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2024 Justine L. Nusbaum Lecture

A Jew, a Christian, and Spiritual Audacity: The Leadership of Allies during the Civil Rights Era

University News | February 16, 2024

This week, the Robert Nusbaum Center at Virginia Wesleyan University welcomed Michael Panitz, Ph.D., rabbi at Norfolk’s Temple Israel and adjunct professor at VWU, to deliver the 2024 Justine L. Nusbaum Lecture. This year’s talk centered on the historic and continually unfolding relationship between Jewish and African Americans. 

Dr. Panitz noted the civil rights movement as the high-water mark in this relationship, symbolized by the close relationship between Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi who brought progressive politics to Judaism, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Panitz said, “Heschel wanted Judaism to thunder its denouncement of racism and to sing the praises of loving one another.” 

The two leaders literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder during the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. Shortly afterward, Heschel was asked if he had much time to pray when he was in Selma? He responded, "I prayed with my feet." Dr. Panitz shared with the VWU audience the meaning of that statement saying that for him, it meant that “I was in the presence of God working amongst us.” 

After the King assassination, Dr. Panitz bemoaned the ebb and flow, often frayed, relationship between Jewish and African Americans, citing issues related to affirmative action, antisemitic comments by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, as well as Jackson’s meetings with former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and now, the large number of African Americans declaring sympathy for Hamas. 

Panitz closed his remarks with a call to action. In a nation comprised of people who are seemingly walling themselves off from those who share different views, he says that engaging in honest dialogue has never been more important, challenging the audience to “tell your story and encourage others to do the same.”