I couldn’t tell you today what my bar mitzvah haftorah portion was about, despite my many hours of diligent study and my mastery of the intonations. But I recall my rabbi from those days extremely well.
The month following my bar mitzvah, our rabbi, Sidney Shanken of Temple Beth-El in Cranford (now Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim) gave a momentous sermon and report back on his return from Birmingham, Alabama. It was 1963. He was one of 20 members of the Rabbinical Assembly who formed a delegation for “a testimony” on behalf of the human rights and dignity of Black Americans, who were fighting to end the intense anti-Black discrimination known as Jim Crow in that city. The civil rights struggle there had reached a climax that May after tightly disciplined waves of school children, many younger than I, faced down high-pressure fire hoses and aggressive police dogs to march from Black churches into the tightly segregated downtown business district, defying the infamous police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor and getting arrested.
By the time that the Rabbinical Assembly got the call from Rev. Martin Luther King’s brother saying, “This is the time to come,” and the 20 rabbis left from Newark Airport, the jails there were so packed with protesters that a makeshift detention was opened at the state fairgrounds.
Our rabbi was the first member of Cranford’s clergy to join the Birmingham protests, and he quickly reported back to the others, which made a local splash. Perhaps we Jewish kids, still a distinct minority in the town, walked a little more proudly that year. I remember it was about that time that we started asking questions about why we were expected to sing religious Christmas songs in our public school.
That May was not the first time or the last that Rabbi Shanken, who was from Texas, went back down South to stand with those in the thick of the civil rights struggles. In 1961, he joined the freedom rides — often the targets of violent racist attacks — to integrate interstate bus transportation, journeying through Tennessee to Little Rock, Arkansas, in an interracial group. He returned again for the historic 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, which led to the national voting rights victory of that year.
Our Rabbi Shanken, who I was saddened to read had died in 2020, was also a World War II hero; he flew 54 combat missions against Axis forces in Sicily, the Italian mainland, and Greece.
You might say that Shanken, like the better known Rabbi Joachim Prinz of Temple B’nai Abraham — then in Newark, now in Livingston – who also took part in these events, stood for Judaism in action. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a close friend of Dr. King who strode in the front rank across the bridge in Selma, said something quite similar: “Our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Such Jews embodied Hillel’s teachings about our individual and collective responsibility: “If I am not for myself, who shall be for me?” Hillel asked. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” “And if not now, when?”
Shanken answered forthrightly, doing service for Jews as a group and to repair the world when the times demanded that he do so.
What we seem to be confronted with today, however, is that some powerful forces are trying to turn back the clock and erase the national American achievements of that era — achievements that these heroic Jewish forebears were an integral part of. And such powerful extremists are going so far as to try to erase history.
It’s been reported that a textbook publisher, competing for business in MAGA-friendly, “anti-woke” Florida, has carefully stripped out mentions of the race of participants in well-known episodes of civil rights history. One draft mentioned Rosa Parks, the pioneer of the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, but removed the fact that she was an African-American woman who was told to give up her seat to a white person. A county school board in the Sunshine State, following dictates of state government, forbade showings of a long-used Disney film on Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old Black girl who first integrated a public elementary school in New Orleans.
While these developments are deeply disturbing to me as an American engaged with the life of our country, they don’t in any way challenge my pride in being a Jew. It took a co-religionist to remotely do that.
I am referring to Bezalel Smotrich, one of the most powerful cabinet ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government. Last month, he pointedly told a conference in France that there is “no such thing as a Palestinian people.” Like his colleague, the appointed National Security minister Itamar Ben-G’vir, Smotrich has been an outspoken proponent for an ideology and practice referred to as “Jewish supremacy.” And his infamous call to “wipe out” the Palestinian West Bank village of Huwara in February, at the time of a settler rampage there, is equally repugnant. First deny the history (also done lately in Florida), then the existence and rights of your neighbors. In this, Smotrich is an heir not to Hillel but to the racist Birmingham police chief, Bull Connor.
Some say that Smotrich, Ben G’vir, and their cohort, due to their high offices, should be given the chance to “state their case” if and when they venture to the United States. I disagree.
Jews with views such as these seek to destroy all of Judaism’s beloved ethical and moral traditions and turn our religion into a purely tribal practice. They are effectively spitting on the graves of our great rabbis, including my Cranford rabbi.
As I have the means to do so, I will be out protesting the Smotriches and Ben G’virs whenever they come here. I remain a proud Jew despite them.
Mark Lurinsky of Montclair is recently retired from a career in public accounting. He is an activist in local politics and a member of the steering committee of J Street’s New Jersey chapter.