Remembering Richmond

Memories of long-ago years have returned as if in a magical dream. My arrival in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederate States of America, birthplace of racial segregation, and the cause celebre of America’s Civil War in 1861, began in 1956. I had been invited by a prominent rabbi to serve as a teacher of Hebrew and to assist him in public matters.

My first exposure to racial intolerance and segregation began the very first moment I stepped off the train at the Broad Street terminal. There I saw, for the first time the horrible signs reading “this fountain is for whites only”, “this fountain is for coloreds only”, restaurant window signs “we serve whites only”, bus signs “colored sit at the back of the bus”, and the waiting rooms for patients in a doctor’s office “waiting room for whites”, “waiting room for coloreds”.

From my earliest beginnings I regretted accepting the position in the city of the seat of racial intolerance. But of the two years I survived in Richmond, happiest memories were of my appointment to the faculty of Virginia Union University, a 100% black university founded two years after the Civil War in 1865 to educate many of the four million black slaves who had been freed under President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Declaration. in 1863. I was the only white member of the faculty and the only Jew in a Baptist university. I was warmly welcomed by the distinguished theologian and President of the university, Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor and treated with great respect by faculty colleagues and my students alike, none of them who had ever been in a classroom with a white teacher.

In the synagogue, during the rabbi’s illness, I served in the pulpit conducting religious services on shabbat and preaching the sermons. In one sermon I spoke of my experiences teaching in a black university and I compared their years of slavery and bondage to the bitter years of our lives as slaves in Egypt. I quoted from the Hebrew bible the references to slavery and to the command to treat slaves, which were permitted, as human beings. One reference was to our patriarch Abraham who entrusted his slave/servant Eliezer to go in search of a wife for his son Isaac. Throughout our bible and later rabbinical writings we were commanded to treat slaves freely, giving them their release after seven years of service. “Remember the strangers among you for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
At the end of the service, the president of the synagogue took me aside and admonished me never again to speak of racial relations or segregation in that synagogue if I wanted to keep my position.

I left Richmond after two difficult years and made my way to France where I studied for my Doctorate in Comparative Literature. Some years later I learned that the president of the synagogue who had once condemned my remarks on slavery had made Aliyah with his family and settled in Jerusalem. I often wondered how he felt as a Jew now living in a city with a large Muslim population. Had he adjusted to living with a minority group, many of them black?

Now I turn the clock ahead to 62 years. 1956-1957 were memories of old. New memories began last week…happy and glorious new memories. I had been invited by the esteemed president of Virginia Union University, Dr. Joseph Johnson, to be an official guest at the university’s celebration of 152 years, and to deliver the invocation at the formal ceremonies of Founders Day on February 3rd.

The chapel was filled to capacity. Someone whispered “there must be a thousand people here”. Realistically it was more likely to have been many hundreds in attendance.

Dressed in my academic robes I marched with the administration and faculty and board of trustees in the formal procession to the accompaniment of choir and chorus and the music of Beethoven and J.S Bach to the central stage sitting between the President and the Dean of the School of Theology.

My invocation was brief but from the applause, seemingly well received. As the ceremonies came to an end, during the academic recessional, dozens of out-stretched hands strained to reach me, to touch my hand, with a “God bless you, rabbi” from grateful lips.

While there, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet one of America’s youngest and most brilliant Conservative rabbis, Michael Knopf, who serves as the beloved spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El, the place where my Richmond “life” first began 62 years earlier. How fortunate Beth-El is to have such a dynamic young rabbi to lead and to guide them in the ways of Torah Judaism. I hope that he and I will be able to maintain contact with one another. In my older age I can learn much from his wisdom. My first thought upon meeting him was that he is so strikingly handsome, he belongs more in a Hollywood film setting rather than in a Jewish community’s pulpit. For Temple Beth-El’s future, I hope that the dynamic Rabbi Knopf will remain happily with them in good health and without aggravation for many years to come. Being a rabbi in a congregation with often differing beliefs and opinions has never been easy. I say this from personal experiences ! But my motto had been “Let’s compromise. We’ll do it my way” !!!!

Additionally, I was delightfully re-united with two of my former students from the Richmond synagogue. Nancy and Helen were 13 years old when they were my students. Now they are both 75 with children and grandchildren of their own. I thank God that I was so privileged to be re-united with them and to share familiar memories of people and places I once knew and loved. Nancy took me to the Jewish cemetery where her wonderful parents and younger sister are buried. And there I prayed at their graves and thanked them for their loving Jewish-Southern hospitality to me during my earlier years in Richmond so many long years ago. I have never forgotten the love of the Cohen family.

On the 8-hour train ride to New York, my eyes were closed as I tried to re-capture every moment of the past three days. I had never before been treated with such honor and respect as was accorded to me by Virginia Union University. I felt like a king in his kingdom. I shall never forget the graciousness and the hospitality which the administration and staff extended to me. Hugs and kisses, exchange of gifts, and thank-yous without end.

President Johnson and his wonderful secretary, Ms. Ida Jones over-extended themselves in their many warm courtesies to me. God bless them for their kindness to an old rabbi.

Remembering the new and free Richmond are beautiful memories which I will treasure for the remaining years of my life. And while I have received many invitations to return, I hope it will be before another 62 years will have passed.

I doubt that by age 146, I will be able to make the trip.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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