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Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 9
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Rabbi Yedwab speaks to Congregation Beth Israel

On Saturday, Oct. 13, Rabbi Stanley Yedwab, visiting rabbi of Walla Walla’s Congregation Beth Israel, shared his experiences in the civil rights movement and other social causes and explained the role that Judaism played in his fight against prejudice and discrimination. Rabbi Yedwab speaks to Congregation Beth Israel | Photo by Glory Bushey

The speech, in which the congregation had tried to involve people outside of the Jewish community, was followed by a brief roundtable discussion between the rabbi and the congregation.

Rabbi Yedwab, who retired to the Seattle area after 39 years of serving in Lakewood, N.J., as Rabbi of Temple Beth Am Shalom, conducts religious services at Congregation Beth Israel several times a year.

During his speech, Rabbi Yedwab said that his inspiration for civil rights activism came from his own understanding of the books of the Bible.
Rabbi Yedwab led a Reform congregation in New Jersey but said that his early Jewish instruction tended to be more Orthodox and emphasized ritual and the ancient history of the Jewish people.

“I wasn’t as interested in the parts about rituals, the things that we had to do, or the history of Israel. It seemed to me that the Bible was about setting up a utopian society,” Yedwab said. “Do you know how many times the Bible says to welcome the stranger, or to take care of the widow? Forty-six.”

Rabbi Yedwab’s own interest came to focus on the books of the prophets, like Isaiah, which focused on the topic of how Jews ought to live their lives and treat others. His personal exploration of Reform Judaism, which lays more focus on the prophetic books, was another element of his beliefs regarding social justice.

A major responsibility for Reform Jews is “tikkun olam,” which translates to “repairing the world,” and Rabbi Yedwab tried to apply this belief to civil rights in America during the 1960s.

His beliefs led him to join the Congress on Racial Equality, or CORE, a civil rights organization which counted many Jewish leaders among its members. His first activity focused on northern racism in New York City. The organization performed sit-ins in New York hotels to fight discrimination until the hotels revised their policies to provide equal treatment of black and white patrons. While the New York movement was successful, Rabbi Yedwab continued his activities with the organization.

After a CORE-affiliated rabbi was beaten badly in Mississippi, Rabbi Yedwab said that “[his] heart was breaking” until Martin Luther King, Jr. announced his march from Selma to Montgomery.

Rabbi Yedwab flew with his wife Myra to Montgomery. Despite the energy among organizers and demonstrators like himself, Yedwab noticed that some black citizens of Montgomery were less enthusiastic.

“On the porches, older people were sitting. You could tell that something was turning in their lives. Instead of being exhilarated, there was fear,” Yedwab said. During his speech he interpreted this fear in the light of the Old Testament.

“When Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea, what was the first thing that they said? ‘Let’s go back! We had fish and loaves in Egypt, for free,'” Yedwab said.

At the end of the march, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in which he told the audience that “we’re on the move now.” Rabbi Yedwab said that this attitude was more thoughtful and useful than the one expressed by the marchers’ chant, “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!” He said that the belief that victory was already at hand could be destructive.

“You can’t go into any work where you’re repairing the world with the belief that you’re already there, or else it will kill you. Not you, personally, but you, in spirit,” Yedwab said.

After the march in Alabama, Rabbi Yedwab returned to New Jersey, where he led an antipoverty initiative, Ocean, Inc. and helped to found the Lakewood Clergy Association, an interfaith organization. His family also helped settle a family of Vietnamese exiles and a Russian Jewish family.
Rabbi Yedwab said that there was still work to be done and that religion could help reach out to people. “Our real purpose in life is tikkun olam, to repair the world, not just live in it.”

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    stuart mecklerApr 3, 2009 at 11:26 am

    I am glad to see my Rabbi, is still doing well and continuing his life’s work. It was a pleasure to have as our spirtual leader all those years in Beth Am. I certainly keep his ethos up front in my work as a counselor to incarerated youth.

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    Seymour FuchsAug 8, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Hello Rabbi Stanley Yedwab. Would you please email me about Myra’s pottery. Thanks, Seymour