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Rabbi Berkowitz Urges Jews to Be Militant but Non-violent Self-determination for All Minority Groups

May 17, 1972
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A “grass roots emergency conference” of the New York Jewish community, called by Rabbi William Berkowitz, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, drew some 1200 participants last night. It also drew sharp criticism from the head of another rabbinical group and was enlivened by the walk-out of about two dozen persons protesting the refusal of the panel to allow questions from the floor.

The conference was attended by representatives of local communal groups, synagogues and Jewish civil service groups concerned by developments in New York City which seem to pose serious threats to the Jewish community. These included alleged discrimination against Jewish faculty and students in the city’s public schools and City University; erosion of the civil service merit system; the plight of the Jewish poor and the deterioration of Jewish neighborhood communities.

Rabbi Berkowitz, who presided, set the tone of the meeting when he declared that “a militant, but non-violent” stance was an alternative to “submissiveness and silence” and “hoping for the best” when Jewish interests were threatened. He further declared: “I believe in the granting of liberation and self-determination for all minority groups, but not at the expense of Jews.”

He said the conference was not intended to polarize the New York community but to assure New York Jews that their rights will be defended vigorously. He claimed that he was under “great pressure” to cancel the conference and had been subjected to personal attack as a “bigot” and “racist” for calling it.


The conference was sharply criticized shortly before it opened in a statement issued by Rabbi Robert J. Mara, director of the New York Federation of Reform Synagogues. “It is not a conference at all but a mars meeting, and a mass meeting is not the way to deal with the problems that confront us today,” Rabbi Marx said.

Others attending the conference objected to the absence of features associated with mass meetings –general discussion on the floor and a question-and-answer period. About two dozen persons walked out shortly after the conference opened when Rabbi Berkowitz told a questioner that the panel alone would conduct the discussions and questions from the floor would not be permitted.

Rabbi I, Usher Kirshblum of the Kew Gardens Hills Jewish Center, a member of the New York Board of Rabbis and a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Queens, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency afterwards that his walk-out was to protest the “rabble-rousing” attitude in which the conference was called and the lack of democracy in the meeting format.

The great majority of the participants remained and agreed vigorously with panelist Murray Rackowitz, chairman of the Board of Examiners of the New York City Board of Education, who said the “civil service system was on its death bed.” Dr. Rackowitz charged that the federal government was among those responsible for moving from an “equal opportunity” system to a “proportional representation” system in civil service jobs which meant, in effect, “a quota system.” Under a quota system, “Jews are the main sufferers,” he said.


William Kaufman, a realtor and builder and president of the advisory board of the NY Board of Rabbis said, “We are seeking an alternative to violence in correcting a situation where we keep getting the short end of the stick all the time.” He promised that the Board of Rabbis “will fight back hard” to change policies established in New York, Albany and Washington by people “ill-informed and ill-advised” about the problems of Jews.

Rabbi Marx said in his statement that while it was legitimate for Jewish organizations to be concerned about Jewish jobs, economic opportunities and educational standards, it would be “a terrible mistake” for Jews to allow the struggles of minority groups for a greater share of economic advantage “to be translated into a Black-Jewish or Puerto Rican-Jewish confrontation.”

Rabbi Marx recommended the appointment of task forces to meet with representatives of all minority groups to discuss mutual complaints, concerns and aspirations; challenging “Jewish agencies which have been organized to help the poor for more than 100 years to do their job”; and ” face the growing polarization between Blacks and whites, rich and poor and develop ways in which we can minimize this polarization to the advantage of all.”

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