Jews and Blacks: Civil rights veterans reminisce at the Reform biennial
Julian Bond, Al Vorspan and Rabbi David Saperstein tackle the history and future of social justice at the San Diego Biennial.
SAN DIEGO - Civil rights legend Julian Bond, who helped lead the struggle for race equality in America in the 1960s, is famous as the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and former chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But in his appearance at the Reform movement’s biennial, clearly in a lighthearted mood, Bond decided he would try his hand at rapping. With a smile, he sang: “Hey, everyone have you heard the news - about what’s happening between the blacks and the Jews?”
On a panel called "Civil Rights and Social Justice: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow," Bond appeared alongside Senior Vice-President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism Al Vorspan, also an activist in the civil rights era, and Rabbi David Saperstein, who has served as the director and chief legal counsel at the URJ Religious Action Center in Washington, DC for more than 30 years.
The three men held a free-wheeling nostalgic discussion of the history of black-Jewish partnership in the civil rights struggle and other social justice causes, as well as the challenges that still confront the two communities.
Bond told of how, as a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he joined with other students who had been inspired by the Greensboro sit-in and together they started their own movement to desegregate restaurants and cafeterias, including the cafeteria at City Hall. He recalled how the African-American women working in the cafeterias looked at the young activists with a mixture of admiration and fear – which was justified, as their activities led to their arrest.
Vorspan called Bond “probably the best representative of what blacks and Jews meant to each other and still mean to each other.”
The long-time Reform Jewish activist, who turns 90 this year, had his own tales from the civil rights struggle. He told of how he and 16 other rabbis travelled, at the behest of Martin Luther King, to Florida, where they were arrested for “the crime of having lunch with two black ministers” and King staff members. Brought before a judge, who happened to be a Ku Klux Klan member, the group asked to be put in a jail cell together - they didn’t want to be segregated, even in jail. Their request was refused
Saperstein's family was active in the movement - his parents and brothers went to the South to register voters and teach – which inspired him to make a career in social justice work. He worked under Vorspan, who founded the Religious Action Center. The move into political and social justice activity was, at the time of its founding in the early 1960s, a controversial move in Reform Judaism, but one that came to characterize the movement as inherently committed to the expression of Jewish values of ‘tikkun olam’ in the political sphere, as well as the spiritual.
Vorspan reminisced: “The establishment of the RAC after huge controversy in the Jewish community was celebrated in the Rose Garden of the White House by President John F. Kennedy. Looking at this new president, I sensed a glow about him, something special and he was there to honor us, to honor RAC.”
After Kennedy’s speech, the Reform representatives presented the president with a Torah donated by the Jewish community in Cincinnati. “As he held it in his arms, it was a little bit of Camelot and a little bit of the prophets," Vorspan recalled.
While Kennedy was standing with the Torah, one of the participants noted jokingly to the president, “You are carrying the Torah and you aren’t wearing a yarmulke." Kennedy responded, “I’ve told you before, I’m a Reform Jew!”
Asked what he viewed as being the most important civil rights and social justice challenges currently, Bond focused on the “reconstruction of the voting rights act after the courts eviscerated it… we have to restore it.” He noted with dismay the growing number of restrictive and punitive voter ID laws and said the tide had to be reversed.
Vorspan highlighted economic injustice, the shocking gap between rich and poor, the growing amount of poverty and despair and the continuing health care crisis, even in the face of the Obama administration’s attempt to address the problem.
An issue of immediate concern to Saperstein was immigration reform. On Thursday, as he spoke, he had just ended a 10-day, water-only hunger strike in an action called "Fast For Families," in which he joined other clergy and activists. The purpose of the strike was to call attention to the illegal immigration crisis and urge Congress to introduce legislation for comprehensive reform. Saperstein said that the experience gave him “a powerful comradeship with the other fasters.”
Bond congratulated Saperstein on his commitment and action and joked that he was “looking trim” as a result.