Jewish Community Relations Council

Commemorating 60 Years in our Community!


The year 2022 marks the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). Though 60 years have passed, our mission today is still very much like what our founders perceived in 1962; building bridges of understanding within our Jewish community and to our broader community, combating antisemitism, educating in support of a strong and secure Israel, and advocating for public policy and social justice issues important to our Birmingham Jewish community.

 

In 1962, Birmingham was in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, a turbulent time, and our community leaders recognized the need and urgency for the Jewish community to react; to be able to speak in a collective voice in response to the unspeakable violence that was affecting every aspect of our city. Birmingham had earned the notorious moniker of “Bombingham” and between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s, more than 40 bombings took place in the city. The Jewish community was also targeted. In April 1958, a bomb was planted outside of Temple Beth-El synagogue. Miraculously the bomb did not detonate due to a faulty fuse and a light rain that fell, but also that year, synagogues in Atlanta and Jacksonville were targeted. Jewish community leaders were concerned about the lackluster investigations by the FBI as Birmingham’s bombings went unsolved and white supremacists seemingly had the power of the government and police behind them.

 

Also in 1958, John Crommelin, an avowed antisemite active in segregationist circles, filed his candidacy for Governor of Alabama on the platform of “The Communist-Jewish Conspiracy.” Crommelin called Jews the real enemy of ”white Christian Alabamians.” The need to organize the Jewish community was apparent, as Jewish community leader William Engel wrote to attorney Mayer Newfield, “ I am strongly of the opinion we should proceed to organize a community council in Birmingham.” Following on this directive, the Jewish Community Council held its first official meeting on June 19, 1962. The Executive Committee included Alex Rittenbaum, President; Emil Hess and Robert Loeb, Vice Presidents; Joe Brown, Treasurer and Max Kimerling, Secretary. Additional Executive Committee members included Harry Asman, Rabbi Seymour Atlas, Jerome A. Cooper, William P. Engel, Rabbi Milton Grafman, Harold E. Katz, Esther Lee Kimerling, Rabbi Abraham J. Mesch, Mayer Newfield, James L. Permutt, Dora Roth, Mervyn H. Sterne, Dorothy Unger, and Dr. Leon Weinstein, (then President of the United Jewish Fund, predecessor to the Birmingham Jewish Federation). President Alex Rittenbaum wrote the new members, “I am confident that with your leadership our newly formed Jewish Community Council will be an effective means of dealing with our community problems. “

 

In its early years the JCC addressed issues such as prayer and bible reading in schools (Robert Loeb chaired the Church-State Committee), and JCC members worked behind the scenes for the acceptance of Jewish students at Indian Springs School in ­­­1959. The JCC also led a campaign against the activities of the National State’s Rights Party (NSRP). The NSRP was based on racism and bigotry, with Blacks and Jews as its main hate targets. In 1960 the NSRP moved its headquarters to Birmingham.

 

In 1964, according to a letter from the JCC to the Birmingham Jewish community, the NSRP had “become bolder in its pronouncements of the Jew-Communist Menace” and had increased the distribution of their publication, the “Thunderbolt” to approximately 35,000 issues per month. In addition, the party was circulating The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the classic antisemitic publication as well as Nazi inspired pamphlets. In response the JCC planned an “all-out campaign to arouse public indignation” with the “cooperation of public officials, newspapers, civic organizations and civic leaders.” The work of the JCC over the next decade was pivotal in protecting the interests of the Jewish people of Birmingham and Alabama.

 

The Jewish Community Council became a committee of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in 1976 with Rita Kimerling as President. The name was changed to the Jewish Community Relations Committee or JCRC. The JCRC continued the work of not only responding to antisemitism, but also hosting educational and outreach programs for both the Jewish and broader community. Priority areas then included Israel advocacy, responding to antisemitism, and working with the public schools to sensitize them to accommodations Jewish students needed during the holidays.

 

In 2001, the BJF hired a full time JCRC Director and the JCRC expanded its reach to building bridges to the broader community, especially in times of crisis in Israel. During the Second Intifada the JCRC distributed hundreds of copies of Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and created a Speaker’s Bureau of community volunteers who spoke to area churches and civic organizations on Israel.

 

The JCRC sought to educate and expose community members to the social ills that continue to plague our state, such as sales tax on groceries, overincarceration, and HB56 (Alabama’s notoriously anti-immigrant bill). In 2009, the JCRC took a bus load of young professionals to the Black Belt to speak with foot soldiers from the Civil Rights Movement and to learn firsthand about generational poverty as a result of systemic racism in Alabama. In addition, the JCRC focused on strengthening our community’s relationship with the Black community which had considerably weakened after the Movement. JCRC formed Sisters/Chaverim, a group of Jewish and Black women, originally to host dialogue sessions on social issues, but ultimately transformed into a unique group of friends, attending wine tastings, hosting book talks and dancing together at their annual “Chrisma-kwanza-kah” celebration. Sisters/Chaverim was lauded by The Birmingham Urban League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The program was even replicated by the New Orleans Jewish Federation.

 

Our relationship with the Black community suffered a blow in 2019, when the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute announced it would be honoring Dr. Angela Davis with the Fred Shuttlesworth Humanitarian Award. Many in the Jewish community were upset by the choice of Dr. Davis due to her history of violence, alliance with Louis Farrakhan (an outspoken antisemite) and her anti-Israel remarks. Regrettably, in early 2019 the JCRC did not have a full time professional or working committee in place, and without the personal professional relationships between the two communities, miscommunications, missteps and missed opportunities for dialogue caused a terrible fracture that is still being repaired today.

 

In 2020, under the leadership of new BJF CEO Danny Cohn, the JCRC has once again become a high priority of the Federation’s work. Danny hired former JCRC Director Joyce Shevin to re-energize and restructure the Council. David Romanoff serves as Chair of the JCRC and the Steering Committee, made up of Jewish community leaders, directs and prioritizes focus areas and programming. The JCRC has re-established relationships within our public school systems, the BCRI, and we are once again at the community “table” as we partner programmatically with area faith-based relief and community organizations. We have distributed hundreds of Five Year Calendar of Jewish Holidays and Observances to schools and civic groups and we are the central point of contact for the community to respond to incidents of antisemitism. On the JCRC website is an Antisemitic Incident Form through which community members can reach out for assistance.

 

Our work is more vital than ever!  To learn more or to get involved in our work email Joyce Shevin at jcrc@bjf.org

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