism and anti-Semitism were much more overt,” said Dannin Rosenthal. “Jim Crow laws were on the books. The anti-Semitism and the racism we are facing today are perhaps legally more subtle, but obviously still something we have to stand up and say, ‘no’ to.”
In Selma, there is only one synagogue, Temple Mishkan Israel. Because only seven Jews still live there, it is operational only on the High Holy Days. Mishkan Israel president Ronald Leet welcomed the visitors, telling them that during the civil rights era, the Jews in Selma were “very quiet. They were afraid. They considered the white liberals from the North to be ‘agitators.’”
At the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, the women were briefed on the work of the contemporary civil rights movement, whose members work to combat the racial inequities in the criminal justice system, particularly as they apply to mass incarceration and wrongful imprisonment of people of color. The mission members were shown an exhibit of mason jars filled with soil samples taken from beneath the trees where African-Americans were lynched. The institute has documented 4,075 lynchings between 1877 and 1950.
The last stop on the mission, the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in Atlanta. The quilt memorializes some 48,000 individuals killed by the virus since the mid-’80s, when the disease was running rampant, especially in America’s gay communities.
“You might not necessarily think of AIDS or LGBT issues when you are talking about civil rights or anti-Semitism,” said Prinz, but viewing the project “let us see how easy it is for people to discriminate against other people, and it starts with not really knowing them, not really understanding them, and feeling threatened by them.
“It was a brilliant way to end this trip.”