Jewish Historical Society marks local Civil Rights event

Historic City News readers are reminded that Negro men and women were not the only ethnic victims of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s — in fact, the largest mass arrest of Rabbis in the history of the United States of America occurred here, in St Augustine.

A week after Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was arrested here, he appealed to his friend, Springfield, New Jersey Rabbi Israel Dresner, to come down to St Augustine “with as many Rabbis as possible”. Dresner explained that he came, mainly because he and others could not stay away. “We could not say no to Martin Luther King, whom we always respected and admired and whose loyal friends we hope we shall be in the days to come.”

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, President of the St Augustine Jewish Historical Society, was a religious schoolteacher at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in 1964 when fifteen Jews were arrested while praying in an integrated group in front of the restaurant of the Monson Motor Lodge.

Two others were arrested “for sitting down at a table with three Negro youngsters in the Chimes Restaurant”, as was reported in a letter from the delegation of sixteen Rabbis and one official of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; written from their cell in the St Johns County Jail on the nights of June 18 and 19, 1964.

At their meeting on Monday June 18, at 12:30 p.m. at First Congregation Sons of Israel located at 161 Cordova Street in St Augustine, members and guests of the St Augustine Jewish Historical Society will spend some time reading and learning from the letter.

Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, Distinguished Professor of “Jewish Education and Religious Thought” at Hebrew Union College’s New York City campus, wrote the first draft, “at 3:00 a.m. in the sweltering heat of a sleepless night, by the light of the one naked bulb hanging in the corridor outside our small cell.”

Albert Vorspan, then senior vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, joined in signing the letter; ironically scratched on the back of the pages of a mimeographed report of the bloody assaults of the Ku Klux Klan in St Augustine.

Other signers included Rabbis Balfour Brickner, Israel Dresner, Dan Fogel, Israel Goldstein, Joel Goor, Joseph Herzog, Norman Hirsch, Leon Jick, Richard Levy, Eugene Lipman, Michael Robinson, B.T. Rubenstein, Murray Saltzman, Allen Sicher and Clyde T. Sills.

An excerpt from the letter to be studied Monday, reads:

“We have been vocal in our exhortation of others, but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time. We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often. We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act…”

Shapiro, speaking on behalf of the Society, points out the mass arrest is “a story not told often enough”.

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