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A night with Janice Rothschild Blumberg

I will always remember the night I met Janice Rothschild Blumberg, widow of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild. Jacob Rothschild was the rabbi at The Temple during the Civil Rights Movement. Rabbi Rothschild marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrating solidarity between The Jewish and Black communities in Atlanta. He was also adamant about supporting the Civil Rights Movement and for that he paid a hefty price. On October 12, 1958 The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple was bombed by white supremacists determined to silence Rabbi Rothschild and the Jews who supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Being raised in Illinois, I had little knowledge of the story of The Temple. Many Jews up north assumed The Temple was bombed because it was a synagogue in The South. Having heard different accounts in Atlanta, I made it my business to learn more about the events that led to that fateful morning.

The evening I met Janice Rothschild Blumberg, she was on a panel hosted by the Alliance Theatre. The discussion took place at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta across the street from the Woodruff Arts Center and ran quite late. At the time I was driving Uber and writing for the Atlanta Jewish Times. So, when Rothschild Blumberg needed a ride home I was the first one to speak up.

“I’ll do it!” I said with authority in my voice. As a Black Jewish woman this was the passenger of a lifetime and I didn’t want anyone to take the opportunity away from me.

“I’m an Uber driver.”  I quickly said.

Excited I pulled my Ford Focus to the front of the church. Now, Janice Rothschild Blumberg is the epitome of a lady who has traveled the world in the best accommodations. I was afraid when she saw my car she would say no and wait for a ride that suited her status. But with all her class and distinction she got in and we were off to her home in Buckhead. I don’t remember how I ended up in her home that night, but I sat on her couch listening to stories about her life.  I was in awe of her, even in her late 80s the beauty of her youth was apparent. I couldn’t help but think “I want to be just like her.”

She told me how she met Rabbi Rothschild, and how she too wrote for the Atlanta Jewish Times formerly The Southern Israelite. Her job included traveling to Israel and reporting on the innovations of the country.

“I would like to do that one day,” I told her.

“You will,” she said.

Little did I know her words were prophetic.

As she talked, I couldn’t help but notice, a picture leaning against the wall behind a few other framed photographs. It was an enlarged photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Rabbi Rothschild and Janice Rothschild Blumberg. I kept staring at it. They were all wearing big smiles and looked so happy. Coretta Scott King was gorgeous. I walked over, picked up the photograph, and sat back down on the couch.

“Where was this photo taken?” I asked. “Can you tell me about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?”

“That photo was taken at the dinner we gave Martin in honor of him receiving the Nobel Peace Prize,” she said.

She went on tell me how the dinner was controversial because the whites in the city did not want to be a part of the event. But the Rothschilds knew it was the right thing to do.

“I said to Jack, ‘We should really honor Martin and host a dinner’,” she recalled.

And so, on October 14, 1964 the Rothschilds hosted the Atlanta Nobel Peace Prize Party for Martin Luther King Jr., the first public integrated dinner to take place in Atlanta. I took a photo of the photo to have for my own memories and as a keepsake for my future children.

She went on to tell me more stories about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and the morning The Temple was bombed. Her stories humanized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Coretta Scott King. The more she talked, the more The Civil Rights Movement became tangible to me. I listened as she described the kindness of Coretta Scott King and told me the story of the first time the Kings came to her house for dinner.

“I didn’t know my neighborhood was a sundown neighborhood,” she said still in shock of what she learned about her neighbors.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Black people couldn’t be in my neighborhood after sundown,” she said. “When Martin and Coretta were driving to my house they got lost and had to stop to ask for directions. Martin pretended to be the help going to work at a dinner party I was hosting so he wouldn’t get into trouble.”

I will never get over the humility it took to be the most prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement. This man was leading the nation out of one of its darkest eras into a future that would change the course of  history and he had to pretend to be the help. However, that night he formed an alliance with the most influential Jewish couple in Atlanta, garnering a wave of support from the Atlanta Jewish community.

“Our housekeeper never once answered the door,” Rothschild Blumberg said laughing. “But that night she told me ‘I’m answering the door tonight!’”

I laughed too at thought of how much Dr. King meant to the Black community. I could only imagine how her housekeeper felt that night walking to the door knowing who was on the other side.

We sat and talked for a few hours. She served me tea and I walked through her home looking at photos and her Judaica items as if I were in a museum. There were photos of her with world leaders, books, and all kinds of art. I asked question after question fully aware that was my one chance to take in as much knowledge as I could from one of Atlanta’s Jewish Matriarchs. She became a role model to me that night, not only because she lived an incredible life, but she and Rabbi Rothschild did the right thing facing down hate and fear. Even when the Jewish community was hesitant, Rabbi Rothschild and Janice Rothschild Blumberg chose to lead, making an unpopular decision that would leave a legacy for the Black and Jewish communities in Atlanta.

I will always be grateful for the generosity of Janice Rothschild Blumberg that night, and how she inspired me to be a great Black-Jewish woman and stand for something other than myself, even if it is unpopular.

 

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