Bill Russell may have been the greatest champion in basketball history. Along with Celtics coach Red Auerbach (who was Jewish), they were feared for their drive to win. The Forward reported that for both, growing up as members of minority groups made them resolve never to accept victimhood or be hindered in their goals. Russell noted in his memoir that during his first year with the Celtics, Auerbach informed him: “It was tougher than hell growing up. There was a lot of prejudice against Jews. I’m a Jew.”
Bill Russell acknowledged he had limited interactions with Jews growing up in Louisiana and at the University of San Francisco. He once asked Coach Auerbach to define Judaism (“What is a Jew? Is it a religion? Is it a culture? A tribe?”) -- Auerbach’s response was concise: “Russell. A Jew is a Jew!”
In 1964, Auerbach led a US State Department goodwill basketball tour behind the “Iron Curtain” that included a full-day visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Russell later recalled:
“We saw the stoves and mounds of hair and jewelry and shoes, and then we just walked around gloomily. Red looked serious – it made a big impression on him. It also had a strong impact on me. I thought, ‘This is the greatest demonstration of human inhumanity towards other men. This is a great evil.' I could only wonder what Red was thinking and feeling. I didn’t say a word to him the whole time. I figured if I said something wrong it might sound disrespectful or make him uncomfortable -- this place had more to do with his people than mine. However, the location raised concerns about segregation in the United States. Although it was different, it was born out of the same ignorance and fear that fuels such atrocities.”
Nichelle Nichols was most famous for her role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on Star Trek. (FYI -- Her character’s first name was never mentioned until the Star Trek reboot in 2009.) Lt. Uhura (from the Swahili word “uhuru,” meaning freedom) was the communications officer on the ship’s bridge. She was one of the first Black characters to be portrayed in a non-menial role on American television.
Leonard Nimoy (who was Jewish) wrote in his autobiography that he believed Star Trek was about "tikkun olam," the Jewish obligation to repair the world. He recalled the nightly news of Black Americans being beaten and killed for protesting racist barriers to jobs, education, and voting which made it clear how badly repairs were needed. At one point, Nimoy found out the show was paying Nichols less than two male actors with similar roles and he demanded pay equity for her.
In her autobiography, Beyond Uhura, Nichols shared that her acting lines were being reduced so she decided to leave the role. Soon after, she attended an NAACP convention where she met her self-described "No. 1 fan” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a regular viewer and implored her to return to the show. He said, "Don't you realize how important your presence, your character is? … You have broken ground. For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people."
I was too young to listen to Brooklyn Dodgers games and did not grow up as a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, so I only heard Vin Scully when he would do nationally televised games, especially the playoffs and World Series. He was brilliant at his job.
I think the first time I remember Scully’s voice was watching replays as a young boy of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run to break Babe Ruth’s record against the Dodgers. At that moment, Scully simply said, “To the fence. It is gone.” After pausing for the celebration, he added, “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the State of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”
Let's also not forget he was the Dodgers announcer when Sandy Koufax refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series since the game was on Yom Kippur. Scully said, "Most people admired Koufax for putting his religion before his job. I'm sure there were others who were furious, saying that he wasn't that religious -- and I don't think he was -- but that didn't make any difference. It was his decision and everyone respected it. They understood." (You may recall Don Drysdale pitched and did not make it through the third inning down 7-1. Drysdale reportedly asked Dodgers manager Walter Alston if he wished "I was Jewish today, too."
I want to make special note of Regina Jonas, who would have turned 120 years old on Wednesday. Who was Regina Jonas? She was the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in 1935 by the Conference of Liberal Rabbis in Germany.
Jonas always wanted to become a rabbi, and argued in her college thesis that there was no law forbidding women to become rabbis and that there were many biblical and historical examples of women teaching and arbitrating Jewish law. After her ordination, she worked as a pastoral counselor at the Jewish Hospital in Berlin and preached at liberal synagogues when the Nazis began to deport rabbis. Even after her deportation to Theresienstadt she continued to teach her fellow inmates until her final deportation and death at Auschwitz in 1944.
In 1972, Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and referred to as the “first female rabbi ever." Only when the Berlin Wall came down and the archives in East Germany became accessible was Regina Jonas’ legacy found in the General Archive of German Jews.
Some truly inspiring and incredible people.
A special mazel tov to the Maimonides Jewish Day School and Chabad NE Portland, who are partnering together to purchase a 8,700 square foot building on the eastside that will house both the Jewish day school and Chabad Northeast's community programs. The building will also host a preschool, Hebrew school, adult education classes, and social activities throughout the year. Future plans include a significant expansion of the Maimonides school and pre-school capacity and a kosher kitchen to provide food for their Chesed program.
This represents a significant growth opportunity for both organizations and an additional benefit to those who live on the eastside with now two spaces for Jewish engagement. To learn more, read this article in this week’s Jewish Review or contact Rabbi Chaim Wilhelm.