By Ezra Friedlander
As America mourns the death of Congressman John Lewis, the Jewish community mourns alongside its fellow Americans.
John Lewis was a rare individual that was able to transform our society and America at large: a task requiring bold, strong, and aggressive leadership.
These leadership characteristics certainly describe the tools by which he could accomplish such change, yet he was able to meet his objective in the most peaceful manner possible, a victory stronger than any other. That specific attribute is a reflection of his sincerity and larger-than-life ability to inspire an entire country.
In the 1950-60’s America first began grappling with the institutionalized racism that was in place. John Lewis was a young man who saw his brothers and sisters facing severe discrimination on a daily basis. John Lewis was one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights movement, working closely with his mentor Martin Luther King Jr. He was instrumental in the social discourse and political maneuvering that led to the passing of the monumental Voting Rights Act.
However, I believe John Lewis would have acted the same way and provided the same quality leadership even if it were not his people facing such discrimination. His advocacy was truly universal.
John Lewis was a staunch friend of the Jewish community. He even co-lead the effort to award a Congressional Gold Medal in honor of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose effect on the Jewish community he likened to Martin Luther King Jr.’s effect on his. Lewis was reported remarking: “I am sorry to say that I never got to meet the Rebbe. I know I would have liked him. I know Dr. King would have liked him.”
Support of this measure is sufficient enough of a window into the true universality of John Lewis’s hopes for freedom and equality. However, even more compelling than his otherwise inexplicably adamant support, is his support of such an effort alongside his ideological nemesis, Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich.
John Lewis made it clear that this was no accident, that appreciation of those who improve the world through loving “the other” transcends all other affiliations: “Some people will say that we agree on almost nothing, nothing at all . . . But there is at least one thing on which we do agree. That is the awarding of this medal.”
A comparable example of the universality of John Lewis’s advocacy is his support of Soviet Jewry. Supporting those from identities other than his own nationality is an amazing achievement but supporting those who may not be from his identity in a nation half-way across the world is truly the full breadth of freedom.
At a rally for Soviet Jewry in 1987, he said: “Our message, the message of the Black community, is one that is very simple. We are saying to President Reagan, ‘Mr. President, tell Mr. Gorbachev to open the doors, open the gates, and let the people out.’ I say that as long as one Jew is denied the right to immigrate, as long as one Jew is denied the right to be Jewish in the Soviet Union, we all are Jews in the Soviet Union.”
John Lewis believed in an America that could not only ensure freedom for those within its borders, but for every single human being around the globe.
In 1995, John Lewis refused to attend the Million Man March, promoting African-American unity, because of its organizer, Louis Farrakhan. A leader of the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan has been recorded making vile antisemitic remarks. When questioned on his absence from the event John Louis answered: “I cannot overlook past statements by Louis Farrakhan–and others associated with the Nation of Islam–which are divisive and bigoted.”
John Lewis understood that unity through division is not unity at all. Even when it came to the cause for which he fought his entire life, if hate towards the Jewish Community was involved in an aspect of it, he could not support that aspect.
He understood that bringing together people of all backgrounds was the only way to make long lasting change. There are very few individuals who have been able to replicate let alone capture in words the heart he possessed. He was respected because he exuded sincerity and authenticity. For him it wasn’t political; for him it was trying to create a world that reflected the intent of our founding fathers.
In 2012 speaking at an American Jewish Committee event, he expressed dismay at the deterioration of Black-Jewish Relations in our nation. John Lewis worked hard to forge those bonds: fighting for Civil Rights hand-in-hand with Jewish leaders and founding the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition in 1982. Whether you are Jewish, Black, or neither, the message is clear. We are stronger together than apart.
The only way the Jewish and African American communities can live in peace and enjoy the fruits of this great nation is through benefiting everyone. Only benefiting the members of one ideology or race is not what he stood for or what this country was built for.
On a personal level, John Lewis was someone with whom I interacted on many occasions. My interactions with him amazed me more and more each consecutive time. He understood the complexities of this country and the importance of making each person realize their part in creating the solutions to some of our greatest problems.
As a visually-identifiable Hasidic Jew, when greeting him in the halls of Congress he had a humility that should be a hallmark of the behavior of those in public service. Despite being an always busy and enormously famous person, when he saw me, whether in the halls of Congress or hosting him at an event, he would always engage in meaningful conversation.
I will always remember a speech by the then Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy at a dinner hosted by the American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in Washington D.C. honoring him and John Lewis. The level of esteem held by Kevin McCarthy — who is on the opposite end of the political spectrum — wasn’t just mere polite political doublespeak but was a genuine appreciation of John Lewis and how he was the exemplification of the ideal statesman. That is why America will miss John Lewis and why the Jewish community will miss John Lewis.
Yes, we have deep and current problems in this nation, but fighting them alone is not the answer. And in the spirit of John Lewis, who saw the need for real human connection alongside tremendously important Civil Rights policy, we should work on not only fighting for institutional change but driving social change. Political change often seems alien and far off, but John Lewis was a perfect example of how our daily actions — irrelevant of the bigger political picture — can directly lead to tangible change.
As we mourn and remember one of the most influential American statesmen in our recent history, think about how you can be part of social change, talk to those with whom you wouldn’t regularly converse, reach-out to those outside the bounds of your neighborhood, and make John Lewis proud.
John Lewis himself emphasized this type of honor of one’s memory through a call to action so eloquently that I will leave it to him: “We may no longer see the Rebbe with our eyes but his spirit lives in our hearts, in our souls, and in our deeds.”
May our deeds and achievements be worthy enough to bear the memories of John Lewis.
Ezra Friedlander is the CEO of The Friedlander Group, a public policy consulting group based in NYC and Washington, DC