In the throngs of demonstrators flocking to the Jim Crow South in 1965, Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum wanted everyone to know he was a Jew.
Next to the supplies he was advised to pack for the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. — crash helmet, sleeping bag, dried food, Sterno for emergency heat — was a stack of kippahs.
The round cloth atop his head sparked intrigue among the black people with whom he was marching.
“People came up to me and asked, ‘What are those caps?’ ” Teitelbaum, 84, recalled. “After a while, everyone wanted one. They became known as ‘freedom caps,’ and I told everyone we would send for more.”
Teitelbaum, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, was one of dozens of rabbis who answered Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to join the civil rights movement. He is, to his knowledge, the only rabbi still living in the Bay Area who went to Alabama for the voter registration drive and Selma march.
Teitelbaum will join the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and other faith groups Monday, Jan. 17 in commemorating King’s birthday and the 45th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march by crossing the Third Street Bridge in San Francisco.
Many historians view the march, part of a trio of demonstrations that grew out of the voting rights movement in Selma, as responsible for shifting public opinion about the civil rights movement.
“I was living out what Judaism has been teaching all along,” Teitelbaum said, “that you have to help the oppressed and underprivileged, and not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
The contingent of Bay Area rabbis who marched in Alabama included Gerald Raiskin of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame; Joseph Gumbiner, executive director of U.C. Berkeley Hillel; Joseph Weinberg of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco; and Saul Berman of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.
At Teitelbaum’s Conservative synagogue, where he had been rabbi for eight years, support for his marching was tremendous. The enthusiasm carried from the confirmation class to congregants at Shabbat services, and everyone in between. They came to the airport to see him and the other rabbis off, stuffing $20 bills in their coats.
The morning before he left for Alabama, Teitelbaum, then 38, resurrected the dog tags he wore during his Army chaplaincy in the Korean War. He also made out his will.
“I was well aware that Selma was an intense and dangerous place,” Teitelbaum said. “The Rev. James Reeb had already been killed. Jimmy Lee Jackson had already been killed. I was wary, but I had to go.”
He added, “I had this feeling that this would be an important turning point in the whole civil rights movement.”
The rabbis arrived in Birmingham on March 17, Erev Purim. Forced to split up on their drive to Selma, Teitelbaum and Raiskin stayed behind while the other three went ahead. Gumbiner, Weinberg and Berman became immersed in a protest and landed in jail.
Ignoring warnings from a black minister not to leave the “Negro section” of Selma, Teitelbaum and Raiskin hitched a ride to the jail the next day to bring their colleagues some food to break the Fast of Esther (from dawn until dusk on Purim eve).
Teitelbaum knew the move was risky. In case of trouble, he was told, the FBI would not step in. He was taught to protect his head from the beatings. Everyone in King’s nonviolence movement, he learned, had to share the blows. There was no fighting back.
“One of the activists told me, ‘The very fact that you come here means your skin is as black as mine,’” Teitelbaum recalled. “He was right. I was cursed at, spit on and jailed. Someone shouted, ‘You white people are worse than the niggers.’ ”
A day later, Teitelbaum and a delegation of marchers were taken into protective custody while walking to City Hall in protest. The arrest was a safety measure, he was told, but it felt like the opposite.
Teitelbaum was hauled off to a recreation center that doubled as a jail. As he boarded the bus, a police officer barked, “I’m just itching to bash your head in.”
Back at home, Teitelbaum’s family watched the events unfold on television.
“It was a very tense time,” recalled his wife, Robin, of those momentous days. “When we saw David on TV, with the sheriff raising his billy club over his head, I realized how much danger there was. Our kids said, ‘There goes Daddy, off to jail.’ It was a frightening experience for our family. All we could do was pray.”
With his back pressed against the wall of the recreation center, Teitelbaum stood outside for two hours inhaling fumes from a nearby cleaning facility before he was allowed to enter. He was warned not to say a word.
Whispered messages traveled down the row of protesters. Remove your glasses in case of violence, someone said. I have food to share, said another. A sheriff eventually said they could go, but no one moved.
Wearing their “freedom caps,” Teitelbaum and Raiskin marked the Friday night in custody with a Shabbat service. “Undoubtedly, there were many Jews there,” Teitelbaum said, but participants weren’t only Jewish. Without prayerbooks, protesters sat on the floor and sang “Adon Olam” to the tune of the protest anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
Teitelbaum called it a “tremendous response” from Jews and non-Jews alike.
“It was one of the most moving Shabbat services,” Teitelbaum said. “When it came to the Sh’ma, the number of voices was overwhelming. A number of people told me after that they hadn’t been to a synagogue in so long. I was deeply moved.”
The next morning, the protesters left the rec center. Thoughts turned to the main march, the third attempt to walk from Selma to Montgomery that year.
The first march, known as “Bloody Sunday,” occurred March 7, 1965. Nearly 600 civil rights demonstrators headed to Montgomery in what started as a nonviolent protest. As marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a wall of state troopers met them on the other side.
A warning for marchers to disband gave way to tear gas and beatings. Mounted troopers charged the crowd on horseback. The brutal images of the attack, which left people bloodied and severely injured, were captured on television.
Immediately after Bloody Sunday, King issued a call for clergy and citizens from across the U.S. to join him.
To prevent another violent outbreak, the marchers attempted to get a court order that would prohibit the police from interfering. Instead, Federal District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson, a longtime champion of civil rights, issued a temporary restraining order to delay the march.
On March 9, King led about 2,500 followers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and held a short prayer session before turning back, obeying the court order prohibiting them from continuing on to Montgomery.
Johnson lifted the injunction on protesting a week later, giving marchers the go-ahead for the third attempt. Their First Amendment right to march could not be abridged by the state of Alabama, he ruled.
Teitelbaum perched atop a CBS truck to catch a glimpse of King before the March 21 walk. He took photos of King, flanked by Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian of the 20th century and civil rights activist known for saying, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
King’s words to rally the marchers left Teitelbaum in awe.
“Dr. King said, ‘We are like the children of Israel, marching from bondage to freedom,’” Teitelbaum recalled. “That really moved and inspired me, and brought home the message that our people’s story of Exodus has been the inspiration for many such struggles for freedom throughout the ages.”
Close to 8,000 people assembled at Brown Chapel AME Church to commence the five-day trek to Montgomery. Most of the marchers were black, with some whites, Asians and Latinos joining them. Spiritual leaders of multiple faiths and races linked arms as they silently walked the pavement along what was then a four-lane highway to Montgomery.
Under the protection of circling helicopters, “I walked with a Negro girl,” Teitelbaum said, “and this heckler called out to her, ‘You’re still going to be a nigger!’ and he spit.”
Because the road would eventually narrow to two lanes, and the judge limited the number of protesters to 300 on that particular stretch, most of the marchers returned to Selma by bus or car at the end of the first day. Teitelbaum, who had marched for nine miles, was in that group.
Those who stayed on — about 300 — camped overnight and continued the journey the next day.
At the end of that first day, Teitelbaum wanted a moment alone. He wandered to the perimeter of the large tent that sheltered the crowd and spotted King, sitting quietly alone, meditating. He approached him and introduced himself.
“I said, ‘I’m Rabbi David Teitelbaum,’ ” he remembered, “And Dr. King said, ‘Thank you very much for coming and God bless you.’ After five hectic days in Selma, finally meeting the man in charge was an inspiration.”
Teitelbaum has not been back to Alabama since. He is writing his memoirs and jokes that it’s going to be a while before he finishes. “I’m only on 1967,” he said with a laugh.
In the portion of his book dedicated to the civil rights movement, Teitelbaum remembers sitting at his typewriter in 1963, choking back tears as he tried to complete his weekly sermon. The news of four girls dying in an explosion that rocked the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham tormented him. His thoughts turned to his boys, 7-year-old Joshua and 6-year-old Adam, and he began to weep.
Robin said it was the first time she saw her husband cry.
The Teitelbaums, married nearly 53 years, focused on social action during their Beth Jacob years. In addition to their commitment to civil rights, they were active in the Soviet Jewry movement. They smuggled prayerbooks to refuseniks and were regulars at weekly protests at the Soviet Embassy in the ’70s.
Upon his return from Selma, Teitelbaum spoke about his experiences with Beth Jacob congregants, members of black churches and civic service groups. It was part of his mission, he said, adding that people still become excited to learn he marched with King.
“The experience in Selma was one in which I saw people deprived of basic constitutional rights,” Teitelbaum said. “The right to vote, assemble and speak freely are fundamental, core rights of our democracy and must be preserved. When the need comes, one must struggle valiantly in order to pursue them.
Martin Luther King to be honored in S.F.
Thousands are expected to take part in this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration, “Sustaining the Dream Through Community and Service,” which kicks off with a commemorative march across the Third Street Bridge in San Francisco beginning 11 a.m. Monday, Jan. 17.
The march, starting at Fourth and Townsend streets and ending at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, will mark the 45th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965.
Faith leaders and clergy, under the direction of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, will lead the procession. The S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council will hold a banner, and several Bay Area rabbis are expected to participate.
A short interfaith service will follow at Yerba Buena Gardens’ Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The Rev. Amos C. Brown, a former student of King’s and national board member and president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP, will be honored for a lifetime of service in the civil rights movement.
The day includes free admission to the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the Museum of the African Diaspora. Both are in S.F. and will hold special programs for children and teens. Retailers and shops in the area will offer discounts and free activities as well.
Free and discounted public transportation services will be available. For more information, visit www.norcalmlk.org and click on the “transportation” tab.