LELYVELD’S LEGACY: Rabbi Joshua L. Caruso

In his book, The Steadfast Stream: An Introduction to Jewish Social Values, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld reflects on the power of values:

“One would think that values are social vitamins and that properly administered they will counteract delinquency…But values are not vitamins and they are not words…Justice is not a value. Rather, our values determine what we mean when in a specific situation we say, ‘Justice.’ Our values are the factors that determine our choices. They are demonstrated, made evident, by what we do.”

It should not be lost on us that the erudite and scholarly Rabbi Lelyveld could have spent the all of his days comfortably ensconced in his ivory tower of learnedness, letting other good souls of the earth do the dirty work of justice. But the good rabbi, with the complicated notions of Jewish thought, was all along developing a blueprint for the values he so famously lived. He headed up the Jewish Peace Fellowship coalition, voiced support for the United States’ recognition of the State of Israel before it won independence, fostered ecumenical ties with colleagues of various faith traditions, and of course, found himself with renewed fame when he traveled down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to register African-Americans to vote in 1964.

As a rabbinical student, I was always taken by Rabbi Lelyveld’s keen mind, steadfast leadership, and moral vision. But his trip to Mississippi has become the stuff of magical lore. There are many accounts of how his trip down to Hattiesburg came to be, but one thing is for sure, he learned more than he would have ever imagined.

Lelyveld joined with other religious organizations in the civil rights movement, simply looking to do his part. He later remarked that his goal involved “registering black voters would be a blow to Jim Crow…” Indeed, it was well known that while blacks had a legal right to vote, they faced roadblocks all along the way. As Lelyveld wrote, “A black applicant who had courageously bypassed warnings and roadblocks and had come to register was almost certain to fail . . . they were rigged with trivialities.”

©1964 Herbert Randall, Courtesy CDEA

©1964 Herbert Randall, Courtesy CDEA

But his plan to help out in the civil rights struggle was not completely supported. Some at Fairmount Temple wondered out loud why their rabbi was taking a short leave from his home congregation to help out where he might not even be needed. Nevertheless, after his journey down south, he returned to the pulpit with a very large welt just below his eye, the result of a tire iron swung his way by white supremacists. Lelyveld later remarked that after that young reporter photographed him the “literally bloody picture went round the world.”

Lelyveld joined with other clergy – some black – who went out to help with registration. He shared the story of traveling through Mississippi in the back seat of a car looking “uneasily at the rural characters” at a gas station. In this fearful moment, Rev. Donald Jacobs, a black minister with whom he was traveling, addressed his rabbi friend with some welcome levity saying, “Arthur, I’m trying to look just as white as I can.”

To me, this story is the stuff of prophetic inspiration . . . of someone truly living out his values. And yet, I discovered that my admiration for our temple’s dear rabbi was not universally shared.

When I was given a generous sabbatical by my temple at the beginning of 2013, I chose to use part of the trip to travel to south and to learn about Jewish life there. Of course, I was not going to miss the opportunity to visit Hattiesburg, where one of my rabbinic heroes stood up for the stranger and affirmed what I had learned over countless Passover Seders: That we were once strangers, too! So I arranged with the Reform rabbi in Hattiesburg to meet up with former temple leaders who encountered Rabbi Lelyveld on his fateful visit. We met at Applebee’s, and after some introductions I cheerfully told these old-timers how proud I was to be serve as rabbi at Fairmount Temple, the same place where the iconic Arthur Lelyveld served as spiritual leader. I waxed on about how much I admired Rabbi Lelyveld’s courage to come down to the south and join with the southern Jews to fight racism. I then took a pause from my excitement to wait for these good folks to join me in my joy. The pause lasted much longer than I imagined it would. Soon it was an awkward silence. Finally the man who served as president of the Hattiesburg synagogue in the Freedom Summer of 1964 told me, “Yeah . . . we didn’t want no rabbi from the north coming down here and telling us how we should handle our business.” It was then that I realized I was completely unprepared for the realities that I cognitively understood, but didn’t want to believe were true: there were Jews in the south who benefited from privilege, and hoped to just not rock the boat with the white establishment who had become tolerant of their Jewishness.

Decades later Lelyveld wrote about the Hattiesburg Jewish community when he first arrived to town. “I telephoned two ex-presidents of Hattiesburg’s only Jewish congregation. Both of them professed not to know the name of the current president. The incumbent rabbi was out of town. I went to the synagogue and found it empty with all three doors locked. Evidently, the schechinah [the Jewish term for Divine Presence] had left Hattiesburg along with Rabbi Charles Mattinband who had labored for eight years to break through the barriers of segregation–American apartheid in Hattiesburg.” And, then, the rabbi experienced it for himself.

As he reflected back on the fateful incident, Rabbi Lelyveld remembered two men who jumped out of a pickup truck, wielding tire irons at him and other civil rights workers, who said, “We’ll get you, you n***er lovers.” Having been trained for this very moment to crouch down in the fetal position, he couldn’t help but worry about the two black girls he was walking with–one a college student, another in high school. In that moment, he thought he could serve as a rationally minded go-between and defuse the situation. He later shared the following, “ . . . I had long been convinced that all human beings are kedoshim–[made in] the image of God to which we are in duty bound to respond with reverence is present in every one of us and dialogue should be possible. Since Mississippi 1964, however, I have had to conclude that in some people at some times, the divine presence is so deeply buried that there is no way of reaching it. This was true of our two furious assailants.”

Eventually welcomed by the white Christian community with a special status when they first arrived in the south in the mid-1800s, Jewish southerners both enjoyed their standing in the community, but knew what meant to be the stranger. That reality was demonstrated in the everyday dealings with African-Americans. Before “white privilege” became a phrase we now use in social media and in race conversations, it was lived by the Jews in the south. As Jacob Marcus and Abraham Peck wrote in their book Jews in the Mississippi wrote, “ . . . one must ask: what did (Jews) think as they listened to a Friday night or Saturday morning service in their local temple as the rabbi interpreted the Reform Jewish concern with prophetic justice? What did they think as they left the service with the rabbi’s call for social justice still ringing in their ears and entered the ‘real world’ of social separation and disenfranchisement of African-Americans? Did they think of themselves as a part of that world?”

And that brings us back to Rabbi Lelyveld. He believed that values are not simply something you magically obtain through a magic pill like a vitamin; values are demonstrated by what we do. And what made him stand out is that he was prepared to take unpopular stances in the face of his own people’s disagreement. His moral leadership was about doing the right thing, regardless of what he could get back. His self-interest was justice. As he so plainly put it (in the dated language of the ‘60s), “I do not serve the cause of Negro emancipation because I expect the Negro to love me in return. The command to remember the stranger and the oppressed is unconditional.”

Still, in the late 1980s, Rabbi Lelyveld reflected on Mississippi with on a hopeful note. He wrote, “This is why it is so satisfying that all this is changed today . . . Where we in 1964 saw men in police uniforms kicking the prone body of one of our group on a busy downtown street while no one moved to intervene, today the police are disciplined servants of law and order for all the people. Segregation is illegal and practically dead and discrimination is dying.”

And that brings us to today. Dr. King said that “the arc of the oral universe bend towards justice.” It’s a good saying, but the piece that is critical, as Senator Cory Booker has noted, is that someone is there to actively bend the arc. Otherwise, our values are reduced to a slogan or a saying, and reverberate in our echo chambers. So here is my question: Have we, as Jews, been actively doing our part to bend that arc? Have we conveniently forgotten the lessons of our ancestors in service to a safer Jewish existence?

2017 Beachwood is certainly not 1964 Hattiesburg, but I fear that we are closer to it than we’d care to admit.

The new Jim Crow is manifested in prisons overcrowded with African-American males, many of whom have been sentenced for non-violent, low-level drug offenses. The new Jim Crow is here in our segregated city and in our suburban schools. The new Jim Crow is present just a few miles away in the neighborhoods where police officers and residents fear one other.

Rabbi Lelyveld's LegacyThrough the work of community organizing, Pastor Gibson and I–along with many other leaders–seek more than just interfaith and interracial dialogue; we seek equality for every one of the citizens of Northeast Ohio. We humbly attempt to walk in the large shoes of Rabbi Lelyveld to benevolently agitate public and private officials and leaders who require us–the people of the civic sector–not to accept the world as it is. Like Rabbi Lelyveld we seek to use the words of our prophets of old to speak out even when it is unpopular.  And, as Rabbi Lelyveld so aptly put it, quoting the Talmud, “One who speaks beautifully is expected to fulfill [those thoughts] beautifully.”

–Rabbi Joshua L. Caruso, excerpted from his participation in “The Legacy of Rabbi Lelyveld,” a This Light of Ours: Activists of the Civil Rights Movement program at the Maltz Museum