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A Wednesday at The Maltz Museum

On Wednesday evening, February 8th, we looked forward to going to the Maltz Museum to attend a program dealing with both the work of the late Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld, who was the Rabbi at Fairmount Temple from 1958 to 1986 and a very prominent civil rights activist; and where the United States needs to go from here in terms of race relations and inclusivity.

The format consisted of our friend Mr. Jeffrey Allen, the Maltz Museum's Education and Public Programs Director, moderating a discussion between Rabbi Joshua Caruso of Fairmount Temple and Pastor Richard Gibson of Elizabeth Baptist Church who have been friends for many years and are both very involved in Greater Cleveland Congregations.

We really wanted to attend this program because we really admire Rabbi Lelyveld (who passed in 1996) because he believed that a person must live her/his values and was thus devoted to social justice. Most famously, in 1964 when he went to Mississippi to register voters he was badly beaten by segregationists and a photo showing him bruised and bloody made headlines around the world.

We got to talk to several people who attended Fairmount Temple and actually knew Rabbi Lelyveld and thought highly of him. One person named Peggy said that "he was brilliant and had everyone all stirred up" which she believed was for the better. She recalled that Rabbi Lelyveld used to organize bus trips so that activists could attend social justice actions as far away as New York City. We asked Peggy if the Rabbi was a nice guy and she replied that he was indeed; he was very well-liked.

When he saw that we were taking notes, Mr. James M. Brown came forward and shared with us a bit of history which was that Rabbi Lelyveld was quite active at the "Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism" in Washington, DC at the time when U.S. legislators, along with interfaith and civil rights leaders, gathered in that very office to draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They chose to meet in that location in order to avoid the "pushback" that would have occurred if they tried to write in on Capitol Hill.

During the program, Rabbi Caruso, who is himself a tremendous admirer of Rabbi Lelyveld, didn't hide from the fact that he was a controversial man during his time. He talked about how he took a trip to Mississippi to visit the places where Rabbi Lelyveld engaged in civil rights work and learned that several leaders in the local Jewish community had reservations about a Rabbi from the North traveling there to set the agenda for them because they had worked very hard to establish a tenuous relationship with the Christian community and didn't want to rock the boat by becoming involved in the civil rights movement and possibly angering their neighbors. Plus, quite a few of Rabbi Lelyveld's congregants objected to their leader leaving them to meddle in matters in the distant South.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Caruso stood by Rabbi Lelyveld's actions and believed that outside intervention in the South was necessary. Along these lines, Rabbi Caruso was quite proud of his people's involvement and cited statistics that demonstrated that 90% of the civil rights lawyers in Mississippi were Jewish and 30% of the volunteers on the Freedom Rides were of the Jewish faith. 

Then Pastor Gibson spoke about our nation's current condition regarding race relations which deeply troubled him. To be sure, we have gotten past "de jure" or legal segregation but "de facto" or factual segregation (i.e. segregation not caused by law) is very much still with us. Some of the examples that Pastor Gibson cited were how the rates of incarceration, housing patterns, the educational system, the drug war, gang shootings, and above all the wealth gap all of which have weighed heavily against people of color.

At this point, let us say that Pastor Gibson was a very warm, upbeat guy with an excellent sense of humor who was not out to scold; instead he asked that we all look at these problems and try to work together to solve them. As far as the future, Pastor Gibson would like to see more young people become active so that new leaders could start to be groomed.

Afterwards, we talked to Pastor Gibson about this and told him how two young women organized the Women's March in Cleveland that took place a couple weeks ago and how the anti-executive order/pro-immigrant rights demonstration that we attended just last week was very age diverse. We talked for a few minutes about how the Trump administration is provoking many otherwise dormant people to stop simply professing their commitment and actually do something and how our diversity has inspired a lot of people to stand by their foreign-born friends.

Speaking of immigrant rights, from talking to those who knew Rabbi Lelyveld we learned that he was at the forefront of many social justice movements throughout his lifetime. Even though we believed that we already knew the answer to this question, we still asked Rabbi Caruso (who had studied Rabbi Lelyveld quite extensively) if he would supported immigrant rights and Rabbi Caruso unhesitantly replied, "Oh gosh yes!"


Michael Patterson

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC.

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