Jewish Activism

Washington Jews actively participated in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Vigils and rallies helped focus international attention on the plight of Soviet Jewry.

The Jewish Community Council placed civil rights issues at the forefront of its activities. The Council lent its name to the Thompson’s Restaurant court case, decided by the Supreme Court in 1953, which ended segregation in public accommodations in Washington. Following desegregation of public schools in 1954, the Council worked with city and religious leaders to encourage a peaceful transition.

Some synagogues also became involved in civil rights issues, highlighting problems of racial discrimination during an annual “Race Relations Sabbath,” forming social action committees, and holding seminars on black-Jewish relations.

Washington led the national Jewish community in protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews with massive demonstrations on the Mall and a daily vigil outside the Soviet embassy.

“Pirke Avot…the ethical teachings of our sages…says: ‘it is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from doing it.’”

Isaac Franck, Retrospect and Prospect, 1959

Photo of young people climbing on status at Lafayette Park

June 1967: Mobilized by the threat to Israel’s existence during the Six-Day War, Washington Jews raised a record $3 million for Israel. After an announcement that Egypt had accepted a cease-fire, local Jews joined a victory celebration at Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House.

JHSGW Collections. Photograph by Ida Jervis. Gift of Ida Jervis. 1998.58

Photo of Neighbors Inc event

1958: Civil rights activist Marvin Caplan helped found Neighbors Inc., a community group that encouraged white residents to remain in integrated neighborhoods such as Manor Park, Brightwood, Shepherd Park, and Takoma.

Courtesy of Bennett Caplan.

Photo of Glen Echo picketing

1960: Civil rights leaders Roy Wilkins (left) and A. Philip Randolph (second from left) joined Hyman Bookbinder on a picket line outside Glen Echo amusement park. Bookbinder, then an AFL-CIO lobbyist, joined with other Jewish neighbors and Howard University students in protesting the whites-only policy of the popular suburban Maryland park. After a summer of protests, the park quietly desegregated when it re-opened the next spring.

JHSGW Collections. Gift of Hyman Bookbinder. 2007.23

photo of police checking Frank’s car after bomb threat

1958: Beth El Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Emmet Frank spoke out against Virginia’s policy of “massive resistance” to school integration. In his Yom Kippur sermon, he denounced “vocal segregationists…who have placed in jeopardy our nation” and reminded congregants that “the Jew cannot remain silent to injustice.” Editorial attacks and bomb threats followed. Rabbi Frank is seen here with policemen checking his car after a bomb threat.

Courtesy of Beth El Hebrew Congregation.

cover of United Synagogue Review w/photo of Lincoln Memorial statue w/three students in front

1964: Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant theological students from across the country organized a 24-hour vigil at the Lincoln Memorial to urge the Senate to pass the Civil Rights Act. Local synagogue sisterhoods provided kosher food to the Jewish students. Students kept vigil in three-hour shifts for 65 days, until the bill was passed on June 19, 1964.

JHSGW Collections. Gift of Bebe Perlmutter. 1995.11

Soviet vigil

1970-1991: Protesting on behalf of Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union, Washington Jews maintained a daily noontime vigil outside the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street, NW, for more than 20 years. Local synagogues and Jewish organizations were assigned specific days to help ensure daily attendance. Here, Arlington Fairfax Congregation members dance at a Hanukkah Party on the sidewalk outside the Soviet Embassy in December of 1973. The vigil ended in 1991, as Soviet policies changed and thousands of Jews were permitted to emigrate.

JHSGW Collections. Photograph by Ida Jervis. 2009.30

photo of  couple by reflecting pool

1971: Protesters staged an all-night vigil at the Lincoln Memorial, beginning on the eighth and final day of Passover, to protest the treatment of Soviet Jews.

JHSGW Collections. Photograph by Ida Jervis. Gift of Ida Jervis. 1998.58

cover of Washington Jewish Week, 1987

1987: On the eve of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting in Washington, D.C., 250,000 people participated in a rally for Soviet Jewry on the Mall. The Jewish Community Councilcoordinated attendance of 50,000 Washington-area Jews.

JHSGW Collections. Gift of Bebe Perlmutter. 1995.11

Isaac Franck dancing hora

May 1973: Isaac Franck (right) dances the hora with Mayor Walter Washington (middle) at a celebration for the 25th Anniversary of the State of Israel. For more than 25 years, Franck served as executive director of the Jewish Community Council, enabling over 150 local organizations to speak with a united voice while taking action on a wide range of community matters.

JHSGW Collections. Gift of Pearl Franck. 1999.13

Photo of young people climbing on status at Lafayette Park
Photo of Neighbors Inc event
Photo of Glen Echo picketing
photo of police checking Frank’s car after bomb threat
cover of United Synagogue Review w/photo of Lincoln Memorial statue w/three students in front
Soviet vigil
photo of  couple by reflecting pool
cover of Washington Jewish Week, 1987
Isaac Franck dancing hora