New JSPAN Pres. Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom Fights For Fairer Society

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom

The Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) has elected Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom — one of the region’s most respected religious leaders, and someone who rarely shies away from speaking his mind — as its new president.

“I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity,” Rosenbloom said, “to have an impact on causes that I believe in.”

Founded in 2003, JSPAN strives to advance progressive social policies on the critical issues of our time. JSPAN focuses on a range of domestic policy issues such as: church/state separation, gun violence, reproductive rights, public education and race relations.

Rosenbloom is the Distinguished Service Rabbi at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park. He retired from the pulpit in June 2014 after leading the congregation for 36 years. During that time, he served as a leader in the greater Philadelphia Jewish community, as well as the Conservative Movement nationally. He developed a reputation for voicing his opinion on difficult political and social issues and grounding his outlook in Jewish sources.

“The Torah and the Talmud are very clear about human equality,” said Rosenbloom, who officially became JAPAN’s president on May 1. “We are all equal. If we are equal, then everybody has to have equal opportunity. Everybody has to be treated with equal dignity and respect.”

Rosenbloom has a long history of leadership, both inside and outside the Jewish community. He is one of the founders of the Old York Road Community Organization, a unique group of the seven synagogues in the Old York Road Corridor, dedicated to improving the quality of life in this major center of Jewish life in the region. In 2011, he was honored by the Cheltenham NAACP.He currently is a member of the Human Relations Commission of Cheltenham Township.

Deborah Weinstein, JAPAN’s immediate past-president, said that “Rabbi Rosenbloom enjoys enormous stature within the Jewish community. As an organization, we are thrilled to have him working with us and leading us as we pursue critical agendas.”

Rabbi Rosenbloom sat down with JSPAN Board Member Bryan Schwartzman for a wide-ranging discussion about the organization and the issues on its agenda. What follows is an edited version of that interview.

You spent your whole career as a congregational rabbi. Why, in your retirement, have you decided to take on this leadership role with JSPAN?

I have been familiar with JSPAN almost from its inception. Some of my congregants (Ken and Sue Myers) were involved in its founding and they have talked to me about JSPAN through the years. In fact, I was on a JSPAN panel about the Iraq War in 2009. I have always respected it as an advocate of social policy from a liberal standpoint that emerges out of Jewish teaching. I decided that I would be able to make an impact on causes that I believe in. I didn’t want to pass up that opportunity.

Is it easier to be an advocate on social justice issues now that you are retired from the rabbinate?

Well, I have more time. When I was a congregational rabbi, being the rabbi of a large congregation is really limiting on your time.But I was never reticent in expressing my political or social ideas, values, or opinions. I never felt that I had to hold back on what I believed in because I was the rabbi of a congregation. Everybody knew where I stood. In fact I was invited to participate in the JSPAN program on the Iraq War because of a very controversial High Holiday sermon I gave opposing the war.

What issues are highest on your agenda?

JSPAN has a huge portfolio. Right now, the turbulence in Baltimore highlights the issue of police interaction with the community. This is an indicator of the way in which many in the African
American community feel they do not have the full respect of the larger American society and do not have the same opportunities that many of us take for granted. It is unbelievable and unfortunate that in 2015, there are citizens who feel substantively unequal, with little hope of getting out of the situation that they are in. That has to do with racial prejudice, lack of quality education, violence, and income inequality. We are living in a time in which the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And there are those who want to cut back on the safety net for the lowest earning members of society even further. Gun control is an issue I am immensely concerned about, as well as the quality of education.The fact that we have these problems in 21st century America, the richest country in the world and, arguably, the most advanced country in the world, should be a source of shame and embarrassment.

Much of the organized Jewish community has been primarily focused on confronting internal challenges. Should the community be more focused on issues impacting all of American society? Is there a balance that can be struck?

You can’t have a Jewish community that has become so insular that all we do is care about ourselves, issues that directly affect Jews and Israel. The Bible says, you know what it is like to be an outsider, you know the soul of an outsider, you know what it is like to be reviled and oppressed and enslaved. We can’t just hunker down and say, we are Jews and we only care about Jewish things. There was a late nineteenth, early twentieth century French journalist, Edmond Fleg, who was an assimilated Jew who rediscovered his Jewish roots. He wrote:

I am a Jew because Israel places humanity above nations and above Israel itself. I am a Jew because in every place where there are tears and suffering, the Jew weeps. I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed, we must complete it.

To me, that is my credo. It is not to say that we don’t have to deal with the issues that affect us as Jews, but we can’t deal only with those issues and be true to who we are.

Does Judaism prescribe a liberal political philosophy? Should JAPAN’s approach be grounded in Jewish sources?

I don’t think you can always say that “the Jewish position is x,” and that leads to a specific JSPAN position. That is sort of like the strict constructionism of some of the conservatives on the Supreme Court. There are principles that Judaism teaches,and certain contemporary policies are either consistent with the tradition or inconsistent with the tradition. For instance, the Torah and the Talmud are very clear about human equality. The Talmud says that, whoever saves one person saves a whole world and whoever destroys one person destroys a whole world. We are all equal. If we are equal, then everybody has to have equal opportunity. Everybody has to be treated with equal dignity and respect.

In many ways, from the state of public education in Philadelphia to race relations, it seems like a bleak time in public life. How can activists and concerned citizens avoid giving in to despair or apathy?

Fleg, whom I mentioned earlier, says that “I am a Jew because, every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.” As long as people are willing to fight for a vision of society that is fairer for everyone, then there is no reason to despair. If people stop fighting for justice and equality, then there is every reason to despair.

Is it too early to ask what your goals are for JSPAN?

I am just learning the ins-and-outs of the organization. I think there is a sense that the organization is at a crossroads and needs to determine what it will be in the future. Up until now, JSPAN largely has focused on dealing with the issues of concern by trying to impact the courts and legislatures in judicious ways. We have not been mobilizing advocacy efforts on the part of men and women beyond the core group of the organization. There is now a significant group on the board that believes we must move beyond what we have done and create a greater advocacy presence within the community. We want to mobilize a larger number of people to work on behalf of our issues.

We want to generate community interest and passion around social justice issues — including economic inequality, education, election reform, gender equality, health care, immigration reform, mass incarceration, racism, separation of religion and state, and more—and to expand our advocacy role. We hope to create a broader constituency of the general Jewish population who feel that they can play a part in advancing social justice causes. Of course, we also want to continue what we have been doing well.For instance, we have filed many amicus briefs that have been cited because of their quality by judges who are hearing the cases. That needs to continue, as do testifying before legislative bodies, contacting legislators directly, and communicating through the media. But now we also want to develop more of a mass approach and find ways of getting more people involved.

All credit goes to JAPAN’s immediate past president, Deborah Weinstein and executive director, Rabbi George Stern, for steering the organization in this new direction.

What have you been up to since officially retiring last year?

My wife asks me the same question! What did you do today? I don’t know, I tell her, but I do know I was busy all day! I continue to be called on for life cycle events, funerals, weddings, baby namings. We have been doing more traveling. We just came back from a two-week trip to South Africa. My son got married in February. Between us, Cindy and I have five children. In the last year-and-a-half, we had three weddings! I cook a little bit. I finally learned to bake challah. And I do a lot of support work in the house, shall we say. I have more time. I see friends for breakfast and see friends for lunch. It is mostly unstructured. Now that I have become involved in JSPAN, I spend a lot of time answering emails and attending meetings! I don’t know when I had time to work.

Film Chat: From Swastika to Jim Crow

— by Hannah Lee

On Monday, the National Museum of American Jewish History again waived its admission fee and opened its doors on a day when it is usually closed to the public, and hosted a full day of programs in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The museum’s new exhibit is “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow,” about the experiences of Jewish refugee scholars who were driven from Europe by the Nazis who found teaching positions at black institutions in the American South of Jim Crow laws. And, in keeping with the spirit of the day, the museum organized a screening of the documentary film that inspired the exhibit, as well as a discussion with one of the filmmakers, Steven Fischler, of Pacific Street Films. Up to 900 people visited that day.

More after the jump.
Soon after Adolf Hitler took leadership in Germany in January, 1933, the Nazi Party issued laws to ban Jewish scholarship and pedagogy. These restrictive laws had huge support in the ivied walls of academia. According to Dr. Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, students were amongst the most rabid of Nazi sympathizers. By 1940, some 2,000 German and Austrian academics had been dismissed. These members of the intelligentsia, called “mandarins” for their revered status in society, were cast out in a world where few spoke fluent English and fewer probably had manual skills.

Limited assistance came from the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, founded in New York in 1933, which offered one-year grants to colleges to partially subsidize salaries of the refugees. While the Committee did rescue over 300 scholars from Nazi-run Europe, they were the ones with established reputations such as philosopher Martin Buber, physicist James Franck, and writer Thomas Mann.

The younger and lesser known academics arrived with tourist visas, desperately seeking work on their own. Walter Fales worked as a butler and cook until he landed a position in 1946 as Associate Professor of philosophy at Lincoln University, a traditionally black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Some 50-100 of these refugee scholars found haven in these black colleges, where the facilities were ramshackle but where the students had a keen thirst for knowledge. These professors became beloved on their campuses, despite their formal European customs such as insisting that their students wear jacket and tie.

Former students testified on the film to the pivotal role these Jewish mentors had on their lives. John Biggers arrived at Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia with a work-study scholarship for plumbing, but Professor Viktor Lowenfeld opened his eyes to the world of artistic creativity. Biggers became an artist, professor, and founder of the Art Department at Texas Southern University in Houston.

Civil rights activist and author Joyce Ladner recalled that she couldn’t afford the application fees for graduate school, so her professor at Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS, Ernst Borinski, a former judge and law professor in Germany, paid them with his own money. When she reported the successful defense of her doctoral dissertation four years later, he sent a telegram with his congratulations and $100 for her to celebrate the milestone with her friends.  The telegram is in the exhibit.

How were these Jewish refugees received in the American South, where Jim Crow laws (the name taken from a minstrel routine) isolated blacks physically and culturally? Were they considered white or not? Donald Cunnigan was a former student and now a professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island, and he recalled the unusual status of these highly educated Jews in the South. While they were not accepted by the whites, they were regarded by the off-campus blacks as either non-white or even black — one told him that Jews were mentioned in the Bible and any people who’d suffered as they did in ancient Egypt must have been black!  Karen Brodkin, professor of anthropology at UCLA, addressed this topic in her 1998 book, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. In the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of races; most, including Jews, being considered neither black nor white.

The film does not address the Jewish life of these refugees, but the exhibit has a quote from John Herz, professor of international politics at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who recalled that the Düsseldorf rabbi came to visit his mother about religious instruction for her children.  His mother replied, “That decision I leave entirely to my children; music is my religion.”  However, Georg Iggers, professor of history at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, AR grew up in a religious family in Hamburg and he recalled that Jews could be culturally German and yet be observant of Jewish tradition.

An audience member asked the filmmaker Fischler if the rise of the black nationalist movement (“Black Power”) set back black-Jewish relations. The film referred to people who decried the role of whites on a black college, such as Professor Borinski who’d created a curriculum on race history. No, said Fischler, because the refugee professors were close to retirement age in the 60s and no one lost their positions for it, unlike earlier movements of xenophobia.

The catalyst for the film came from a letter by Professor Herz to The New York Times about the anti-semitic comments of speakers at Howard University and other black colleges in the late 90s. He referred to the 1993 book by Gabrielle Edgcomb, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, which inspired the filmmakers to make their documentary.

I noted how all the interview subjects were so articulate and highly accomplished and I asked if the filmmakers had conscious choice in their selection. They didn’t eliminate any potential candidates, said Fischler, and maybe only the students with the strongest memories and the closest relationships stepped forth. Only three of the refugee professors were still alive for the film.  Furthermore, many of the black students of the time did become prominent in their fields, noted Fischler.

In the 12 years since the release of the film, an audience member asked, what would they add to a sequel, if one were to make one? This traveling exhibit is their sequel, responded Fischler, making the material more accessible to a greater public.

“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” originally from the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, is on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History until June 2.