Kol Nidrei 5778.
55 years ago, a third-year professional basketball player laced up his sneakers and took the court at the Hershey Sports Arena in Hershey, PA before an announced crowd of 4,124 people. That player was Wilt Chamberlain and he proceeded to score 100 points against the New York Knicks – a single-game record which stands to this day.
Today, it is considered one of the great, possibly-unbreakable sports records – no one has gotten closer than 81 points. But at the time, it was NOT considered such a big deal. The game was not televised so there is no video of the game. Although the game was broadcast on radio, the radio station recorded over the master tape. Only the fourth quarter play by play and the post-game show have been recovered. It was not until the 25th anniversary of that amazing feat that the National Basketball Association honored Chamberlain for this achievement.
As the NBA became more and more popular thanks to later stars such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, people started to re-visit Wilt’s incredible game. And even though only 4,124 people were in attendance, it started to feel as though many more people than that claimed to have been there. Still others claimed to have watched it on TV – though it was never even filmed. And countless others claimed to have been glued to the radio. Magazine features, newspaper articles and whole books were written about that one sparsely attended basketball game so that people like me, who were not even born when the game took place could feel as though we were there.
It turns out that, in retrospect, a lot of people WISHED that they had caught on to the NBA sooner. A lot of people REGRETTED that they were not a part of something special. But, when you’re in the moment, it’s often hard to tell whether or not that particular moment will be considered historically significant. Who knew that Wilt had that 100-point game in him?
On Yom Kippur, we spend a lot of time contemplating our actions from the past year and our intentions for the coming year. However, perhaps, we should also be devoting some time to our IN-action. What do WISH that we had done? What have we failed to do that we will REGRET?
Consider the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950’s and 60’s. We Jews take a lot of pride in the roles Jews played in advancing civil rights for all Americans during that time. And rightly so. Jews were disproportionately represented among the white supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. We see the famous picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and we can feel as though the entire Jewish community was there with him. We listen to the speech of Rabbi Joachim Prinz at the March on Washington and we can envision a huge Jewish delegation on the Mall. We recall the horrible murders of Andrew Goodman and “Mickey” Schwerner – both Jewish – together with their fellow activist James Chaney and we imagine that the south was flooded with Jewish freedom riders.
But just like Wilt Chamberlain’s record-setting game was seen by only 4,000 people or so, the actual number of Jews who marched with African Americans and went South as Freedom Riders is probably much smaller than we imagine. Now that MLK has been accepted as an American hero – and not just a radical Civil Rights activist as he was perceived when he was alive – more people WISH that they had been there from the start. Many people REGRET that they did not appreciate Dr. King and his message sooner. But the truth is a lot more complicated.
While there were certainly enthusiastic supporters of the Civil Rights movement in the Jewish Community of the 1950’s and 60’s, there were also those who were not so sure. For example, the national Reform Movement was unequivocal in its support of Civil Rights. However, three of the largest Reform congregations in the country – including Temple Emanuel of NYC – temporarily withdrew from the movement because of this support (Read more here). Some of the rabbis who marched with Dr. King at Selma and other places were threatened with dismissal by their congregations if they persisted in their political activism. Only the intervention of the national umbrella organization saved some of their positions. And as proud as we should be of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement, we need to remember that not everyone in the Jewish community was on board from the start.
In 1956, the Hebrew Union Congregation of Greenville, MS, started corresponding with Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, who was president of the UAHC in NYC about the Reform Movement’s support of desegregation in Southern schools. The officers of the congregation argued that public support for desegregation by national Jewish organizations would put Southern Jews at risk for physical harm, social exclusion and financial loss. Those were certainly reasonable and understandable concerns at that time.
However, they went on to write: “In communities such as Greenville, if integration is had at this time it would mean 60% of our grammar schools would be negro students. A large per cent of those negro children come from homes with no social background or environment and a large percent of them are the result of illegitimacy. It would only retard the white Jewish children as well as the white Gentiles to have their children placed under this integration and environment.”
Funny…. We don’t put up any posters with THAT quote in our synagogues, do we??
And they were not alone. Rabbi Milton Grafman was born in Washington, DC, ordained by the Hebrew Union College and became the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Birmingham Alabama, where he spent most of his career. Rabbi Grafman was in favor of integration and civil rights. He was a good man. However, he favored a more cautious pace to change.
In April, 1963, he joined together with seven Christian Clergyman to pen a public letter to Dr. King which was published in all the major Birmingham newspapers. The title of their letter was “A Call for Unity.” These eight religious leaders wrote: “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.” They further wrote: “When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”
Dr. King chose to ignore the well-meaning advice of those eight religious leaders and the same day that their letter appeared in the newspapers, he led over 1,000 protesters to the central business district of Birmingham. He and Rev. Ralph Abernathy were promptly arrested. During his week in prison, Dr. King wrote his now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” directed to the eight religious leaders who had implored him to wait and be patient – including Rabbi Grafman.
Dr. King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” He went on to say to his fellow clergymen, “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”
We know that thanks to Dr. King’s personal charisma and his support for the State of Israel, he was able to knit together a coalition of Jews and African Americans who fought side by side in the courtrooms, in the legislatures and in the streets of this country for civil rights. The mid-1950’s to mid-1960’s are often considered the Golden Age of Black Jewish relations. Even before Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, however, the partnership was beginning to unravel.
One of the most important organizations of the civil rights era was the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was founded in 1960 and organized Freedom Rides, Voter Registration Drives and Sit-Ins across the South. In 1967, they started publishing a newsletter. After the Six Day War of 1967, which Israel won decisively, the SNCC Newsletter published an article about Israel with accompanying cartoons implying that wealthy Jews bribed the British to create a Jewish state and then comparing that state to Nazi Germany. It was blatantly anti-Semitic and offensive. Virtually every Jewish organization involved in the Civil Rights Movement condemned the newsletter. Jewish financial support for the SNCC dried up. Within a year, the SNCC was no longer a functional organization.
Fifty years later, it’s easy to see that the SNCC saw the Arab Israeli conflict through a Black and White lens. In other words, the Israelis were white and the Palestinians were black. So, they took the side of their Black brothers and sisters. We know that it’s much more nuanced and complicated than that, but instead of trying to explain, we allowed the pain and insult to get the better of us. We severed the relationship.
This exact same misunderstanding played out again last year when the Movement for Black Lives put forth their platform which included accusations of genocide and apartheid leveled against Israel. It’s fifty years later and we still have not been able to explain to the African American community the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because we are not really talking to one another. So, they’re only hearing one side of the story (and it ain’t ours!).
But for me, the real question is: Do other groups have to be right in order for us to fight for their rights? Put another way: Do we have to agree with a group before we acknowledge that they are entitled to the same rights that we enjoy? Is it acceptable for me to be less outraged over the shooting death of Tamir Rice – a 12 year old Cleveland boy who was playing with a toy gun on a playground – just because some political activists who attended a conference in Cleveland were able to get some anti-Israel language into their Platform?
The truth is that I have resisted using the words “Black Lives Matter” because of those two words in their platform – genocide and apartheid. And even though my heart aches every time I read a story about a young African American boy or man being killed simply for being Black in the wrong place, I have remained largely silent for fear of being associated with anti-Israel or anti-Semitic activists who also want to see these killings stop.
I don’t know the answer, but I know what my first step has been. I have reached out to one of our local African American pastors and I have invited him to join me in a program sponsored by our Federation called Interfaith Partners for Peace. Together, we are going to study the Israeli Palestinian conflict with other clergy partners from other communities in Greater MetroWest. It is my hope that we will find a way to support one another going forward.
You see – not only do I want him to hear and understand my truth and my narrative. I want to hear and to understand his truth and his narrative. Because it seems to me that there is far too little hearing and understanding going on between our two communities.
Consider the case of Colin Kaepernick – the currently unemployed quarterback who started protesting during the national anthem before NFL games last season when he still had a job in the NFL in order to draw attention to the issue of African Americans being killed by law enforcement at a disproportionate rate. Critics have said that he may have a valid point, but he has chosen the wrong way to protest. That sounds a lot like the advice Dr. King received from the Birmingham clergy. Others have said that he is being disrespectful to our military and so we must dismiss his argument without addressing the merits. That sounds a lot like the way that Jewish community withdrew support for African Americans in this country because of their views on Israel even if we still believed in principles of the Civil Rights movement.
Besides, he got the idea to kneel from a member of the military community. Shortly after starting his protest by SITTING during the national anthem (NOT kneeling), he met with a man named Nate Boyer. Nate Boyer is a former Green Beret and a former NFL long snapper (preseason only). He is the one who suggested to Kaepernick that kneeling might be a better way to protest than sitting on the bench. Boyer explained to Kaepernick that soldiers take a knee at the grave of a fallen fellow soldier. The origin of this may be that soldiers take a knee when they are out on patrol for what’s called a security halt. By taking a knee at a soldier’s grave, his or her fellow soldiers are ensuring his safe passage.
Kaepernick was receptive to changing the method of his protest from sitting during the anthem to kneeling during the anthem. Boyer then stood next to Kaepernick during the anthem when he switched to the kneel. Boyer was not willing to kneel himself, but he supported Kaepernick’s right to protest peacefully.
Now, I know that there is not 100% agreement in the military community – just as there will never be 100% agreement in, say, the Jewish community. But there are certainly enough members of that community – active military and veterans, officers and enlisted – who support the kneeling protest that we should be able to agree that it is NOT anti-military. We may not like it as a form of protest, but there is no reason to think that kneeling during the national anthem is anti-military.
Besides, when we spend our time talking about when and where African American men should protest, we fall into the same trap as the Birmingham clergy who expressed outrage at the protests without expressing “a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.” – as Dr. King pointed out.
As I mentioned earlier, the BLM platform bothered me and it bothers me still, but the kneeling of NFL players has not had the same effect on me. I’m not ready to take a knee, but I see it as an effective method of protest. And so I’ve been wondering why it doesn’t seem to bother me the same way. And then, my brother sent me a photo of Ivanka Trump whispering in the ear of her father. The words jokingly attributed to her were: “Dad, Jared’s just bowing for the Musaf Aleinu. He’s not taking a knee.”
As many of you have heard me say before, the Aleinu was originally recited exclusively on the High Holidays, and only later was it introduced into the daily worship. Now, instead of reciting it three times a year, traditional Jews recite it three times a day – sometimes more. We’ve got one coming up shortly. Perhaps the best known line of the Aleinu is [singing]: “Vaanachnu korim umishtachavim umodim lifnei melech malchei hamlachim…. We bend our knees and prostrate ourselves and acknowledge the Ruler of Rulers.” And our ancestors did exactly that. Just as you have seen the Cantor do on our behalf, in previous generations, everyone threw themselves on the floor and showed humility before God.
At some point, perhaps when we started reciting the Aleinu three times a day, our ancestors decided that a little bow at the waist was sufficient. But that’s a far cry from prostrating oneself on the floor. Are we disrespecting God by NOT prostrating ourselves? I sure hope not.
And then I got to thinking about the American pledge of allegiance. When Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892, he introduced gestures to go with it. You were supposed to snap your heels together and extend your right hand to the flag. Shortly thereafter it was slightly amended – hand on heart and THEN point to the flag (palm up). You can imagine that in the 1930’s some Americans objected to standing with their right hands extended given what was going on in Europe. By 1941, the practice of extending the right hand was dropped and the hand was supposed to remain on the heart for the entire pledge as is our current practice. You should know, though, that the Daughters of the American Revolution protested this change as unpatriotic.
In both the religious world and the secular world, customs and traditions change over time. I am not suggesting that kneeling during the national anthem will become the prevailing custom. I am simply suggesting that we should spend more time discussing the conditions that prompted the protest rather than simply debating the method of protest.
Further, we should be asking ourselves, do we have to agree with the method of protest in order to agree with the point that the protesters are trying to make? Or do we dismiss valid concerns because we don’t like the way they’ve chosen to express their frustration.
I would like to suggest that it’s time we stop telling African Americans how best to protest and instead support their struggle for justice so that they don’t HAVE to protest anymore.
I would further like to suggest that we stop using the views of some African Americans about Israel as an excuse for withholding support from all African Americans and instead begin a process of educating the African American community about what Israel really is and why she’s so important to us – a challenge that we have failed to meet over the past fifty years.
So, now, I feel a little bit like a basketball fan in a small gym. I don’t know if tonight is the night that a rising star will score 100 points or if my favorite player will instead shoot 3-25. I don’t know if the decade of the 2010’s is going to be remembered as the continuation of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s or just another decade. But it doesn’t matter whether we think this is a historically significant moment or not. It doesn’t matter whether this story is going to be on TV or published in a book. It only matters that we do what’s right.
As the great sage Hillel taught us in Pirkei Avot – “When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14).”
After all, we don’t want to find ourselves decades from now WISHING that we had caught on to this movement sooner. We don’t want to find ourselves REGRETTING that we were not a part of something special and something just.
Rabbi Avi Friedman.