Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement

Using small group work, class discussion, text analysis, and writing exercises, students examine the writing and actions of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as an ally in the Civil Rights Movement. They explore Heschel’s concepts of self-emancipation, spiritual audacity, and moral grandeur in the contexts of both his own actions and the actions of students at The New Jewish High School. G

July 17, 2019

Part b: The Role of allies

Core lesson/Group activity

3. Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement

Description: This lesson  is designed for use with Hineini or as part of a curriculum in history, social studies, or civics. Using small group work, class discussion, text analysis, and writing exercises, students will examine the writing and actions of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as an ally in the Civil Rights Movement. They will explore Heschel’s concepts of self-emancipation, spiritual audacity, and moral grandeur in the contexts of both his own actions and the actions of students at The New Jewish High School. Given the complexity of the concepts discussed, we recommend that this lesson be used with students who are in tenth grade and above but invite educators to adapt it for use with younger students.

Time: 50 minutes

Recommended Age Range: grades 10 – 12

Objectives:

  • Students will understand the role of allies in social movements.
  • Students will increase their ability to act as allies to marginalized groups in their communities.

 

Materials:

  • “Rabbi Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement” handout (one for each student)
  • “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity” handout (one for each student)
  • Board or easel and paper
  • Chalk or markers

 

suggested film Clips:

 

 

Title

 

Length

 

The Job of an Ally

 

0:37

 

Shula and Rabbi Lehmann: Speaking to Power

 

2:17

Shula and Rabbi Lehmann: Towards

Understanding

 

1:20

 

Learning Tolerance

 

3:18

 

Change in Perspective

 

3:23

 

 

  1. Introduction (5 minutes)

 

Instructions:

1. Explain that Shulamit’s efforts to start a Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA) are part of a nationwide movement in the United States. Thousands of schools across the country have GSAs. These groups would not be possible if it were not for straight students and teachers joining with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) students to create change. There is a history in almost all political movements of people coming together across identities to work for common goals.

Today the class is going to take a look at an example of this in a different political context. You’ll then ask the students to explore how this example does and does not connect to themes from the movie.

2. If you have not done the first lesson in Part B of this unit, “What Does It Mean to Be an Ally?” you may want to begin this lesson by asking why people stand up for others. Ask if anyone knows this quote from Rabbi Hillel, the Talmudic sage:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Ask how these two questions might be connected. Why is it important to stand up for people and groups to which you do not belong?

2. Discussion of Self-Emancipation (20 minutes) Instructions:

1. Hand out the materials about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and ask students to read them. (See handouts at end of lesson plan.)

2. Ask students what they think Heschel meant when he said, “It is time for the white man to strive for self- emancipation, to set himself free of bigotry.” If students have a difficult time discussing this, use prompting questions such as:

a. If a person holds bigoted views, how does that harm the person with those views?

b. What assumptions have you had about individuals or groups of people that have changed over time?

c. What caused you to change your views?

d. Are there any ways that it felt emancipating to you to no longer hold false views about a person or group of people?

e. How does someone go about learning the nature of his or her own bigoted views?

 

3. Did anyone in the film strive for self-emancipation? Who? How did they go about this process? Why would a person who is not part of a discriminated group, such as a straight person in the film, feel the need to set him or herself free from anti-gay bigotry?

4. If needed, provide an example: One student, Ari, struggles with the idea of his Tanach teacher being gay. When he first learned that she was a lesbian, he said, “She’s gay and she’s teaching me Tanach. And that just didn’t work with me.” After some time, however, Ari comes to feel differently. He shares:

“I still think it’s wrong to be Jewish and gay, but I’m not going to shun people for being gay, just like I don’t shun people for being Reform, or for not keeping Kosher. I’ve learned Talmud from people that don’t follow Orthodox  Judaism, and she’s one of the best Tanach teachers I’ve ever had.”

5. Are there other students or faculty from the film who you think emancipated themselves from previously held discriminatory beliefs about gay and lesbian Jews?

 

  1. Discussion of Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (25 minutes)

 

Instructions:

  1. 1. Distribute the handout on “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.” As a whole group or in pairs, have students discuss the questions below. (The questions are reprinted on the handouts.)

a. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

He was speaking about the early moments of the Civil Rights Movement. What do you think Heschel meant by using this particular language? Is it just a fancy way of saying courage or do you think it is different in some way? How might it be different? How might it be similar?

b. When asked why he, as an eminent Jewish scholar, participated in the March on Selma, Rabbi Heschel famously replied, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

What did Rabbi Heschel mean by this statement? How does it relate to “moral grandeur” or “spiritual audacity”? How might it speak to Shulamit and her struggle for emancipation for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews in her community?

c. How was Shulamit’s struggle to create a place in the Jewish community for herself and other gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews similar or different from the one that Heschel took up in the Civil Rights era? Did Shulamit demonstrate moral grandeur and spiritual audacity? Did others in her community?

d. What might draw people to be allies to people who demonstrate moral grandeur and spiritual audacity? What might alienate people?

e. Ask students how this quote from a student at The New Jewish High School (not featured in the film) relates to their discussion:

“Shula is an audacious person who makes sure that her own agendas are heard and followed through. I think I didn’t appreciate this when I went to school, maybe because I was younger or because I was just involved in different things, and unfortunately not in this whole attempt with the Gay/Straight Alliance, or the diversity for this club or whatever. But I realize now that her audacity is really something other people should look up to, because all too often, people have things they want to be heard about, or want to say, and they’re too afraid of the responses, they’re too afraid of the reactions.”  —jonathan, a graduate of the new jewish high school

  1. As a closing activity, write on the board, “Abraham Joshua Heschel” and “Straight students and faculty who supported starting a GSA at The New Jewish High School.” For each, ask students the following questions:

a. What risks did each person or group take in order to be an ally?

b. What do you think the motivation was for taking those risks?

c. How did the involvement of allies in each of these struggles lead to change for everyone?

 

 

“Do not separate yourself from the community.”

—pirke  avot  2:5

 

 

Heschel recognized the importance of sustained activism, not just one-time acts of protest. He also recognized that it is the responsibility of everyone to do the work necessary to create a free and inclusive society. His concept of “self-emancipation” was based  on the sense that white people needed to take responsibility for racism. Consider the following questions:

 

1. How is the struggle of the straight students and teachers at The New Jewish High School  similar  to or different from that of white people and racism?

2. Are there people from The New Jewish High School community who  you think experienced “self- emancipation”?

3. Who are they and what helped them to change their perspective?

 

 

Rabbi Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement

 

SelfEmancipation

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others marching in Selma, Alabama, March 21, 1965.This photo was taken on March 21, 1965, when  about 3,200 people began  a 54-mile march  from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is marching in the middle of the row. The second  person  from the right is Abraham Joshua  Heschel, a theologian and activist who  participated in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans in the 1960s.

This demonstration was to demand voting rights for African-Americans and to protest the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young African-American man shot the previous month by a state trooper while  trying to protect his mother at a civil rights demonstration.

Earlier in the march, as participants crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were  tear- gassed and beaten by heavily  armed  state troopers and sheriff’s deputies in plain sight of photographers and journalists. The march  was seen as one of the actions leading to the passage  of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was passed two months later.

The following quotes provide some insight into Rabbi Heschel’s views  of what  it means to be an ally and an activist:

“One hundred years ago, the emancipation was proclaimed. It is time for the white man to strive for self-emancipation, to set himself free of bigotry.”

“The greatest sin is that of indifference.”

 

 

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