The untold story of a Jewish Freedom Rider
Jerusalem Post January 31, 2016
By DANIELLE ZIRI
A tribute to Rabbi Allan Levine, who fought for civil rights in the segregated US South.
RABBI ALLAN LEVINE’S mug shot, after being arrested for an
anti-segregation protest in Mississippi in 1961. . (photo credit:MDAH)
New York – In the early seventies, Ori Levine, then about 13 years old, was having dinner with his family at a restaurant in Jaffa when suddenly a woman ran past the restaurant in a panic. Seconds later, they understood why: She was being chased by a man with a knife.
In an instant, Ori’s father, Rabbi Allan Levine, jumped up from his chair and began running after the man.
The family was in shock.
Ori’s brother, Arie, also ran after their father, calling him to come back. As he turned the corner, Arie saw the woman backed up against a wall and, in order to protect her, their father had placed himself between her and the knife-wielding man, his hands up in the air.
“He just put himself in between them,” Ori said. “My brother didn’t know what to do. It’s a situation in which you don’t know what to do.”
But after a moment that felt like hours, the woman escaped in one direction, the man went in another and Ori Levine’s father went back to the dinner table.
“Why am I telling you this story? Because that was my father,” Ori told The Jerusalem Post, as he was sitting shiva for his father, who died last week at the age of 81 after battling Alzheimer’s. “The shiva is important, but telling his story is even more important to me.”
Rabbi Allan Levine lived his life trying to find ways to help others. He was born in Montreal in 1932 to a poor family that was very much affected by the 1929 Great Depression.
“He was also living in a neighborhood where there weren’t many Jews and so he suffered from anti-Semitism as a child,” his son explained.
In 1955, after studying political science, Levine moved to Israel to study Hebrew at an ulpan. That was where he met his wife. After getting married in Israel, the couple immigrated to the United States.
“In the US my dad decided he was going to rabbinical school in Cincinnati,” Ori said. “And during his studies, my father made a fundamental decision that Judaism aims to make the world into a better and more moral place.
Everyone can say that, but to make it actually happen is a different story.”
In May 1961, Levine turned on his television and was exposed to something that would later become a defining part of his life.
The news aired a report about the first Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists who rode interstate buses in mixed racial groups into the segregated South of the United States to challenge the discrimination.
The rabbi was moved. In the days that followed, he called the Congress of Racial Equality, which was the body organizing and sponsoring the Freedom Riders’ activities.
After speaking to James Farmer, the director of the organization, Levine was assigned his first mission: gather a group of religious leaders and ride down to Jackson, Mississippi, to protest segregation.
After arriving at its destination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent part of the group to Washington to meet with then US attorney-general Robert Kennedy, and Levine was charged with taking the remaining group of mixedrace clergy to the Jacksonville Airport. The goal was to eat together at the airport’s dining facilities, which were segregated.
But at the airport, Levine’s group was greeted by the Jackson Police Department, whose officers arrested and briefly jailed them.
“They got a sentence but it was never enforced,” Levine’s son explained.
After the arrest, James Farmer wrote to Levine, in a letter that his son proudly reads from now: “Your participation has made this the most exciting and influential civil rights struggle of the decade.
We made the decision to be Freedom Riders, and now we are challenged to continue the ride.”
Ori said, “There is an historical mistake made in remembering this struggle… Martin Luther King was the symbol of the movement because he was the most charismatic, but the person who actually managed everything was James Farmer.”
Since that first ride to Mississippi, Levine was an active Freedom Rider. For four years he participated in many trips to the South, until 1965.
“My father received a lot of publicity, but without his name ever being mentioned,” his son told the Post. “No one knew who he was.”
Ori’s father was in fact photographed in what later became one of the most famous pictures of the civil rights movement. It shows an African-American woman, Amelia Boynton Robinson, an important activist of the time, being carried by a group of men after having been severely beaten by police during the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
In the forefront of the photograph is Rabbi Allan Levine, holding Robinson’s legs in his right arm and a newspaper in his left. In his mouth, a cigar and on his head, a kippa. The picture has been hanging on the wall of the family’s home in Rehovot for years.
“Every time he went to the South he made sure to always wear his kippa,” Ori recalled.
“He wanted people to know that he is a Jew who came to fight for their rights.”
“He actually wrote this, it’s not something I am inventing,” Ori told the Post. “It was important for him that everyone knew that Jews fight for the rights of weaker people.”
As he sat shiva for his father, Ori said he knows that he will never reach the level of morality his father had.
“It is such a high place to be in, human beings don’t even get close to it,” he said. “At the end of the day what we look for in life are things that are close to us. The things we do are a result of our personal interests.”
“That is normal, it is the norm,” he continued. “But my father was never interested in fame or money, or ego… He lived his entire life like this.”
When his father started getting sick, Ori began to look into the documents Levine kept from his time as a Freedom Fighter and to connect them to the stories he had heard from his father as a child.
“What is most amazing in my eyes is that a young Jew, with two small children at home, decides to just go and fight for the rights of people who he doesn’t know, who are not part of his community, and who he is not even close to geographically,” he said. “He also went knowing he was risking his life. At the time, in 1961, there were people who were killed or who disappeared in the South. It was no picnic.”
Today, Ori explained he is not looking for any prizes or recognition for his father’s actions. He doesn’t even want his father to be publicly honored in any way, because, “He wasn’t a man who looked for these things.”
“I just want him to be remembered in history as the man he really was,” he said.
“His legacy was that the mission of a man who wants to be a religious spiritual leader is not to just talk. His mission is to act for improving the world.”
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