Bearing witness: A controversial 1963 trip to Birmingham by 19 rabbis

On May 7, 1963, Sylvan Laufman arrived in New York on a business trip. The atmosphere there was far different than the one back home in Birmingham. When he left, the Civil Rights marches in downtown Birmingham were reaching a crescendo and drawing the world’s attention.

After a month of generally ineffective protests, Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement started the Children’s Crusade. Students would leave school and march downtown for equal rights. Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor was perplexed, and started arresting the students en masse. He also brought out the dogs and firehoses to try and break up the demonstrations, leading to widespread condemnation of Birmingham.

Behind the scenes, white leadership and the civil rights leadership were feverishly trying to hammer out an agreement on desegregation to put an end to the demonstrations, and on May 7, five days into the Children’s Crusade, they were close.

Then Laufman saw on the news that a group of 19 rabbis was leaving the Rabbinical Assembly convention in New York and was already en route to Birmingham to take a public stand with the black demonstrators.

Laufman called Karl Friedman, chairman of the Community Relations Committee. This was not going to go over well with the Birmingham Jewish community.

Spur of the moment

At the convention, where about 400 Conservative rabbis were in attendance, Rabbi Harold Schulweis spoke in the morning of May 7 about honoring the actions of heroic non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. With shocking pictures from Birmingham on the front page of every newspaper, it was suggested that the convention take lessons from the past and apply them to current events.

Rabbi Moshe Cahana of Houston said it was imperative to do something regarding Birmingham. How could they condemn Germans who stood by if they chose to stand by now? They contacted the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and asked if they could come “render assistance in the heroic struggle of the Negro people in Birmingham,” Rabbi Andre Ungar later wrote. The SCLC simply said “come.”

The association then quickly passed the Birmingham Resolution, authorizing a group of rabbinic volunteers to go to Birmingham that very night and speak on their behalf.

Nineteen rabbis, including Cahana, volunteered to go, and funds were quickly raised from those present and from the association itself. Two of the rabbis had already been jailed in the South as Freedom Riders.

Ungar said they debated whether to contact the Birmingham Jewish community, “if not to ask permission, then at least to inform them about our plans.” They decided informing the community would put the locals in a predicament, and that “our own action had to be independent from the local Jewish attitudes.”

City of confrontation
When the 19 rabbis arrived at the Birmingham Airport at 2 a.m. on May 8, a large SCLC delegation greeted them. The rabbis were delighted by the large reception, then only later learned the numbers were for protection in case of segregationist attacks.

Also at the airport was a delegation from the Birmingham Jewish community. Friedman had contacted Rabbi Milton Grafman of Temple Emanu-El, the city’s Reform congregation, Eugene Zeidman, Alex Rittenbaum, Dora Roth and a few other leaders. There was no rabbinic representation from the city’s Conservative congregation, Temple Beth-El, because Rabbi Abraham Mesch had died suddenly in December 1962.

Friedman said many of the rabbis refused to meet with the local group. He noted that the apparent leader was Rabbi Richard Rubenstein, who headed the Hillel at the University of Pittsburgh. Rubenstein “was stubborn to the extent of being offensive. He talked down to us and challenged us and indicated that they came to make a change, with or without us.”

Rabbi Richard Winograd later wrote, “I had the feeling that we somehow were the Hamans and Torquemadas to southern Jews.” The delegation would later be derisively referred to in Birmingham’s Jewish community as the “19 messiahs.”

A few of the rabbis agreed to what wound up being a late night meeting in Friedman’s office. There, Grafman suggested that some of the rabbis could speak at the three local congregations that Shabbat evening, and they agreed.

Abe Berkowitz, who had been instrumental in changing Birmingham’s form of government and voting out Connor five weeks earlier, explained the background of the current situation and told them that “a settlement seemingly was in the making, that from all appearances the rabbis’ presence in Birmingham could accomplish nothing, could possibly muddy the waters” and could backfire because the segregationists claim integration is a Jewish Communist inspired movement.

To top it off, a few days after the rabbis arrived, there was a major conference of the rabidly anti-Semitic National States Rights Party scheduled in Birmingham.

Friedman recalled that “all of them thought that we were totally uninvolved, hiding, and living in fear, and none of that was true. We were deeply involved, daily, with meetings and conferences, with Martin Luther King, Bull Connor and other leadership.” But the situation was volatile.

He added that half the rabbis started to see the local community’s concerns while the other half “were out setting fires.”

The rabbis chose to stay at the A.G. Gaston Motel, which was a black hotel. By doing so, they could be arrested for violating the city’s Jim Crow laws, something which did not concern them.

The day of the rabbis’ arrival, it seemed the negotiations were nearing an agreement, so as a gesture of good will, King called off demonstrations for the day. The rabbis had planned to demonstrate with the blacks, something the local community had strongly advised against, figuring that a large public statement by the rabbis would have serious repercussions for the community.

That afternoon the rabbis witnessed a press conference with some of the students who were arrested early in the Children’s Crusade and had already been released from jail, and that evening they went to one of the mass rallies at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Rubenstein spoke there, and Ungar wrote that “the Negroes of Birmingham… called us ‘our rabbis’.”

Late that evening, 14 of the rabbis met with the local community. According to a letter by Alex Rittenbaum, president of the Jewish Community Council, “some of the rabbis clearly indicated that their visit to Birmingham was a mistake, that they wanted to get off the hook.”

In a stinging letter to the Rabbinical Assembly the next week, Temple Beth-El President Arnold Royal noted that the rabbis began to realize that “sitting in a convention assembled is one thing, and being exposed to the raw facts of life is yet another thing.”

But Ungar wrote that “the Birmingham Jew was squarely on the side of reaction, of what in that great confrontation is the side of wrong against right,” and they were going to stay.

As they attended rallies, yarmulkes became “prized trophies of young Negroes,” Ungar stated. A new verse of “We Shall Overcome” included the words “The rabbis are with us.”

On May 9, King was arrested as the agreement was reached with city leaders; he was quickly bailed out and met with the rabbis for about an hour. Late that evening, the rabbis linked arms with blacks at the airport and sang “We Shall Overcome” before boarding the planes.

King announced the agreement on May 10. On May 11, the Gaston Motel — where the rabbis had stayed — was destroyed by a bomb.

Celebration and backlash
News of the rabbis’ visit hit newspapers all over the country, except for one place — Birmingham. The Jewish Community Council managed to keep word of the visit from the pages of the local newspapers, because “serious anti-Semitism would result from a community conclusion that Jews are leading the local integration fight.” Some were already charging that the “downtown merchants” — a code term for Jewish store owners — were the ones leading the “capitulation to the integrationist demands of the Negroes.”

Elsewhere, the rabbis returned to mostly positive reactions. To be sure, there was some hate mail, but in many communities the rabbis received a hero’s welcome.

For one of the rabbis, there was a great deal of backlash. Rabbi Arie Becker of Beth Sholom Synagogue in Memphis was one of the 19, and one of only two from Southern pulpits, Cahana being the other. A Holocaust survivor who lost 28 close family members to the Nazis, Becker had been in Memphis for just four years.

Congregants who knew nothing of his trip until it was in the newspaper were irate and confronted him on his return, saying he was appearing to represent the congregation in what was clearly a dangerous public stance.

Bricks were thrown at his house, cars would pass slowly during the night and the synagogue received bomb threats. It got so contentious that he sent his family to stay with relatives in Philadelphia for the summer.

For Stephen Grafman, son of Rabbi Grafman, that proved the point of Birmingham’s Jewish community as to how volatile the situation was. The 19 rabbis could go home hundreds of miles away, Birmingham’s Jews had to stay and deal with any consequences.

Further galling the Birmingham community was that Temple Beth-El, the local Conservative congregation that had been target of a bombing attempt five years before, had an opening on its pulpit after Mesch’s death five months earlier. The fact that none of the 19 rabbis had expressed any interest in filling that position did not go unnoticed at the time.

A few months after the 1963 visit, Rabbi Jack Bloom of Connecticut wrote that the two days he spent in Birmingham “were the most significant religious experience of my life,” and the abstract black person in his mind became real.

In 2009, Bloom returned to Birmingham and Selma for the first time as part of the ninth Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage. “Who would have believed how much Birmingham and Selma had changed,” he observed.

A decade after the visit, Rubenstein was invited to speak at Birmingham’s Jewish Community Center as one of his books was being published. Friedman and others went to the talk, ready to give him a piece of their minds over how he had conducted himself in 1963.

Then Rubenstein started his talk by stating that the rabbis had made a hasty decision a decade earlier, were not aware of the complexity of the times, and he went on to apologize for their dismissal of the local community’s concerns.

“I had a much more sympathetic feeling for their problems in 1973 than in 1963,” Rubenstein said recently. “They were there on the spot, they were in a tough situation.

“In 1963, I felt they were not being heroic enough. In 1973, I felt that they had a point.”