Jews, Civil Rights and the Holocaust: Speaker carries on the legacy of her activist rabbi father

Susannah Heschel comes to Wise Temple on Sunday
Jews, Civil Rights and the Holocaust: Speaker carries on the legacy of her activist rabbi father
Posted at 7:00 AM, May 06, 2017

Rabbi Abraham Heschel presents the Judaism and World Peace award to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in December 1965.(Wiki Creative Commons / U.S. Library of Congress)

CINCINNATI -- Susannah Heschel, daughter of a Holocaust survivor rabbi prominent in the 1960s civil rights movement, will speak about "Jews, Civil Rights and the Holocaust" for the annual Stephen and Lusia Hornstein Lecture on the Holocaust and the Human Spirit. It is scheduled for 10 a.m. Sunday at the Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati.

Heschel, the Eli Black professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, has focused her scholarship on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of biblical scholarship and of anti-Semitism. She's received four honorary degrees and has held research grants from the Carnegie and Ford foundations.

But she may be best known for being the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish theologian active in civil rights. There's a famous photo of the elder Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, taken in 1965 at a march in Selma, Alabama.

The elder Heschel was saved from the Holocaust in part by Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, which helped get him out of Europe and into the United States, said Sarah Weiss, executive director of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education in Cincinnati. The center is sponsoring his daughter's talk, along with the Jewish Community Relations Council and Wise Temple.

"We're really excited about this program," Weiss said. "Dr. Heschel is a poignant scholar … and we were most excited about her sharing connections to her father's story."

The elder Heschel is looked on as a role model for Jews now, she said, but at the time, not everyone thought he was right for being so active and engaged in the movement. He felt he had to, she said, because America was the country that gave him refuge.

Stephen and Lusia Hornstein, both Holocaust survivors, served the Cincinnati community for many years as doctors. Lusia had wanted to endow a Holocaust-themed lecture at Wise Temple, where they worshipped, and after her death in 2000 her children made that happen, said her son, Frank Hornstein.

Previous lecturers have included Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel; Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland; and Jud Newborn, who spoke about the White Rose anti-Nazi movement in Germany active during World War II.

Frank Hornstein, who grew up in Cincinnati but who's now a state representative in Minnesota, said he's known of Susannah's work for years. "She's a prominent writer and thinker in the community," he said. "Once Sarah said she was potentially available, we jumped at the opportunity."

The younger Heschel said she planned to talk about how Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement was rooted in ethical principles from Jewish traditions, which were reinforced by the experience of the Holocaust.

"I'm very struck by the fact that so many of the rabbis who participated in the Civil Rights demonstrations were themselves refugees from Hitler," she said. Also, many of the Freedom Riders came from secular Jewish families, she said.

The Hebrew Bible played a central role in the movement, with King quoting frequently from the writings of the prophets. That contrasts with the supporters of Hitler in Nazi Germany, who wanted the Hebrew Bible thrown out of churches, she said.

She also plans to talk about what lessons from the Civil Rights movement are important to Jews today.

"I am very concerned about the rise of anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish cemeteries, and the appearance of swastikas in the United States. It's something I never thought I would live to see," she said.

"The people who have crawled out of the woodwork … make it very clear that the anti-Semitism they express is also a racism directed against African-Americans, Hispanics and anyone who isn't a white Christian," she added.

She's also worried about "the presence, in the White House, of people whom I don't trust at all, and who don't belong in the highest ranks of government."

"Obviously, we have unprecedented challenges in so many areas," said Fred Hornstein. "So many of the things that Heschel and King worked for are in danger of being, if not eroded, completely reversed. We need to protect those victories … and continue to make progress."