Historical anniversaries, the struggle for racial equality and Pesach

by | Apr 17, 2015 | Other News

I’ll start by sharing with you that yesterday, April 9, was a special day for Miriam and me. It was our 37th anniversary. We were married just before Pesach in 1978, and since that date often coincides with Pesach, we’ve celebrated with lots of macaroons and matzah pizza ever since.

Yesterday was also another anniversary, one of somewhat greater historical significance. April 9, 2015 was the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox. Marking the end of the American Civil War—a five year bloody war fought in part because the Confederacy was determined to preserve slavery and President Lincoln was committed to abolishing it. The growing community of Jews in America was divided on the war, the Jews of the North supporting the Union, and the Jews of the South supporting the rebellion. Some 10,000 Jews fought in the Confederate army and several times that fought for the Union.

In retrospect, it is totally fitting that the 150th anniversary of the war to abolish slavery in the United States fell on Pesach, the Jewish festival of freedom. Even then, the community of African-American slaves, then called Negroes, found hope and inspiration from the Pesach story in the Torah. They sang with gusto what we used to call “Negro spirituals,” especially “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land. Tell o’ Pharaoh, LET MY PEOPLE GO.” They found inspiration from the struggle of the ancient Israelites for freedom from slavery in Egypt. Ever since, as American blacks continued their battle for full equality, they continued to sing that song.

I could talk for a long time today about the connection between Jews and blacks in the Civil Rights movement of our time (my time anyway). But rather, I think I’ll share just one personal experience that conveys that connection better than anything else I could say. The story illustrates the close connection between the Pesach story in the Torah and the struggle for human rights in America.

A little over 10 years ago, I was granted a three-month sabbatical by my congregation. I chose to spend it in part by going to different synagogues around the country so I could gather program ideas I could then use in my shul. Rabbis don’t usually have the luxury of seeing what other synagogues do on Shabbat.

Anyway, on Martin Luther King weekend that year, I was visiting one of my close rabbi friends at his congregation in Montgomery, Ala. We spent Shabbat at his synagogue and the next day we went to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church for the annual Martin Luther King memorial service where Dr. King served as pastor through the 1950s until he moved to Atlanta. You may remember that under Dr. King’s leadership, the Civil Rights movement in the Deep South started when women activists challenged the segregation laws by moving up to the all-white busses in Montgomery in the mid-fifties.

Because of my relationship with my rabbi friend, he and I were invited before the public service to join the church deacons in prayer in a side room. It was truly a memorable experience. The head pastor introduced me to the group as “Rabbi Arthur from Virginia” and he even asked me to offer a prayer. I was honored, and I began to wonder “Why me? Who am I to be so honored?”

Then we went into the church itself for the memorial service. The Church was packed to the back rows with people standing who had driven from all over the South. I saw busses in the parking lot that had come from Clemson University in South Carolina and from various colleges in Georgia. The main speaker was a white Alabama state official who had grown up believing that blacks were inferior, but who felt privileged to serve in government now with African-Americans as friends and colleagues. He had come to Montgomery to thank the Church members and remember Dr. King who did so much to change the South and bring about justice for all. Again, with all the dignitaries who sat in the front rows near me, I was introduced as “Rabbi Arthur from Virginia.”

That’s when it began to dawn on me why I was being treated like royalty. It didn’t matter that I was just a rabbi of a medium sized congregation in far-away Virginia. It didn’t matter that I had only met them minutes before. I came to realize that all of this wasn’t about me. It was about who I represented. I was the representative of Moses who taught us all about freedom so long ago. I was the representative of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who walked side by side through Alabama with Dr. King 50 years ago. I was up there because I was a rabbi. And to them as a rabbi, I represented Judaism, the religion that inspired their predecessors 50 years ago to stand up against oppression and for freedom.

Never was I more proud to be a rabbi. Never was I more proud to say that I studied with Rabbi Heschel. Never was I more proud to be a Jew. That as “Rabbi Arthur” in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was one of the true highlights of my over 40-year career as a rabbi in America.

I appreciate the opportunity to share that story on the 7th day of Pesach, the day we read in the Torah how Moses led the Jewish people across the Red Sea, away from slavery and on the road to the land of Israel and true freedom. And how appropriate it is that 150 years ago yesterday, the American Civil War ended, and our African-American neighbors at least began to travel down the road to justice, freedom and equality. And how special it is also that exactly 50 years ago last month, Rabbi Heschel led the rabbis of the 1960s in the freedom march through the streets of Selma.

At times, being Jewish has been difficult. At times it can be frustrating. But sometimes it is downright inspirational. —Rabbi Arthur Ruberg delivered this sermon at his son Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg’s synagogue in New York.

by Rabbi Arthur Ruberg

—Rabbi Arthur Ruberg delivered this sermon at his son Rabbi Jeremy Ruberg’s synagogue in New York.