THE BLOG
08/26/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2013

50 Years Ago, Major Jewish Speaker and Sponsor for the Great March; Now, Not So Much

Fifty years ago, I was one of 240,000 marchers at the Great March for Jobs and Freedom.

Until Dr. King spoke, the most notable speech -- the one right before Dr. King's closing address -- was by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, head of the American Jewish Congress.

Rabbi Prinz said:

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence."

The sin of silence. That idea moved me. Rabbi Prinz was not an add-on speaker. The American Jewish Congress, which in those days was vigorously progressive with a strong membership, was one of the six key organizations that planned and took responsibility for the March. Fifty years later, this past Saturday, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke at the opening prayer service. That announcement from the Religious Action Center, and a column encouraging local Reform synagogues to observe the March at home, did not reach me until yesterday -- electronically dated August 25, the day after the March.)

At the main event, no one spoke on behalf of the Jewish community and on the March website I could find no national Jewish organization among the labor unions, civil-rights organizations, women's organizations, and other progressive groups that sponsored and organized support for the anniversary March.

Why?

Was this absence the sin of silence -- not speaking out against a racist backlash and worsening economic injustice in America?

One possible explanation: In 1963, the March was on Wednesday, August 28. This year, it was on Shabbat. Most major national Jewish organizations say they will not take part in such demonstrations on Shabbat. I do not know what negotiations about the date may or may not have taken place between some large national Jewish organizations with a social-justice bent, and March initiators -- the King Center and the National Action Network.

In a few past situations like this one -- several major anti-war marches -- The Shalom Center invented what we think was a creative solution -- both honoring Shabbat and affirming our bond with our neighbors: ("You shall love your neighbors as yourselves. For I am YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Interbreathing that connects all life." Lev. 19: 18)

We announced and held a Shabbat morning service. Hundreds of people came, and afterward marched off as a group to join the demonstration.

That required - and received -- help and participation from local congregations in Washington and New York City. When I sought such help this time, there were no volunteers. Possible reason: With Labor Day on September 2 and Rosh Hashanah beginning the evening of September 4, many pulpit rabbis are consumed with writing their most important sermons of the year and planning services to reengage and revitalize their members.

If for some reason none of this was possible, large national networks of synagogues and/or havurot could, with enough lead time and ingenuity, linked local congregations to the Mall so that, for example, Congressman John Lewis' address could have become a Shabbat sermon everywhere.

So - was absence the sin of silence? I do not feel as if The Shalom Center and I can cast the first stone on this matter. For the past month, our primary focus has been on sparking climate-crisis activism as part of the March -- not by Jews alone but by Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, including Jews in a broader coalition. We drafted an Op/Ed piece for co-authorship with an NAACP leader on climate justice, and are now seeking its publication -- a piece that imagined what Dr. King might be doing today about that question.

So we pursued, but not as our highest priority, what it might mean to create an explicitly Jewish presence on the March. Even putting IMAC first, I should note, came from my realization that no Jewish organizations beyond The Shalom Center and the Green Zionist Alliance were ready to take a forthright stand to end fracking and stop the Tar Sands Pipeline, to support a carbon tax or call on Jewish and other institutions to Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP) .

IMAC has taken those stands.

And I have an even broader worry that comes from the history of the American Jewish Congress. I began this rumination with the story of Rabbi Prinz fifty years ago. Through the 1960s and early 1970s, in concert with the civil-rights movement, the AJCongress drew grass-roots energy and membership. Its Women's Division was especially strongly opposed to the Vietnam War and strlngly committed to the feminist movement. . But through the '80s and '90s, the national board of AJCongress moved more and more to the right, while some of its chapters continued to be progressive.

On Feb 1, 1999, its Los Angeles chapter, together with California offices of the Reform movement, issued a report on sweatshops in the California garment business that showed, along with many other critiques, that many of these sweatshops were owned by Jews. But it turned out that some Jewish garment-industry owners were on the national Board of the AJCongress. Within weeks, national AJCongress had simply abolished the L.A. chapter, claiming it was deep in financial arrears. But by March 17, "survivors" of the chapter's abolition announced the founding of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. For years it was financially and politically successful. Within a few years, national AJCongress did away with its progressive chapters in Boston and Philadelphia. There too, local progressive Jewish groups emerged.

But the rightward drift of the AJCongress undid itself. As grass-roots support diminished and right-wing Jews found themselves much more at home in more vigorously right-wing organizations, AJCongress tried depending on money from the Ponzi-pyramid schemes of Bernard Madoff. When the Madoff scheme collapsed, the AJCongress suspended its activities on July 13, 2010.

Why does this concern me? Because it seems a parable for much of the rightward drift or centrist exhaustion of many national Jewish organizations in the last fifty years. Result: no national organization so far with the foresight, strength, and passion -

to work out ways to meet the needs of Jewish organizations so that they could bring a hundred thousand Jewishly focused Jews into an on-the-streets coalition against the New Jim Crow: mass imprisonment of millions of black and brown men;

to flood the US Capitol with Jewish bodies demanding a renewal of the Voting Rights Act.

to turn out thousands of Jews to demand a carbon tax and to Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet, even after Jewish homes on the Jersey Shore are washed away and Jewish travelers on the Manhattan subways are flooded by Big Carbon's burning of the planet.

I am glad to add that in that same late email notice I received last night, commemorating the Great March of 1963, the Religious Action Center wrote: "Wednesday, August 28: Join us at the RAC (2027 Massachusetts Avenue, NW) at 8:30AM for a bagel breakfast and then walk with our staff to the National Mall for speeches by Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter. RSVP here by Tuesday evening !"

Less of an effort than I would have wished, but something.

With blessings, as we move toward the new year, for exaltation in loving prayer, song, chant, and breathing with and from and to the Interbreath of Life;

With blessings of passion and compassion in our active love for our Neighbors of every color, every culture, every species -- every hill and mountain, every river and ocean, every wind and sunset.