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צדק צדק תרדוף


Judaism teaches respect for the fundamental rights of others as each person's duty to God. "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). Equality in the Jewish tradition is based on the concept that all of God's children are "created in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27). From that flows the biblical injunction, "You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizen alike: for I, Adonai, am your God" (Leviticus 24:22).

American Jews played a significant role in the founding and funding of some of the most important civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

From 1910 to 1940, more than 2,000 primary and secondary schools and twenty black colleges (including Howard, Dillard and Fisk universities) were established in whole or in part by contributions from Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. At the height of the so-called "Rosenwald schools," nearly forty percent of southern blacks were educated at one of these institutions.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Jewish activists represented a disproportionate number of whites involved in the struggle. Jews made up half of the young people who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Leaders of the Reform Movement were arrested with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 after a challenge to racial segregation in public accommodations. Most famously, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King in his 1965 March on Selma.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, under the aegis of the Leadership Conference, which for decades was located in the RAC's building. The Jewish community has continued its support of civil rights laws addressing persistent discrimination in voting, housing and employment against not only women and people of color but also in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and the disabled community.

  • What are some of the Jewish values behind Jewish activism in the Civil Rights Movement?

  • What did Jewish activism in the Civil Rights Movement "look like?"

Now, watch the video below to learn about one rabbi who spoke out during the Civil Rights era.

Rabbi Joachim Prinz

March on Washington, August 28, 1963


I speak to you as an American Jew.

As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea.

As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience -- one of the spirit and one of our history.

In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody's neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man's dignity and integrity.

From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say:

Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe . Our modern history begins with a proclamation  of emancipation.

It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.

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.


A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.

America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America , but all of America . It must speak up and act,. from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.

Our children, yours and mine in every school across the land, each morning pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. They, the children, speak fervently and innocently of this land as the land of "liberty and justice for all."

The time, I believe, has come to work together - for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together, to work together that this children's oath, pronounced every morning from Maine to California, from North to South, may become. a glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally renewed and united America.

  1. Whose story is Rabbi Prinz telling?

  2. Rabbi Prinz examines American Jews' solidarity with black Americans through four frameworks: civic responsibility, moral values, historical heritage and personal (experienced) history. Which of these frameworks resonate with you? What framework(s) help you to examine your relationship with people if the Global South?

  3. Author Aurora Levins Morales writes: "Solidarity is not a matter of altruism. Solidarity comes from...the deep recognition of our most expansive self-interest." Does Rabbi Prinz agree with this definition? Do you? What role does self-interest play in your relationship with people in the Global South?

  4. What does a relationship of solidarity with people in the Global South look like? How do you describe your current relationship with people in the Global South?


There were many rabbis and Jewish leaders who spoke up for civil rights. In your chevruta, choose one of the two Jewish civil rights leaders below and explore their work and life. When you're done you'll be asked to share with the class a little about your leader and the unique Jewish contribution that your leader made to the civil rights movement.


​Born in Warsaw into a Hasidic dynasty in 1907, Abraham Joshua Heschel was ordained in Europe. He also pursued a secular education, but was unable to finish his doctorate in Germany because of anti-Semitism. After Adolf Hitler came to power and began his campaign against the Jews, many rabbinic seminaries in America invited European rabbis to teach at their schools. In this way, Abraham Joshua Heschel came to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of America (the Reform movement's seminary) in 1940. Later, he moved to the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary, feeling that this was a better fit with his traditional Jewish background and views.

​Abraham Joshua Heschel is considered to be one of the great theologians of the twentieth century. He wrote on many Jewish topics including the Prophets. Heschel's experience during the Holocaust and his study of the Jewish prophets influenced his belief that Judaism required of one both deeds and actions. Known as "Father Abraham" to many of Martin Luther King's followers, Abraham Joshua Heschel was an outspoken activist for civil rights who marched with King, met with John F. Kennedy about civil rights legislation, and is celebrated by many in the Jewish community for his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and other movements for social justice. His reflection on participating in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March, 1965 -- "I felt my legs were praying" -- has become a model of activism as religious practice.

Read the telegram above from Rabbi Heschel to President Kennedy. You can zoom in by clicking on the image.

  1. In the first half of the telegram, Heschel asks the president to make some demands of religious leaders. Let's recap: What are these demands? Why does Heschel think this is necessary? Your interpretation: What do you think of a religious leader asking the President of the United States (a secular leader) to make religious demands of religious leaders?

  2. In the second half of the telegram, Heschel makes certain proposals to the President. What are these proposals? Your interpretation: How do they blend religious issues and political issues?

  3. Heschel says that "We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes." What do you think he meant by this? Do you agree? Do you think worshipping God is a right that we earn through our actions? If so, what do you think are the kinds of actions that might forfeit this right?

  4. What do you think Abraham Joshua Heschel meant when he said "The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity?" What do those words mean to you?

  5. What do you think the purpose of this telegram is?


Born in Washington, and ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1931, Milton Grafman spent most of his career as the rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, AL. Like many southern rabbis, Milton Grafman found himself caught between the realities of southern Jewish life and civil rights activists. While he and other clergy worked for the integration of public parks, thus angering many white southerners, he also believed that civil rights activists, especially Jewish ones, wanted to change things too quickly and did not understand the realities of southern life or the position of southern Jews.

In 1963, civil rights activists began a large-scale protest of segregation in Birmingham. Faced with an injunction to stop the protest, Martin Luther King announced he would march on City Hall. Many feared widespread violence. Rabbi Grafman and eight other members of the clergy met to share their concerns, angered by King's insistence on protesting before the recently elected mayor had a chance to pass desegregation legislation. They wrote a letter, published the next day in Birmingham's newspapers, in which they essentially asked King to wait and give the moderate government a chance. Despite the letter, the protests continued.

On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Addressed to the local white clergy who had been critical of King's tactics, the letter expressed King's disappointment with their inaction.

In September of the same year, Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing several African American children. The bombing occurred on Sunday, September 16, and the funeral for the children was held on Tuesday. Rosh Hashana began that same Tuesday evening. In his sermon on Rosh Hashana morning, Rabbi Grafman expressed his horror at the violence and loss and asserted that white citizens in Birmingham – Jews and Christians together – needed to help make things right.

Click here to listen to some of Rabbi Grafman's Sermon. Scroll down on the page that opens to find the audio. I would suggest beginning at around 15:25 and listening until 26:25.

Now consider the following questions:

  1. How do you think the way Rabbi Grafman's message was communicated might have influenced the message?

  2. Who was the intended audience? How do you think that might have influenced the message?

  3. Rabbi Grafman repeats several times that he is sick at heart. What do you think he means by this exactly? What seems to have caused him to feel this way?

  4. In what ways has Rabbi Grafman supported the Civil Rights Movement? In what ways has he not? What does he suggest he has always been mindful of in making his decisions about whether or not to act?

  5. What is Rabbi Grafman calling on his congregants to do? Why does he think they need to do this?

  6. How does Rabbi Grafman think change will come about in Birmingham? How do you think this differs from how civil rights activists want to bring about change?

  7. How do you think Rabbi Grafman's and his congregation's relationship to the Civil Rights Movement is complicated by the fact that they live in the South?

  8. What do you think Rabbi Grafman believes is his appropriate role in the Civil Rights Movement? What evidence do you have for this? Do you agree or disagree with this view of the role of a rabbi?

  9. Are there any current political/social issues on which you think rabbis today should take a stand? What kind of role would you want to see them take?

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