“Pour out our hearts like water.” (Lamentations 2:19)
That sentiment, quoted by Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim, was a recurring theme as Jewish Atlanta reacted to the death of John Lewis.
The 80-year-old Alabama native, an icon of the civil rights movement and 17-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, died Friday of pancreatic cancer.
Sherry Frank had visited Lewis at his Atlanta home the previous Saturday “To tell him good-bye and how much I loved him.”
Their friendship dated back nearly four decades to when Frank was director of the American Jewish Committee’s regional office in Atlanta and Lewis served on the Atlanta City Council and extended beyond their professional lives to include their families.
“I’m sad,” Frank told the AJT. “He was a hero to the world, but he was a champion of causes central to the Jewish community: anti-Semitism, freedom for Soviet Jewry, security for Israel.”
“He was a bridge-builder extraordinaire and really the reason that the [AJC’s Atlanta] Black-Jewish Coalition was born and thrived,” Frank said. The pivotal moment was a 1982 meeting at which Lewis spoke to an audience of Blacks and Jews about the need to renew the federal Voting Rights Act. “The meeting was just electric, and everybody wanted to continue with Blacks and Jews at the table,” she said.
That meeting led to the formation in 1982 of the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition, co-founded by Frank, Lewis, and the late Cecil Alexander. Lewis co-chaired the group its first four years and “even when he was elected to Congress [in 1996], he stayed close to the coalition,” Frank said. As a postscript, in June 2019, the AJC announced formation of a Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations, with Lewis among the inaugural co-chairs.
Real estate developer Steve Selig, president and chairman of Selig Enterprises, was active in the Atlanta coalition in the early years. “The very fact that John Lewis — John Lewis! — saw fit to lend his name, time, counsel and influence to the Black-Jewish Coalition gave the organization instant credibility. As he was throughout his life, he was a voice of reason and helped attract others who otherwise might have had no interest,” Selig said. “Growing up, my late father of blessed memory always told me that no person is irreplaceable. Well, there is always an exception to every rule. John Lewis is irreplaceable.”
Such reverence for Lewis was another theme of the reactions to his death.
“If there was ever a man of faith, that man was John Lewis. His faith lived in him and he lived his faith,” said Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, rabbi emeritus of The Temple.
Billy Planer, who has led hundreds of Jewish congregations and other groups on civil rights history trips through the South, said that Lewis “truly believed and lived in the idea of ‘the beloved community,’” envisioned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “He understood that we were all in this together. That is why he looked to completely blur the lines between the Black and Jewish communities.”
Through his Etgar 36 program, Planer annually guides a tour bus full of teens to historic sites across the country and meetings with people advocating on different sides of major issues. Most years that included a visit with Lewis. Planer posted on Facebook a video from July 2011, when the teens crowded into Lewis’ Capitol Hill office. “So I say to you as young people, you must never, ever give up, must never ever give in, or give out. You must keep the faith,” Lewis told them.
Abby Shiffman met with Lewis when lobbying with the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) for laws and funding to protect children. “He was always so kind. He loved when you were passionate about something, fighting for the rights of those who may not be able to fight for themselves — in a peaceful way, of course. He will be missed, and I hope the peaceful way he created change will continue,” she said.
Lewis discussed that “peaceful way” in a June 5 video presentation for The Blank Family of Businesses, enterprises assembled by Arthur Blank, an entrepreneur who previously co-founded The Home Depot. In his introduction, the 77-year-old Blank talked about the need for younger people eventually to pick up the baton that he, Lewis, and others have carried on.
As protests following the killings of African Americans continued, Lewis acknowledged that recent days and weeks “have been tough, been hard. But we must keep the faith, must hang in there. Be brave and bold. And it’s going to work out.
“We must see that all of our young people, all of our children, continue to receive the best possible education. And teach our children, our young people, the way of peace, the way of love. Teach our young people the philosophy and discipline for non-violence. And never, ever, to hate,” Lewis said. “I’m very hopeful about the future. We have all of these smart gifted young people. They’re going to help us get there. As a nation, as members of the world community, we will get there. We will redeem the soul of America and help create what Dr. King called ‘the beloved community.’”
In a statement issued Saturday, Blank said of his friend: “John wore the scars of a brutal 1965 beating he received while leading the history-changing ‘Bloody Sunday’ march in Selma – to those honored to know him, it was a reminder that freedom isn’t free. John risks his life to end legalized segregation and make America better place for us and future generations. That’s the enduring legacy of one of the most courageous people I ever met. May he rest well and at peace after such a meaningful, purpose-filled life.”
Bernie Marcus, who was Blank’s partner in co-founding The Home Depot, praised Lewis as “a great leader and statesman, . . . a distinguished representative for his district and the great state of Georgia for decades. His work in Congress as well as for civil rights defines servant leadership.”
Marcus recalled his interaction with Lewis in support of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose Clifton Road headquarters in Atlanta is in Lewis’ 5th District. Marcus, along with Kent (Oz) Nelson, former chairman and CEO of United Parcel Service, and Phil Jacobs, a former AT&T executive, worked with Lewis to secure $1.5 billion from Congress to rebuild of the CDC campus on Buford Highway. “I will always remember his enthusiasm, leadership and ability to navigate the congressional maze,” Marcus said.
Former Fulton County Commissioner John Eaves said that Lewis’ death left him with “a sense of sorrow and a degree of disbelief that he’s no longer with us.” They met often as the 5th District represented a section of the county.
Eaves said that Lewis was unwavering. “He was very consistent. Whether it was anti-Semitism or homophobia or racism or xenophobia or any -ism in which people were marginalized or discriminated against, he was forceful. He was just a good man and a solid man, humble, but at the same recognizing his iconic status,” Eaves said. When approached by well-wishers, “He would stop and give them attention as if he knew them. He walked with kings, but he also had the common touch.”
Lesser said he experienced “a devastated compounded loss” as, earlier on Friday another Atlanta civil rights icon, 95-year-old Rev. C.T. Vivian, a friend and lieutenant of King’s, died.
Lesser said of Lewis: “He was such an incredible source of hope for the possible redemption of our country and of humanity. He was fearless in the face of the bullies and the supremacists of the world. His kindness would envelop all he would encounter. He saw a better world possible, free of racism and bigotry, and he became affixed to that vision like the north star.”
Rabbi Peter Berg, senior rabbi at The Temple, likewise was “devastated by the loss of C.T. Vivian and John Lewis. Both, for me, represent the moral compass of Atlanta and the best of our nation.”
Vivian “was one of the most humble human beings I have ever met. He was brilliant. Every word that flowed from his mouth was, to me, in the form of poetry,” Berg said. “Whenever I saw him, I could tell that he felt such a strong connection to The Temple and to Atlanta’s Jewish community.”
Berg said of Lewis: “He was a special gift to the Jewish community. Representative Lewis was the architect of the Black-Jewish Coalition in Atlanta. He had deep relationships with the leadership of the Jewish community. He was a staunch supporter of Israel and spoke beautifully about his passion for Israel. He also condemned anti-Semitism whenever it reared its ugly face.”
Lesser and Berg co-authored a July 2019 opinion article in the AJT that praised Lewis’ support of a House resolution opposing the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement and his co-sponsorship of another resolution that affirmed the right of Americans to participate “in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad, as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
The rabbis wrote: “This position is not contradictory; on the contrary, it is principled and effective. We’re disheartened that a handful of voices in our community have unhelpfully sought to use it as an excuse to launch partisan attacks on Congressman Lewis. These voices have deliberately ignored the Congressman’s clear condemnation of BDS and absurdly charged that his support for constitutional rights is somehow harmful to Israel.”
A third theme in the reactions to Lewis’ death were the lessons that members of the Jewish community learned from him.
“John Lewis taught us all that the world will not fix itself, that if we want to make a difference, we have to stand up and be counted,” Berg said. “That is why so many consider him the moral conscience of Congress. I would take it one step further and say that John Lewis was a prophet in our own day.”
Judy Marx, who came to know Lewis during her 12 years at the AJC’s Atlanta office, including six as director, asked and answered a question:
“What can we learn from a mensch? This is just a bit of what I learned from John Lewis that we can all aspire to: Always have time for the person standing in front of you. Treat all people like they are long-lost friends, even if you’ve just met them. Work to make the world a better place; it is always worth it.”
- Rabbi Joshua Lesser
- Congregation Bet Haverim
- U.S. House of Representatives
- Georgia’s 5th Congressional District
- Pancreatic Cancer
- Sherry Frank
- Rabbi Alvin Sugarman
- Abby Friedman Shiffman
- Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition
- Steve Selig
- Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
- Billy Planer
- Etgar 36
- Bernie Marcus
- John Eaves
- Rabbi Peter Berg
- The Temple
- American Jewish Committee