When President Obama was elected, many of us thought that we were entering a post racial age. We now know how wrong we were. As the President said, while we have made significant progress toward equality for all, we have much to do before we can say that race is not longer an issue in this country.
We, as Jews, have seen both good and difficult times in our relations with African Americans. On this Martin Luther King Day, let us all re-affirm the Prophetic Heritage of our Classical Reform commitment, to join in the struggle for freedom and justice for all people…”for we were once strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt…” Here is an inspiring story about Rabbi Jacob Rothchild, who spoke out for civil rights at a time when it was dangerous to do so.
Rabbi Jacob Rothchild’s Fight for Racial Justice
His Friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Excerpts from “Rabbi Jacob Rothchild,”
The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (The Temple), Atlanta, GA
In 1947, Rabbi Jacob Rothchild, rabbi of The Temple (Hebrew Benevolent Congregation) in Atlanta, gave a High Holy Day sermon denouncing segregation. This was a marked shift from the tenure of Rabbi David Marx. For the 51 years before Rothchild came to The Temple, the congregation had faced a community rife with anti-Semitism and danger, and in response they went out of their way to strike a tentative balance with their gentile neighbors. Rabbi Marx had avoided confrontational rhetoric and avoided conflicts whenever possible.
Bigotry and prejudice were still a very real threat in the 1940s, but Rabbi Rothschild felt passionately that the moral compass of Judaism demanded an active response to the injustice of the times. Over time, congregants of The Temple came to expect his sermons and activism on racial justice.
As his predecessor, Rabbi joined a series of civic and interfaith organizations. Rothschild also went even further, instituting a daylong Institute for the Christian Clergy, hosted at The Temple each February. A single point of controversy was Rothschild’s insistence that black ministers be invited to all such interfaith events. He often asked black leaders to lead educational events at The Temple, in spite of those who feared such actions would elicit retribution from pro-segregation whites.
Civil Rights Activism & The Temple Bombing
That retribution finally arrived on the morning of October 12, 1958. Fifty sticks of dynamite were placed by the northern entrance to The Temple, exploding a massive hole in the building’s outer wall. Luckily, the only damage was to the building, and nobody was harmed in the blast. The Temple bombing, however, marked a major turning point in the history of The Temple. Rabbi Rothschild’s efforts to partner with leaders of the larger gentile community, to foster a climate of moderation, paid massive dividends on that day in 1958.
Leaders from all walks of life came out in support of The Temple. In stark contrast to the popular anti-Semitism of the early 20th century, public opinion was also in support of Jewish community. The mayor of Atlanta, William B. Hartsfield famously stood in the rubble of The Temple alongside Rabbi Rothschild. The photograph hangs in The Temple to this day.
Rabbi Rothchild and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Friendship
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became friends with Rabbi Rothschild in ensuing years as well. In 1964, it was Rothschild who helped organize a banquet in King’s honor after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. After King’s assassination, it was again Rabbi Rothschild who delivered the eulogy at a memorial service organized by the combined clergy of Atlanta.
Indeed, Rabbi Rothschild continued to be an outspoken critic of segregation and racism and an outspoken supporter of the non-violence espoused by Dr. King. His legacy, a fiery support of human decency and social justice, remains the foundation of The Temple to this day.