by Dr. Cindy Kistenberg
I frequently ask myself what I would have done if I had been a Jewish college student during the 1950s and 60s. I like to think I would have been on the front lines–especially given who I am now. Before becoming a part of the Charlotte Black/Jewish Alliance, I couldn’t understand Jewish inaction during that time–how people whose religion and culture was almost destroyed by the Nazis did not actively work to create equity and justice during the Civil Rights era.
While many Jews talk about the Holocaust as their impetus for doing social justice work, others chose to remain quiet. On the Deep South Pilgrimage, I am constantly reminded of about the complexity of the situation not only for Jews/Jewish institutions, but for the Black churches. No where did this resonate with me more than at the Temple Mishkan Israel in Selma—when Ronnie Leet, the temple’s president, said his Rabbi’s escape from Nazi Germany was precisely the reason why he had “no interest” in the events of the 1960s. The reason why so many Jews became involved is precisely the reason why he did not.
This narrative and others shared at the religious institutions we visited reflect the complexity of the issues faced by those Jews and Blacks who lived in the south. Again, the similarities between the groups emerge to explain their action, but also inaction—how much worse things could be if they or people from outside the community tried to change the status quo.
Dr. Cindy Kistenberg serves as faculty of our Charlotte Black/Jewish Alliance Faculty and is Professor of Communication & Theatre at Johnson C. Smith University.