Righteousness and justice are the base of Your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness stand before You.
Happy is the people who know the t’rua sound.
— Psalms 89:15-16
We are grateful that Max Fallek has shared his memories of the epochal 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with us in this yontif edition of the Jewish World. Of course, the rally at the Lincoln Memorial is remembered for the immortal speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. However, I noticed the reference in Max’s speech to Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who addressed the quarter-million strong throng right before King.
As president of the American Jewish Congress, Prinz — who was born in the tiny village of Burkhardsdorf, Upper Silesia, in 1902 — represented the Jewish community as an organizer of the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington. His remarks are not as well known as King’s famous “I have a dream” speech. But in the run-up to the High Holidays, the penitential time in our religious calendar, it is worthwhile to consider the remarks by Prinz some 50 years ago. Here is what Rabbi Prinz said:
I speak to you as an American Jew.
As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice, which make a mockery of the great American idea.
As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience — one of the spirit and one of our history.
In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.
From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say:
Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe. Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation.
It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivate us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.
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.
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.
America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.
Our children, yours and mine in every school across the land, each morning pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. They, the children, speak fervently and innocently of this land as the land of “liberty and justice for all.”
The time, I believe, has come to work together — for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together, to work together that this children’s oath, pronounced every morning from Maine to California, from North to South, may become a glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally renewed and united America.
Rabbi Prinz was certainly correct when he said: “The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.” And Martin Luther King, Jr. said something similar: “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
The point is that we should not be silent in the face of injustice. We should speak up when we encounter any bigoted, intolerant word or action, lest a mundane evil grows into something truly monstrous.
And I hope that more Jewish youths avail themselves of opportunities to act in solidarity with groups struggling to be free, as Max Fallek, Joachim Prinz and many other Jews did 50 years ago. This kind of experience molds character in the best possible way. You never forget such moments.
In this vein, I recommend a story titled “When Prinz Spoke Before King: The Jews Who Marched,” in the Aug. 30 edition of the Forward. Seth Berkman spoke with those who worked with King, and their descendants. In particular, I was taken with the comments of Peter A. Geffen, founder of the Heschel School in Manhattan, who volunteered with King during the 1960s.
Geffen said that during commemorations of King Day at the Heschel School, they show a portion of the “Dream” speech:
I watch the reaction of little children whose grandparents were involved: They sit in complete awe.
It was a magical moment. [King] was captivated by the crowd, and the crowd was captivated by him. It’s very hard today to talk about this, because we don’t have public speakers like that. I can hear that speech today and have the same emotional response I did then.
A good deal of my emotional life is linked with Dr. King and that era in a very profound way. My only wish is we make certain that going forward the Jewish community continues to recognize the significance of those years for our community. We were given an opportunity to act for others the way others did not act for us. That opportunity, that moral obligation, that ethical mandate remains. It will only continue if we educate in all our institutional settings.
So I hope that when we hear the sound of the shofar — the nine sharp blasts of t’rua — we will be roused from somnolence and into awareness of the torn social fabric of this world. We all are capable of doing something to create a more humane world.
From all of us at the American Jewish World, may you have a good and sweet New Year.
— Mordecai Specktor / email@example.com
(American Jewish World, 8.30.13)