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.
I’m so glad that the Center facilitates this Deep South Pilgrimage. I went on a similar journey with my church several years back. I think every American should make that trip.
Thank you for sharing your reflections about this complicated aspect of the civil rights era. Your thoughts reminded me of a story I heard recently on NPR about the Broadway revival of “Parade” — the true story of a Jewish factory manager who was falsely accused of the murder of a 13 year old girl in Atlanta. I believe Black cast members serve as a kind of somber Greek chorus in the show.
There are so many layers to excavate about the struggles of this time. I’m personally most consumed by the question, how does it all inform what I am doing (or not doing) today? As a white southern [Christian] woman, the deeply disturbing images and recordings of white women’s ease & confidence while engaging in racist aggression (towards children integrating schools, for example), wholly unconcerned regarding the immorality of their actions, might serve as a cautionary tale. What events will someone study in 60 years, appalled at what we did or did not do?
Thank you again for your post.
Your reflection is so meaningful. Let us know how we can help you upon your journey so that our actions inspire the generations that follow.