More than just recognizing Ossoff’s barrier-breaking win, his choice of a Hebrew Bible speaks to the crucial bonds between the Jewish and Black communities in Atlanta that made the moment possible.
“It’s a special honor to have had Rabbi Rothschild’s Bible brought into the Senate chamber and in some small way to honor the work that he did with Dr. King to make this a better world,” Rabbi Peter S. Berg, the senior rabbi of theTemple, told The Washington Post.
For swearing-in ceremonies, politicians often choose religious texts with personal or ideological significance. On Wednesday, President Biden used a Bible that has been in his family since 1893, inscribed with notable dates when it has been used. His son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015, used the same Bible when he was sworn in as attorney general of Delaware.
Ossoff, 33, who held his bar mitzvah at the synagogue, said he chose this Hebrew Bible because it meant more than just acknowledging his Judaism and the synagogue’s rich history in social justice.
“It’s also about the necessity of reanimating the spirit of the civil rights movement and building alliances to pass landmark civil rights legislation,” Ossoff told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who first reported on the backstory of the Hebrew Bible at his swearing-in ceremony.
Rothschild, who led the Temple from 1946 to 1973 when he died suddenly of a heart attack at 62, was an outspoken advocate for racial justice during an era of stark racial division in Atlanta. But the tension only made him more determined to speak out, Berg said.
“During the civil rights movement, Rabbi Rothschild was instrumental in the pursuit of racial justice and integration,” Berg said. “And he gave sermon after sermon on the cause.”
Rothschild’s open condemnation of Jim Crow laws and racial inequality attracted ire from white supremacists. On Oct. 12, 1958, a group that called itself the “Confederate Underground” positioned a bomb made of 50 sticks of dynamite near an entrance to the synagogue, causing an explosion that severely damaged parts of the building, though the sanctuary was mainly left unscathed. There were no deaths or injuries.
The explicit act of anti-Semitism stunned local leaders, causing the business, media and political elite in Atlanta to rally behind the synagogue. No one was ever charged in the bombing.
In the years following the incident, Rothschild formed a friendship with King. In 1964, after King won the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership during the civil rights movement, Rothschild appealed to resistant business owners in Atlanta to honor King with a banquet in his hometown.
“Rabbi Rothschild, along with some ministers, was instrumental in working with Coca-Cola, the largest company [in Atlanta], to convince the rest of the business community that we had a sacred obligation to honor Dr. King for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and for the work he did,” Berg said.
The banquet became the largest integrated gathering in Atlanta, according to Berg. After King’s assassination in 1968, Rothschild was chosen by his peers to give a eulogy at a memorial service organized by Atlanta clergy.
In many ways, Ossoff’s successful campaign was possible because of the path set by Rothschild — one that involved a strong alliance between Georgia’s Black and Jewish communities.
Ossoff also worked closely with civil rights leaders like the late Georgia congressman John Lewis, who mentored him for 17 years, said Jake Best, a spokesman for the senator. Ossoff won a runoff earlier this month against incumbent Republican David Perdue largely thanks to a record-breaking turnout of Black voters.
“Congressman Lewis instilled in Ossoff the conviction to fight for justice and human rights, as well as a deep commitment to the historic bond between Jewish people and the Black community,” Best said in a statement to The Post.
In his interview with the Journal-Constitution, Ossoff added that Rothschild’s story could serve as an example for lawmakers on the importance of people of different creeds working together.
“The alliance between Blacks and Jews in the civil rights movement is a model for what we can achieve when we continue to build the multiracial and multigenerational coalition we’re building now,” he said.