Monday, January 19, 2015

A Civil Rights Leader

Rabbi Arthur Joseph Lelyveld was a man of incredible activity. While he made his mark on history with his activism, the number of Jewish organizations with which he associated is astounding. At different points in his life, he served as the leader of the Committee on Unity for Palestine (1944-46 - during which time he helped  influence President Harry Truman to support a Jewish State in the British Mandate Territory of Palestine), Bnai Brith Hillel Foundation (1946-1956), the American Israel Cultural Foundation (1956-58) and the American Jewish Congress (1966-72).

Today’s Jewish Treat, however, focuses on his work in the Civil Rights Movement.  But, first some basic background: Rabbi Lelyveld was born on February 6, 1913, in New York City. After graduating from Columbia University, he attended the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, and received his Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters and his ordination from there in 1939. During his first four years as a rabbi, he held positions in Hamilton, Ohio, and Omaha, Nebraska, and then began his career of service to Jewish organizations. In 1958, Rabbi Lelyveld accepted the position of senior rabbi at Anshe Chesed Congregation (Fairmont Temple) of Cleveland, a position he held until 1986, while also continuing to serve as a lay leader of national Jewish organizations.

At the 1966 biennial convention of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Lelyveld declared, “I do not serve the cause of Negro emancipation because I expect the Negro to love me in return. The command to remember the stranger and the oppressed is unconditional.”

Rabbi Lelyveld participated in the great civil rights marches, he was a member of the board of the Cleveland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and he was appointed to the board of trustees of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change. In the summer of 1964, he was seriously injured when segregationists wielding tire irons beat him and two companions for assisting with black voter registration in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Rabbi Lelyveld died on April 15, 1996.

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