With the help of our sisterhood’s YES fund, HUC, JIR, our Reform rabbinic seminary helped save many teachers and scholars from the flames of the Shoah. Transporting them from a land of prejudice based on race.
They delivered many of these scholars to Cincinnati, Ohio – an hour and a half flight away from here – on the border of the American South. To the land of opportunity and freedom. To a city with segregated public pools and segregated restaurants. To rabbinical school that taught the words of our prophets. To a school where the young students were served three meals a day on white linens and silver polished to a shine by ‘black’ hands. Who slept in Dorm rooms maintained by the school’s African-American staff.
Many German Jewish rabbis and scholars found their way to America. And when they arrived, instead of a land of full of liberty and justice for all, they found something oddly familiar – segregation and discrimination based on race.
יב הַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעָם, הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ–לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ, וְיָרְאוּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת
Gather the people – the men, women, children and even the visitors in your community so that they may hear and may learn – and thus respect the Eternal your God, and thus diligently fulfill all of the words of this Teaching[i]
יג וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ, יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ–לְיִרְאָה, אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
And [gather] their children, who do not know – who have not experienced these actual events – so that they may hear and may learn – and thus respect the Eternal your God…[ii]
In many school all across America there is a yearly ritual, which I hear is in decline. Children are brought together, sometimes in individual classrooms, and sometimes the whole school would gather, the men, woman and children, packed into hot assembly halls, to listen to a presentation, and then to hear these words, recorded fifty years ago this Wednesday, blaring forth from a screen:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character….
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”[iii]
What obvious yet challenging words, “When we will not judge others by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
What I didn’t know at the time as a child at these assemblies, were the words spoken just before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which I heard for the first time at the Jacob Rader Marcus American Jewish Archive.
Delivered with the added power of a rich German accent were these words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz:
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.[iv]
Gather the people – the men, women, children and even the visitors in your community. On March 15th, 1962[v], Dr. Martin Luther King spoke here, at Holy Blossom Temple as part of the Brotherhood Forum Series. Rabbi Plaut recorded some of Dr. King’s words as follows:
Segregation must go, not because this [struggle] is important in our struggle with Communism, but because it is morally wrong; because it substitutes an I/it relationship amongst people for an I/though relationship. Time takes no sides. It is neutral and can be used either way, but time is always ripe for doing right. The long arc of history bends towards justice.
Members of black Canadian groups attended, and the fight to end informal segregation in Canada continued with some victories, including the closing of the last segregated school in Ontario in 1965[vi]
When Dr. King was arrested in Alabama, the Social Action Committee of Holy Blossom Temple organized under Milton Cadsby into a leading organization in Toronto and Canada for civil rights. In 1963, organized to both send money to Dr. King and to help fight segregation in Canada, there was a large benefit which included among a long list of all Canadian performers Harry Belafonte and the Canadian folk group The Travellers. This event was the first time “We Shall Overcome” was sung in Canada as a civil rights anthem. [vii] Following the event, Holy Blossom Temple was broken into, and the proceeds from the event stolen. Dr. King writes Cadsby, “I am very sorry that you had a misfortune at the Holy Blossom Temple. These things happen, however, in the most guarded situation. It is good to know that the break-in will not in any way defeat the continuance of your efforts.” “I cannot express in words the deep inspiration that comes to all of us… When we gain this kind of creative backing, it gives us renewed courage and vigor to carry on. You have demonstrated in words and deeds that you are real friends to the cause of justice and freedom.”[viii] The committee and the congregation replaced the money stolen with personal donations.
Our assistant rabbi during this time, Jerold Bobrow marched with King in Washington.[ix] And our former senior rabbi, Maurice Eisendrath, is famously pictured carrying a Torah scroll next to both a Rabbi praying with his feet, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. King during a march on Selma.
I am an American Jew… living in Canada. My generation does not remember the horrors of German, the elation over Israel. My generation does not remember our shameful history of segregation which existed across North America..
It is clear that we here at Holy Blossom, have a story to tell our children of our history, and of how it can affect our troubled present. We have heard the Commanding Voice. The Voice from Sinai. The Voice from Europe. As Jews, when we hear tears and suffering from around the world, we weep.
Holy Blossom shined the light of its social justice initiatives around Canada and to the south, and helped move our world that much closer to being a world redeemed.
But my generation and the generations after me are losing these memories, and thus in danger of losing this Commanding Voice.
הַקְהֵל אֶת בְּנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ Gather us, the young, who do not know – who have not experienced these actual events – so that we may hear and may learn – and thus heed the Eternal’s call.
We all can continue on heeding the call of the Eternal by seeing individuals by the colour of their character and not of any external distinction. We can continue to heed the call of the Eternal through our professional lives. And we can continue heeding the call of the Eternal through bringing our passion and involvement into this sacred community, and dedicating ourselves as a community again to seeking justice for all both in Canada and abroad. President Obama, who acknowledges his on indebtedness to those that supported Dr. King, amended Dr. King’s line this past Wednesday, “The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”[x] Please see Rabbi Teri Appleby for details of how you can get involved in our continuing initiatives and in tackling issues that are important to you. You could be the next Milton Cadsby.
In addition to our fight for systemic change, we are of course collecting food over the High Holy Days to tide individuals over who need that momentary help.
As the New Year approaches and as we take our accounting, we think of ourselves and our families, our Nation, our People and our search for a more equitable world- Let us not forget our imperatives to gather and to teach our children of our Jewish history and how it informs our present. As in the past, we have demonstrated in words and deeds that we are real friends to the cause of justice and freedom, let us not rest on our past, but use this history to change our present and create a more promising future.
In this month of Elul, let us celebrate our triumphs, yet realize that our work is never complete. Let us remember to teach our children in story and especially in deed. In the words of our Haftarah:
לְמַעַן צִיּוֹן לֹא אֶחֱשֶׁה, וּלְמַעַן יְרוּשָׁלִַם לֹא אֶשְׁקוֹט, עַד-יֵצֵא כַנֹּגַהּ צִדְקָהּ, וִישׁוּעָתָהּ כְּלַפִּיד יִבְעָר.
For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still, till her Justice shines forth like a flame, and her Redemption like a torch aflame.[xi]
[i] Deut. 31:12
[ii] Deut. 31:13
[v]Bulletin Vol. xxxvii, No. 28, Mar. 13, 1962 – copy is the archives, HB10 F 13 40260 http://188.8.131.52/dbin/mlkjr/collection/search.php?query=path:55365//subj:52602//name:44134//name:43419//name:46877&size=50
[vi] http://www.blackhistorycanada.ca/events.php?themeid=21&id=9 The last segregated school in Canada wasn’t closed until much later.
[viii] Letter from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Milton A. Cadsby, 24 July 1963. HB10 F 13 40260
[xi] Isaiah 62:1.