Putting the coalition back together
Rabbi Saul Berman to speak at joint JCRC, NAACP event
After 50 years, Rabbi Saul Berman hasn’t forgotten Purim 1964.
He spent it in a prison cell in Selma, Alabama.
He had traveled from Berkeley, California, where he led an Orthodox congregation, to take part in the civil rights movement, registering voters and protesting injustice.
In a letter he left to be read on Shabbat in his absence, Rabbi Berman explained that “my going to Selma did not arise out of my social activism, it arose out of my Jewish commitments. The Torah works very hard to instruct us in a sense of responsibility for the disadvantaged. Not just a theoretical responsibility but in having a sense of active responsibility.”
On Monday, he will tell the story of his trip to Selma as part of a program in Englewood sponsored jointly by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Bergen County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The collaboration between the JCRC and the NAACP is just one of three efforts to build coalitions with other communities that have been funded by a grant from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, according to Joy Kurland, the JCRC’s director.
Another, with the Korean community, created a Korean-Jewish Teen Coalition. The third is launching later this month, as 10 rabbis and their Christian clergy counterparts gather for a private discussion moderated by a professional facilitator.
The NAACP partnership included joint sponsorship of candidate debates in the fall. And it grew out of an already good relationship.
“They were incredibly supportive when all of the synagogues suffered the desecrations and attacks,” culminating in the firebombing of a synagogue in Rutherford in January 2012, Ms. Kurland said. “They came and stood with us, and from that point on we began to develop a nice working relationship together.
“In all of this the idea is to begin building relationships by working together on commonalities, on mutual issues of concern, and eventually working together on issues involving Israel,” she said.
Monday’s event also will feature Richard Smith of Vineland, president of the NAACP’s New Jersey region.
Rabbi Berman, who is an associate professor in Jewish studies at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women and an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Law School, has been speaking about his Selma experiences on college campuses in recent months.
“On one level, it’s sort of ancient history for them,” he said. “On another, most of the campuses I’ve been at are deeply invested in the concerns for social justice. They understand that there are lessons that can be learned from 50 years ago that can be applied in contemporary situations.
“At this point, the dominant concern of Jewish students is Israel. At the same time, at a variety of campuses there is a very active engagement between Jewish and black students. At Brandeis, a group of Jewish and black students visited Selma just prior to my visit. There’s a broad desire on the part of students to remain actively engaged in coalition with other student groups, at least on social action issues,” he said.
Rabbi Berman said the portrayal of the events 50 years ago in the recent movie “Selma” was “very realistic.”
“I know that lots of people had been concerned about the sort of minimization of the role of President Johnson, having made him into a reluctant participant,” he said. “In the Jewish community, there was concern about the absence of any particular Jewish presence.
“It’s true there was an enormous amount of Jewish presence in Selma at that period of time, in terms of the rabbis who were there and, more significantly, in terms of the young people who had come for the march.”
But he wasn’t particularly concerned about those omissions.
“It’s not a historical tract,” he said. “It’s a movie. It was intended to engender a sense of pride on the part of the black community in moving forward. I think that purpose was very much achieved by the film.
“For people to build a sense of identity they need to have a sense of pride in their own past. The movie was designed to portray the black contribution to their own advancement. It consciously minimized the role of others, whether the president of the United States or Jewish participants,” he said.
The black-Jewish coalition of the civil rights era “gave the Jewish community an opportunity to give some expression to some very significant ideals in terms of responsibility for the ethical society in which we live. It also provided the Jewish community with the stamina to engage in its own battles. I think the participation in the civil rights movement was a significant element that empowered the Jewish community in the Soviet Jewry struggle, as well as the sense of pride that emerged after the Six Day War.
“At the same time, it made a significant contribution to the advancement of equality in American society.
“It was a great loss that the coalition collapsed in the early 1970s.”
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the factors that led to the coalition’s collapse, Rabbi Berman said.
“His voice, which had been raised for Soviet Jewry and on behalf of Israel, was a significant force in empowering the Jewish community to engage in solidarity with the black community.
“Socioeconomic factors, particularly in major urban areas, which made for increasing conflict between black and Jewish interests, were not dealt with, in part because of the absence of voices of leadership that could have enabled the communities to get past that.”
Now, Rabbi Berman said, “I believe we’re headed into another period of time where the most significant social issue will be one of equality, the need for greater economic equality, as well as the resurfacing of voting rights issues.
“It will behoove the black and Jewish leaderships to look closely for ways for rebuilding the kind of coalition that existed in the ’60s.”
What: Voting Rights Act, 50 years revisited.
Who: Rabbi Saul Berman, who marched in Selma, and Richard Smith, New Jersey State NAACP Conference president.
When: Monday, May 18, 7:30-9:30 p.m.
Where: Dr. John Grieco Elementary School, 50 Durie Avenue, Englewood.
The program is free and open to the community. For information, call Joy Kurland at (201) 820-3946 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.