Rabbi Rubenstein, Rev. King And Jail

Last month’s 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act drew well-deserved attention.

But the stroke of President Johnson’s pen hardly ended discrimination. In fact, just 2 months later — in June, 1964 — the largest mass arrest of rabbis ever took place, in St. Augustine, Florida.

The group — led by Rev. Martin Luther King — was striving to end segregation in the nation’s oldest city. Just a month earlier, he had spoken at Westport’s Temple Israel.

Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein

Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein

Now the synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein, returned the favor. He traveled south, and was part of the group that landed in jail.

Next month, St. Augustine commemorates the 50th anniversary of that event. There is  a panel discussion with 9 of the rabbis who are still alive; a reading of the letter the rabbis wrote and signed that night in the St. Johns County jail; a march to the church where the rabbis heard rousing calls to action by Rev. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Andrew Young; lunch cooked by the woman who cooked for Rev. King 50 years ago; a tour of the jail where the rabbis were incarcerated and fed baby food (overlooking the spot where black protesters were held, surrounded by barbed wire with no food at all), and a curated display in the city’s visitor center that reviews the 450-year-old history of blacks in North America.

Rabbi Rubenstein died in 1990. But his son Jonathan has been invited to attend.

Rev. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy in the St. Johns County jail.

Rev. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy in the St. Johns County jail.

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro told him, “The story of your father’s role in the largest mass arrest of rabbis in US history 50 years ago is legend here in St. Augustine …. (Some consider this) the most ‘undertold’ story in the history of the Jewish community of North America.”

That story was told in a recent edition of the Southern Jewish Historical Society newsletter.

Half a century ago, as St. Augustine prepared to celebrate its 400th anniversary — and Congress debated the Civil Rights Act — shopkeepers proudly displayed Ku Klux Klan robes.

King asked the Central Conference of American Rabbis for help. 16 rabbis — including Rubenstein — and Reform Judaism’s social action director, heeded the call.

The group joined members of St. Paul’s AME Church, attempting to integrate a motel swimming pool and lunch counter.

Monson Motor Lodge manager James Brock poured muriatic acid into the segregated pool, trying to get a group of rabbis and blacks to leave.

The Monson Motor Lodge manager poured muriatic acid into the segregated pool, trying to get a group of rabbis and blacks to leave.

In jail — by the light of 1 bulb burning outside their cell — the rabbis wrote a letter.

We realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us. We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came became we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act….

We came to stand with our brothers, and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God.

The newsletter notes that while plenty has changed in St. Augustine in 50 years, much has not. There is only 1 black firefighter, and no police officer, city commissioner or school board member. Barriers continue to keep African Americans from voting.

Rev. Martin Luther King is dead. So is Rabbi Rubenstein. But — as the newsletter notes — “the voices of those arrested can still be heard.”

Next month — 50 years after those voices were raised — St. Augustine celebrates them.

The rabbis composed this letter in jail. It is titled "Why We Went."

The rabbis composed this letter in jail. It is titled “Why We Went.”



8 responses to “Rabbi Rubenstein, Rev. King And Jail

  1. vivianne pommier

    Wow Dan, you bring back memories. I remember being there and at rabbi Rubenstein’s house after for an introduction with my family.
    We were honored to be a part of this historical event.

  2. joycecolburn

    Hi dan: This is a great article. I knew rabbi Rubinstein and was batmizvahed by him. He was a great man. Your article is very important. Thank you for writing 06880. Joyce colburn Jcolburn16@gmail.com

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Charles Halper


    Rabbi Rubenstein’s daughter , Judith, told me that most of the family are going to St. Augustine in mid June for the celebration.

    Roe Halper

  4. I was honored to attend Temple Israel on the occasion that Dr. King spoke. I was invited by my friend and classmate, Jonathan Rubenstein, son of Rabbi Rubenstein. I was in the orchestra at Staples with Jonathan and his older brother, Jim. That night is a memory I cherish. Many of us were involved in SNCC, CORE and other groups by then (also along with Mr. Sugarman). It was a vital, scary but exhilarating time.

  5. Great reporting, Dan. Very inspiring.

  6. Thanks for this great piece of history, Dan.

  7. Ruhi Sophia Rubenstein

    I’m Rabbi Rubenstein’s granddaughter (Jonathan’s daughter) and this story has inspired me for years. We’ll be doing a whole “family reunion” in St. Augustine in June for this event, and it’s so touching to know that this story and my grandfather are still remembered in Westport!

    • Dear Ruhi Sophia, If you read this, please extend my greetings to your Father, Jonathan, we were in orchestra together. Also to your uncle Jim if he remembers me. Warmest regards, Madeleine