In “Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. & The Jewish Community,” Rabbi Marc Schneier concludes: “No segment of the white community provided as much – and as consistent – support for King as did the Jewish community.”
In the vanguard of this Jewish support were many Long Islanders, led by the late Harry Wachtel (of Great Neck and Roslyn). As Schneier shows, there were reciprocal bonds during the Civil Rights Movement.
In addition to his anti-racism message, Dr. King denounced anti-Semitism and understood that “a people who fought for their rights were only as honorable as was their concern for the rights of all people.”
As urban tensions mounted between emerging Black Power advocates and Jews, Dr. King did not retreat from his shared commitment (with Wachtel and Jews) to tikkun olam, a mandate to repair the world, make it whole, and move it closer to beloved communities of truth and compassion.
In striving for a society where one’s humanity counted above race, religion, or ethnicity, Dr. King was our nation’s most powerful advocate against separatist ventures.
North Shore Jews – including Don and Doris Shaffer, Stan and Shirley Romaine, Cecile and Jerry Shore, May Newburger, and Fred Scheiner (along with Harry and Lucy Wachtel) – were early and consistent supporters for Dr. King’s civil rights endeavors and were among his major financial boosters.
On this 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King (April 4, 1968), it is worth noting some ways that Long Island Jews contributed to this major reform movement of our lives.
Religious, political, and cultural differences within the Jewish community notwithstanding, Jews from Long Island rallied to Dr. King to bolster what Columbia history professor Henry Steele Commager called “The American Experiment.”
More than particularized categories of melting pot and salad bowl, more than a spectrum from ethnicity to acculturation to assimilation to cultural pluralism, North Shore Jews, identified above, shared with Dr. King the deeper American Experiment commitment to a principled society in which all had a chance to proceed based on the content of their character.
It is no accident that, when Dr. King gave his most important speech, a criticism of the Vietnam War, at Riverside Church (April 4, 1967), he shared the platform with Professor Commager and with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
It is also no accident that, on the one-year anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, Harry Wachtel was invited to speak at Riverside Church to highlight Dr. King’s values, his associations with Dr. King, and the ways in which they both worked with others to oppose the war in Vietnam.
The original copy of Wachtel’s dramatic and emotional 1969 speech is part of the treasured Wachtel Archives at Hofstra University.
It is appropriate to acknowledge another great Long Island Jew, the late Bernie Fixler, one of the first graduates of Hofstra College.
Fixler served in World War II and never forgot the experiences of his military unit’s liberation of the Nazi death camps.
Fixler became a highly successful businessman, noted, in the spirit of tikkun olam, for his philanthropic generosity. He became chairperson of the Hofstra Board of Trustees, and, most significantly, a life-long friend of Harry Wachtel.
As the Hofstra Archives demonstrate, when Dr. King turned to Long Islander Wachtel to supervise arrangements for his Nobel Prize trip in 1964, Harry turned to his friend, Bernie, for advice and fund-raising support.
Typically, Bernie was modest about his many contributions. But, together, he and Harry arranged for Dr. King to be Hofstra’s graduation speaker in 1965, shortly after he received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Not only Hofstra but all of Long Island benefitted from Dr. King’s frequent visits.
Indeed, only 10 days before April 4, 1968, Wachtel and Fixler urged Dr. King to come to Long Island yet again. In my interviews with Harry and Bernie, they related that Dr. King was understandably exhausted and overextended after years of public advocacy.
Yet, he recognized the importance of coming to Long Island because his Jewish pals said that there was an urgent need to address rising anti-Semitism, especially in New York City and other urban areas.
Dr. King went from Long Island to the Catskills Rabbinical Assembly, led by his freedom-riding friend, Rabbi Heschel. Harry accompanied him on March 25, 1968, arranging a flight piloted by his good Roslyn friend, Fred Scheiner.
At the Catskills, Dr. King denounced anti-Semitism, saying, “we must oppose it with all of our might.” He defended Israel from attacks by some Black Power advocates, also emphasizing that a “Marshall Plan” was needed to assist the Palestinians and foster peace in the region.
The assembled rabbis linked arms and celebrated Dr. King by singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew. Rabbi Heschel’s judgments resonate, not only for Jews but for humanity.
He said: “Martin Luther King is a voice, a vision, and a way. I call upon every Jew to harken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.”