When Jon Ossoff and the Reverend Raphael Warnock stand together to campaign in Georgia’s twin Senate runoffs, they stand on the state’s well-established foundation of Black-Jewish cooperation.
“The first time I sat down for a meal with Congressman John Lewis, what he wanted to talk about was the historic bond between the Black community and the Jewish community here in Georgia,” Ossoff said after the Atlanta Press Club’s December 6 debate. “Right now, what we have in Georgia is a young, Jewish journalist, the son of an immigrant, running alongside a Black preacher who holds Dr. King’s pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, building a movement for health, jobs and justice.”
In an unprecedented double runoff, Ossoff and Warnock have joined together to unseat Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, whom Ossoff describes as “the Bonnie and Clyde of political corruption.”
It’s not the first time Black and Jewish Georgians have banded together to create change.
The Rabbi and the Reverend
“You do not preach and encourage hatred for the Negro and hope to restrict it to that field. It is an old, old story. It is one repeated over and over again in history. When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe,” Ralph McGill wrote on Sunday, October 13, 1958, the day after the bombing of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, known as The Temple. His editorial in the Atlanta Constitution, “A Church, A School,” would win the Pulitzer in 1959.
The wolves of hate had hunted Black and Jewish Georgians for too long. In 1915, the lynching of Jewish-American Leo Frank by a group calling themselves the “Knights of Mary Phagan” gave way to a resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan, and decades of lynchings of Black men and women, with at least 40 since 1913. (Georgia has the second-highest number of documented lynchings in the United States.)
Leo Frank’s lynching had a tremendous effect on the psyche of Jews in Georgia. “What it did to Southern Jews can’t be discounted,” said Steve Oney, an expert on Frank. “It drove them into a state of denial about their Judaism. They became even more assimilated, anti-Israel, Episcopalian. The Temple did away with chuppas at weddings—anything that would draw attention.”
Assimilated was how Rabbi Jacob Rothschild found congregants in 1946 when he became the rabbi at The Temple. An army chaplain from Pittsburgh, Rothschild was disturbed by the racism and segregation in Georgia. His congregants remained silent on those issues, hoping to keep a tentative peace with the white gentiles that outnumbered them. The rabbi emeritus, Dr. David Marx, aspired to diminish outward differences between his congregants and white Atlanta. He went by “Doctor, not “Rabbi.” There was no Hebrew in the halls of The Temple, and services were conducted on Sundays.
On Yom Kippur in 1948, Rothschild delivered his first sermon against segregation.
“Unless decent people take up the burden, the South faces a return to the most primitive kind of bigotry and race hatred. Let us, then, be among those who are willing to do something,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with this desire to safeguard our position in the community; only the emphasis is misplaced. If we want our non-Jewish friends to respect us, then we must first respect ourselves.”
For the next decade, Rothschild advocated for integration and the Civil Rights movement, especially in sermons during the High Holidays. Atlanta’s Jews were hesitant to accept change at risk of their perceived safety. Rothschild repeatedly pushed against this hesitation from his pulpit and in his outreach to Atlanta’s Black community. Rothschild often asked Black leaders to lead events at The Temple, despite a congregation that feared such events would lead to segregationists’ retribution.
Before dawn on October 12, 1958, those fears were realized as The Temple was bombed with 50 sticks of dynamite, reducing its ornate facade to rubble.
Instead of quieting Rothschild or terrorizing congregants as intended, the bombing had the opposite effect. Support for the Civil Rights movement within the Jewish community grew exponentially. It also awoke whites—who called Atlanta “the city too busy to hate”—from a slumber of faux-serenity and security of a segregated status quo.
Rothschild’s activism only increased after the bombing. Sometime after the attack, Rothschild became good friends with Dr. King. In 1964, Rothschild helped organize a banquet in King’s honor to celebrate his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, where he gave the convocation and hundreds of Atlantans—Black and white, Jewish and gentile—joined hands to sing “We Shall Overcome.” After King’s assassination, Rothschild delivered his eulogy at a memorial service organized by Atlanta’s combined clergy.
“Their friendship and unity in the struggle for civil rights for black people is symbolic of the ways in which black and Jewish people can connect in efforts to prevent and end blights against humanity,” Bernice King told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of the relationship between her father and Rothschild. “This is an Atlanta story that needs to be revisited more often.”
Rabbi Rothschild passed away in 1973. Until then, he advocated for Dr. King’s nonviolence. He criticized segregation and racism—as did Atlanta’s Jewry, who created and led interracial and interfaith civic and political organizations.
The Councilman and the Coalition
In March 1982, the Atlanta chapter of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) invited a handful of Black and Jewish leaders to meet over lunch.
The topic was the Voting Rights Act, which was up for reauthorization in Congress. Cecil Alexander, an architect and chairman of the AJC’s Black-Jewish Taskforce, facilitated the discussion. In attendance were Sherry Frank, director of the AJC’s regional office, and Elaine Alexander, Executive Director of Leadership Atlanta (no relation to Cecil.) A young Atlanta City Councilman named John Lewis gave a speech about the importance of the act.
By the end of the meeting, a new chapter in Black-Jewish cooperation began, with the foursome co-founding the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition.
Frank remembers the meeting fondly. “The meeting was just electric, and everybody wanted to continue with Blacks and Jews at the table,” she told the Atlanta Jewish Times.
The four went together to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to march for Bloody Sunday’s 20th anniversary. Cecil and Lewis co-chaired the Coalition until February 1986, when Elaine took Cecil’s place. Lewis co-chaired until October of that year but remained involved throughout his life.
Lewis remained friends with Cecil, Elaine and Sherry. Shortly before he passed away this past summer, Frank visited him at his home in Atlanta “to tell him good-bye and how much I loved him.” The Atlanta Jewish Times published a lengthy tribute to the late Congressman in July, wherein Jewish Atlanta extolled a man beloved by their community.
The Reverend and the Journalist
John Lewis also held a longstanding friendship with his young mentee, Jon Ossoff. Ossoff grew up in Atlanta’s Jewish community and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at The Temple.
Ossoff interned for Lewis in high school. He also worked for Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) before beginning a career in journalism. Now, Ossoff is the executive of an investigative media company that produces documentaries on corruption in politics around the world.
Lewis campaigned for Ossoff in his 2017 congressional run, and again in 2020 as Ossoff launched his Senate campaign. In January, Lewis endorsed Ossoff, and in March, he endorsed his pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Reverend Raphael Warnock.
Ossoff and Warnock began campaigning together in August when the two held a virtual town hall. In October, they appeared in public together as Warnock emerged as the frontrunner of numerous candidates in a jungle primary. By the election on November 3, Warnock and Ossoff were campaigning together frequently. Then, when no candidate in Georgia’s two senate races earned 50 percent of the vote, Ossoff and Warnock headed into runoffs.
On November 6, Ossoff was asked if he would continue to work with Warnock. He responded with a firm “absolutely.”
When Ossoff and Warnock’s campaigns received a flux of donations from across the nation, they banded together to manage the funds. They campaign with President Obama and President-elect Biden, sell merchandise and create TikToks together. They advocate for each other in the face of their Republican opponent’s attacks.
Warnock’s opponent, Senator Kelly Loeffler, campaigns on comments Warnock has made regarding Israel. On November 9, she tweeted that Warnock has a “long history of anti-Israel extremism,” after Jewish Insider published an article entitled “Raphael Warnock signed letter likening West Bank to apartheid South Africa.”
Ossoff immediately came to Warnock’s defense. “Reverend Warnock is a beloved friend and ally of Georgia’s Jewish community and a friend of Israel,” he said to the Forward on November 16. “Maybe Senator Loeffler should focus her attention on David Perdue, who lengthened my nose in his attack ads.”
In December, Ossoff and Warnock came together with the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) in an ad called “Running Together with Shared Values.”
“You’ve got a young Jewish man and an African American pastor running together with shared values, shared commitment,” Warnock said over footage of him campaigning with Ossoff. “As I think about it, I think of Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman, two Jews and an African American who died fighting for voting rights.”
The JDCA also published a letter of support for Warnock from nearly 200 rabbis, 16 of whom were from Georgia, including Rabbi Peter Berg.
Warnock has been involved with Atlanta’s Jewish community since he first took the position of Senior Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in 2005.
Berg has worked with Warnock since he became The Temple’s Rabbi in 2008. The two have hosted joint events on social justice and speak on panels together. Berg told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Warnock is a “close friend and clergy confidant.”
“We often joke that every rabbi needs a pastor and every pastor needs a rabbi,” he said.
In the hours after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018, Berg remembers the first phone call of many that day.
“Raphael was the first to call,” Berg said. “[He said that] during this horrific moment of anti-Semitism in our country, he and the Ebenezer family are with us.”
“Leading from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic pulpit, I am proud to continue his legacy of leadership and friendship between Atlanta’s Black and Jewish communities,” Warnock wrote.
“More than 60 years later, I continue in that tradition of interfaith understanding and respect, working with Atlanta’s Jewish community leaders on joint services and fellowship in recognition of our shared values.”
There’s less than a fortnight until the election, one that will determine control of the Senate and the efficacy of President-elect Biden’s first term.
But as he drove across the state, from Athens to Augusta, Warnock spoke with gravity about his partnership with Ossoff. “At this moment, we are seeing a politics of division, and an uptick in unabashed anti-Semitic expressions, racism and xenophobia,” he said.
“The fact that a young Jewish man, the son of an immigrant, and the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church are running side by side bears witness to the best of the American covenant.”