Atlantans could be excused if they thought the late April national conference of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs was just a local event. After all, a predominance of Atlanta civil rights leaders, faith leaders and activists were highlighted and served on panels at the annual – although virtual – conference.
But they would be wrong. JCPA is a network of more than 125 community relations councils and federations and 16 national organizations which represent, among others, four denominations of American Judaism.
However, since the conference focused on racial justice, relations between Jews and Blacks, and criminal justice reform, it was obvious that Atlanta – long the epicenter of the civil rights movement – would be over-represented.
So, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young; founder of the Black Jewish Coalition of Atlanta Sherry Frank; The Temple’s Rabbi Lydia Medwin and Ebenezer Baptist Church Rev. John Vaughn also spoke.
Not incidentally, Georgia’s first Black senator Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist, was also interviewed in a segment of the conference. Lois Frank, a former JCPA board chair and the current co-chair of the JCPA task force on strengthening relationships with Black communities, introduced the senator.
“Atlanta is a model in so many ways,” Frank told the AJT.
In 1982, members of Atlanta’s Black and Jewish communities joined together to campaign for the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. The relationship between the two communities was periodically rocky over the decades, most recently when the initial mission statement of the Black Lives Matter movement criticized Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. Frank said that reference was later eliminated. Referring to the Black and Jewish communities, she added, “We’ve never lost our connections.”
Repeatedly mentioned throughout the two-day conference was the late Congressman John Lewis, who made voting rights a lifelong effort. As states around the country – including Georgia – pass new laws that many say restrict the right to vote, Warnock stressed the need to pass the to restore the full voting protections of the original, bipartisan Voting Rights Act of 1965. The bill was last reauthorized by Congress in 2006 but constrained by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.
Just as important as that bill, Warnock underscored the need for Congress to pass For the People Act, known as H.R. 1, which was written to expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, limit partisan gerrymandering, and create new ethics rules for federal office holders.
There is “no more important moral work than to defend the right to vote,” Warnock told JCPA conference participants.
In the film, “Shared Legacies,” which premiered at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival last year, Frank called Atlanta, “the cradle of the civil rights movement.” In the discussion following a screening of the film at the conference, Frank pointed out that “we only need to look at the [current] attacks on voting rights and civil disobedience to understand the need for the [Black and Jewish] communities to work together.”
Shari Rogers, a conference panelist who directed the film, said, “We have achieved a lot, but we have a long way to go.”
During the conference, JCPA released a Jewish “call to action” to end “mass incarceration and criminalization.” The paper concluded by saying, “As a Jewish community, we must act in accordance with our history, teachings and traditions to transform our criminal justice systems.”
Medwin, director of congregational engagement and outreach at The Temple, and Vaughn, executive pastor of Ebenezer Baptist, spoke about the Multifaith Initiative to End Mass Incarceration, which was created to leverage the power of faith leaders and communities to “demand and act for an end to mass incarceration on the local and national level.”
The priorities of EMI are threefold: to shift the narrative to include the faith values of forgiveness and redemption; to increase the engagement of the faith communities; and to continue to engage the faith communities in policy changes.
Medwin charged that the U.S. is addicted to incarceration. “Lives literally depend on the work we do,” she said.
Atlanta is one of six U.S. regions EMI is focused on. The others are the New York City metropolitan area; Little Rock, Ark.; Milwaukee, Wisc.; Dallas, Texas; and the Los Angeles area.
According to Frank, JCPA was focused on criminal justice reform even before the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. “This is a new civil rights” effort, she said.
- Jan Jaben-Eilon
- Jewish Council for Public Affairs
- Andrew Young
- Black Jewish Coalition of Atlanta
- Sherry Frank
- The Temple
- Community Partners
- Rabbi Lydia Medwin
- Rev. John Vaughn
- Ebenezer Baptist Church
- Rev. Raphael Warnock
- Voting Rights Act
- John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act
- John Lewis
- Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
- Shari Rogers
- George Floyd
- Civil Rights