Living the Complicated, Enduring Legacy

Image taken of Judith Frieze after her arrest in Jackson, Mississippi on June 21, 1961. Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Image taken of Judith Frieze after her arrest in Jackson, Mississippi on June 21, 1961. Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Living the Legacy grew out of a need for requests from teachers of social justice education for materials. In their search, educators and researchers at the Jewish Women’s Archive discovered that what was missing from what already existed:   the story of Jews in social justice movements.

JWA tackled the topic of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement as its starting point, and, including traditional Jewish texts, paid  particular attention to “complicating the narrative,” said Judith Rosenbaum, Director of Public History at the Jewish Women’s Archive.  The  nuanced educational tool would talk about not only the activism of Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, but acknowledge the fissures, the fallouts, and what the impact of it all has been on the social justice movements of today.

Living the Legacy is designed for use in grades 8-12. Last year, 7 teachers used in the classroom, and during JWA’s Institute for Educators this past July, 26 teachers were trained to use it.

Through primary sources, the curriculum directly confronts questions of personal identity in relationship to history and contemporary issues: who are you, what does that have with what you do in the world, and where and how does your Judaism come into play? When does it feel scary to be Jewish, when is it safer to hide, and when do you put yourself on the line for the cause of justice?

A 1956 letter from the Greenville Hebrew Union Congregation to Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the Reform movement), regarding their disapproval of the statement that desegregation is a Jewish issues and that Jews should act on behalf of it, shows that Southern Jews saw themselves in a precarious position. “We know full well that any public utterance showing that Jews as a whole favor desegregation will have the direct effect of hurting the Jews’ position in the South…Southern Jews have established a very fine relationship with the white non Jews of the South. We believe that this harmonious relationshjp between the Jews and non Jews in the South is due in a large respect to the personal conduct, cultural progress and adherence to the customs that make for harmony between the Jews and non Jews.” The letter goes on to implore Eisendrath not to “embarrass and injure the Jews of this community and other Southern communities who feel as we do.”

In addition to highlighting the complicated relationships of Jews to race and assimilation, Living the Legacy also explores the impact of the Jewish relationship to the Civil Rights movement in the context of a shared history of resistance. Rosenbaum’s favorite letter is to a young woman known as “Chicky,” who had gone to the South as part of Freedom Summer, from her father, a refugee from Europe. While he worries about her safety, she “should not construct your parents’ concern about your safety as a disapproval of your present activities.

The curriculum  also tackles questions of which modes of activism are recorded in our collective memory, as well as the how the perceived solidarity of Blacks and Jews fell apart and the impact of movements such Black Power on Jewish culture and history. The establishment of Black and African American studies departments, for example, prompted an interest in reclamation of Jewish culture and the emergence of Jewish studies departments, among other things. “Other minority groups have these conversations too,” Rosenbaum pointed out. “We wanted to show that.”

Together with Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Rosenbaum collected Jewish texts to dovetail with each section, aimed at creating the opportunity to think Jewishly and provocatively about the material, particularly in the context of contemporary issues. The curriculum provokes questions of Jewish responsibility, giving students the opportunity to consider issues such as segregation in their home communities, and the question of whether equal marriage is a civil rights question.

Living the Legacy is full of challenging and vulnerable pieces which make the process of unpacking the Jewish past in the Civil Rights movement a fascinating project. It’s well worth taking a spin through the primary sources on the website, even if you don’t consider yourself to be an educator. “It’s a newer, more inclusive way of looking at history,” said Rosenbaum. “People are excited.”

2 Responses to “Living the Complicated, Enduring Legacy”

  1. any history of Jewish participation in the Civil Rights Movement must include the long history of Jewish slaveholding practices in the Atlantic world. WIthout the honest acknowledgement that Jews participated and continue to participate in the practice of slavery, we won’t be able to understand that Jewish participation in the CRM was also a rebellion against Jewish history and culture. Not too mention that there were pro-segregation southern Jews as well.

    See “A Jewish View of Segregation” digilib.usm.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/manu&CISOPTR=1948&REC=13


    leyb · November 25th, 2010 at 1:13 pm
  2. If you’re looking for material for MLK Day, check out these suggestions of materials from the Living the Legacy curriculum that would be relevant: jwablog.jwa.org/MLKday.


    Judith · December 8th, 2010 at 11:50 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik