The role of Atlanta’s African-American leaders in the civil rights movement is well-documented. But, the city’s Jewish community supported the struggle too.
This is the 150th anniversary year of Atlanta’s oldest synagogue, called The Temple. The milestone has become an opportunity to honor The Temple's civil rights legacy.
The synagogue is on Peachtree Street in Midtown. This year, the Georgia Historical Society declared it an official stop on the Georgia Civil Rights Trail. Society President Dr. W. Todd Groce spoke at the ceremony and said, “I can’t think of a better place to learn about the story of the civil rights movement in this state and the struggle in the city of Atlanta than right here at The Temple.”
That's because, when Rabbi Jacob Rothschild arrived at The Temple in 1946, he made social justice a priority. After all, The Temple's real name is the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation.
“Rabbi Rothschild had spoken out against segregation and against the treatment that African-Americans were getting in the South from the time he came to Atlanta," Rothchild's widow Janice Rothschild Blumberg remembered. "He had done it in very small doses."
Small doses because of the lynching a few decades earlier of Temple member Leo Frank. Frank was accused of murdering 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan. When the governor wouldn't allow his execution, an angry mob dragged him out of prison and hanged him from a tree. That mob called itself the Knights of Mary Phagan. Its members went on to form the modern Ku Klux Klan.
That why some Temple members were terrified when Rothschild started speaking out.
“A woman, with horror in her voice and her face said, ‘What’s he gonna do to us, start the Frank case all over again,’” Rothschild Blumberg recalled.
But, Rabbi Rothchild was undeterred.
“He gave sermon after sermon after sermon about integration and racial justice," current Temple Rabbi Peter Berg said. "There were members who sometimes stormed out of the sermon. There were board members who said ‘You have to stop. We don’t need to hear this sermon every single week.’ Rabbi Rothschild was relentless.”
Berg said soon Rothschild’s advocacy spread beyond his pulpit, “because he spoke on behalf of the Jewish community to the entire religious community and, really, to all of Atlanta.”
Tension over that advocacy came to a head the morning of Oct. 12, 1958. That's when a bomb shook The Temple and left part of it in ruins. An anonymous caller later took credit for the destruction on behalf of white supremacists.
Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre re-enacted the bombing earlier this year for the 150th anniversary of The Temple. Actors read witness accounts like: “In the debris was a clock stopped at exactly 3:37 and, next to the clock, there were the children's choir robes.” “I went straight to The Temple to see if it was still there ... looking up at the crumbled columns and debris.” “It was an act designed to strike terror in the hearts of men."
But the bombing didn't silence the Temple's message; it amplified it. It prompted more Temple members, and even city leaders, to speak out against anti-Semitism and racism.
Then-Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield talked to WSB-TV the very day of the bombing with the rubble at his back: "We are shocked and amazed that this awful thing could happen in our midst … My friends, here you see the end result of bigotry and intolerance."
Five known white supremacists were arrested for the bombing. None were convicted.
Still, The Temple's civil rights work continued. Members helped integrate Atlanta schools in the 1960s.
Rothschild co-organized a banquet after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize – despite a threatened boycott from white elites.
Berg, The Temple's current rabbi, said its members still work for social justice today.
"On some level, the anti-Semitism and the hatred and the racial injustice that still exists in our world is so blatant, we have to speak truth to power," he said. "That's always been the Jewish way. That's always been The Temple way."