Appreciation of the Brave Rabbis of 1964

The New York Times published an article-length obituary of Rabbi Eugene B. Borowitz on January 30, who died at the age of 91. He was a scholar and teacher whose thoughtful and distinguished work is among the best of modern Jewish philosophy and ethics in the Reform Jewish tradition. For a person of “a certain age,” his name conjures up the little book, Choosing a Sex Ethic (1969), which must have saved many progressive parents of that era from having to start the discussion themselves.

Rabbi Borowitz’s obituary gave me pause because in a very personal way he represented a Jewish tradition that shaped many of us growing up in the 1960s. He probed the notion of an ethical covenant of responsibility, dedicated himself to thought and action, thoughtful and ethical action, thought that engaged action. His was a theology that put one’s values on the line. Thinking about that took me back 50 years….

Truthfully, my deep education in these matters of ethics, thought, and action was launched not by reading his books, or anyone else’s for that matter. It came during my adolescence, on Thursday, June 18 and Friday, June 19, 1964, when Rabbi Borowitz and 15 other rabbis from across the country plus the Director of the Commission on Social Action of the umbrella organization of American Reform Judaism traveled to St. Augustine, Florida to join Martin Luther King and other civil rights movement activists in integration action organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. That Thursday they demonstrated at a segregated motel restaurant, and while that was happening, African American participants jumped in the whites-only swimming pool.

As the New York Times described it, on Thursday, the manager of the motel “met the demonstrators outside the restaurant, a few feet from the swimming pool. ‘This is private property and I will have to ask you to leave,’ [he] said. When the demonstrators refused to do so, he began pushing. First he pushed the leaders and one by one he pushed the rabbis. As one rabbi was pushed aside another would step forward to take his place.” White onlookers shouted, already angry because the demonstrators had conducted a prayer service the night before. Martin Luther King, watching from across the street, described “raw police brutality,” including beatings and the use of cattle prods.

One of those rabbis was mine, Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein, of Temple Israel in Westport, Connecticut. My family was very involved in the congregation, and when Rabbi Rubenstein set off for Florida, knowing he might not be back for Shabbat services, he asked some members of the congregation, including my father, to fill in for him, which my dad was glad to do. It seemed obvious to us that the religious and spiritual convictions we talked about so often were not just consistent with the resistance to segregation, but demanded that those who could summon the bravery to act must do so. It was slightly less than 20 years since the liberation of the concentration camps.

Those of us born after World War II were raised from the start with the questions about why more people who might have been able to do so did not resist. How did people live with watching their neighbors oppressed by the Nuremberg Laws and other anti-Jewish legislation? How did they live with watching them taken away on the Holocaust trains? For many of us, those questions translated easily into social commitment and even a worry that one might not have the character to be brave enough to resist injustice. Almost as much as I remember hearing the Declaration of Independence as a child, I remember hearing many sayings of Hillel HaGadol, but especially, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn;” and Pastor Martin Niemöller’s confession and admonition: “First they came for the Socialists….” The rabbis made this connection in their letter from jail, “Why We Went.”

The death of Rabbi Borowitz conjures up the memory of those few summer days of my early adolescence. We were proud of our rabbi, and worried on his behalf. It made us feel connected to what felt like the most important winds of change of the day. And the next day, on Friday evening as we gathered for services in his absence, the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed the Senate by a vote of 73-24. I remember standing with one of the Rabbi’s sons, about my age, both of us excited by the news, and I childishly (I suppose) told him, “Your Dad helped do this!”

On Saturday the papers report that a march by St. Augustine African Americans celebrating this landmark legislation was greeted by an angry mob of whites fired up by Ku Klux Klan speakers.

I have never done anything that demanded as much physical bravery as the thousands of African Americans in that era who were constantly involved in direct ways in resisting apartheid. And those rabbis certainly could have stayed home and spoken loudly from the safety of the liberal Jewish congregations of Connecticut and New York and Seattle and St. Paul and the other cities from which they came – although I daresay it is hard to believe that all of their congregants were pleased with their actions. But the likes of those community leaders who raised us with an ethic of responsibility, of not staying silent, of rational thought and action mixed together, of asking difficult questions and confronting evil: I am grateful for them.

Few of these rabbis are still with us. Rabbi Rubenstein died years ago. For those who are gone, may their names be for a blessing.