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The Plot for America: Remembering Civil Rights Leader Joachim Prinz

The influential Newark rabbi was a confidante of Martin Luther King, but he’s been all but ignored by history

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Joachim Prinz speaking at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. (Courtesy Lucie Prinz)
altJoachim Prinz, two to the left of Martin Luther King, in the Oval Office with President John F. Kennedy and other Civil Rights leaders on the day of the March on Washington.
(Cecil W. Stoughton via John F. Kennedy Library)

As his personal correspondence from the late 1950s indicates, Prinz was the first rabbi to reach out to Martin Luther King Jr. When Prinz was installed as President of the American Jewish Congress at its May 1958 convention in Miami, King was—at Prinz’s insistence—the keynote speaker. It was the first time the civil rights leader had ever addressed a white audience south of the Mason-Dixon line. Less than two years later, King addressed an overflow crowd from Prinz’s pulpit at B’nai Abraham in Newark, New Jersey’s most prestigious Jewish pulpit.

Prinz’s activism was widely criticized, and it must be said not entirely unreasonably, by neo-conservative Jewish intellectuals such as Milton Himmelfarb and Norman Podhoretz, and even more so by many conservative members of his own congregation. These members were especially troubled by what they derided as his public Civil Rights “stunts”; when, for example, in 1960, he organized and led the picket line in front of Woolworth’s flagship Manhattan store on Fifth Avenue to protest the store’s segregated lunch counters in the South. Prinz, who helped the Jews of Berlin withstand the Nazis’ anti-Jewish boycotts, regularly used his bully pulpit as the president of the AJC to urge boycotts of several major national department stores: Woolworth’s, Kress’s, Kresge’s, and Grant’s among them, issuing a statement on March 25, 1960, that proclaimed in the name of the AJC, “We do not accept the thesis that businesses may solicit the patronage of Negro customers in all other departments and deny them the right to equal service in the consumption of food and beverage. … We therefore support the call [to boycott] and add our voice.”

While the large majority of American Jewish leaders were growing cold toward the cause due to the rise of radical black identity politics that were inflected with no small degree of anti-Semitism, Prinz’s commitment, and his sense of personal affinity with the black experience in America, never waned, even after he was held up at knife-point by a black hitch-hiker he picked up while driving to Shabbat services at B’nai Abraham. (Prinz loved to recall that upon first seeing the knife pointed at his throat, he solemnly informed his assailant, “Young man, I’ll have you know that I marched with Dr. King,” to which his assailant responded, “Look, man, I don’t give a fuck who your doctor is; just give me your damn money!”) and later mugged by an intruder in his own office at B’nai Abraham.

Largely because of his insistence on not abandoning the deteriorating city, B’nai Abraham remained the last of Newark’s major synagogues to relocate to the suburbs west of the city, finally moving in 1973 to Livingston, where it thrives to this day. Newark’s leading Reform Temple, B’nai Jeshurun, led by the highly respected Rabbi Ely Pilchik, had already relocated in 1968 to a magnificent, indeed ostentatious, new building on a hilltop overlooking the suburb of Short Hills, a grand structure that featured a soaring pointed steeple. A few of Prinz’s congregants decided that showing Prinz this impressive new building might help convince him that B’nai Abraham ought to abandon Newark for a glorious future in the suburbs. Upon driving by B’nai Jeshurun and gazing up at the synagogue’s towering steeple, Prinz quipped that this was “Pilchik’s final erection.”

Prinz was especially embittered by his fellow rabbis’ abandonment of the Civil Rights cause. He concluded his keynote address to the 1970 national convention of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly—although Prinz was trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, Germany, as a Conservative rabbi, he removed B’nai Abraham from the conservative movement, declaring the congregation, and himself, “independent”—by upbraiding the more than 250 rabbis present, and American Jews more generally, for having “retreated back into their own Jewish ghetto” abandoning what he continued to insist was an essentially Jewish moral cause:

Less and less do the lists of the peace movements and the movements of urban reform and those crying out against injustice and inequality for the Black community contain Jewish names. Most of the people, particularly you rabbis, have withdrawn into their comfortable ghettos. Instead of leading the people, you are following. Jews are among the most bigoted people in the world. Jewish leadership, instead of reprimanding them for it and cursing them up and down, as did the ancient Prophets, has followed their ranks.


Prinz’s identification with the plight of African Americans was inextricably bound with his own passionate, life-long commitment to Zionism. The earliest stirrings of black pride in America obviously touched a sensitive personal nerve in Prinz, whose road to Jewish religion and Zionism was a rocky one resisted by his grandfather, father, and hometown rabbi, just as civil rights was for many of the young black pioneers of the movement, who, especially in the deep south, rebelled against the long complacency of their elders. As he recalls in his memoir:

My Jewish emptiness, which was caused by the perfunctory and assimilationist Jewish attitude of my community, including my own father, left a void inside me that made me search for something to fill it. It was at that time that I began to discover that there was something in Jewish life that was new, but rejected by the vast majority of the Jewish people. It was the Zionist movement. I ordered Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State from our bookstore, since the library of the Jewish community did not carry it. I read it feverishly, including the last sentence: “If you will it, it will not be a fairy tale.” … In speaking with my rabbi about it he warned me against such a foolish idea that could only lead to a Jewish disaster and create … a betrayal of the German patriotism to which we were all wedded.

Prinz recalls his father having a slice of ham with breakfast each day and describes him as “a great patriot and believer in Germany … an assimilated Jew to whom Zionism was anathema, who was religiously very mixed up … but aware of my oratorical talents.” When his father lay ill, mistakenly believing that he was on his deathbed (the most Jewish thing about the elder Prinz appears to have been that he was seriously psychosomatic), he asked Joachim to take a solemn oath swearing never to become a rabbi. In one of the memoir’s very few examples of conceding to the beliefs, or even sensitivities, of another human being, Prinz, with fingers crossed behind his back, obliged, “knowing that I was lying to him.”

Prinz, like many other famous Central European Jewish intellectuals of the interwar era—from Franz Kafka to Gershom Scholem—bristled at and rebelled definitively against their fathers’ and grandfathers’ assimilation. The experience of ministering over the return of deeply alienated and assimilated German Jews to their Jewish roots during the Nazi era not only deepened Prinz’s Zionist convictions but also shaped his thinking about the one unshakable belief that permeated his preaching and writings for the remainder of his life—the idea of the “inescapable” nature of Jewish identity. Though they might be able physically to hide their national identity in a way America’s blacks could not, all Jews—no matter how determined or desperate to escape it—were bound together by an inescapable destiny.

Aside from his Jewish identity, there was another matter that Rabbi Prinz seemed, at least personally, to find utterly inescapable: the male sexual drive. In his memoirs, Prinz repeatedly expressed disdain for the idea of monogamy. In the course of his overly lengthy and explicit recollections of his premarital sexual adventures, including those with the woman who was to become his first wife, Lucie (whom Prinz offers was sexually “very well trained and far superior to me,” having “herself invented” certain coital techniques previously unknown to humankind), there is the following description of their adolescent loss of innocence, which even Woody Allen might find too absurd to keep in a script: “I remember the first time we slept together was after a long walk through the woods, and our bed was the field. The moon was shining brightly, the stars were above us, and I thought of Kant’s famous line in his Critique of Pure Reason in which he discussed the relationship of moon, stars and the moral conscience.”

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This articles is slightly distorted. Let’s take the case of Newark. The remaining Jews in Newark fled for their lives following the afro-american riots in 1967. Some of the riots had an unmistakable anti-Semitic undertone. There was a feeling among many Jews that although they supported the civil rights movement there was little or no reciprocity from the Afro-American community for issues that were important to American Jews such as support for Israel. This remains true to this day where there is very little support for Israel from Afro-Americans even though Israel is the only Western country who actively brought Africans into their country and have provided them with support ever since (more or less successfully) and many Arab countries are extremely racist.

Carl, there is nothing more that can be added. You covered it precisely. Thank you.

Lucie Prinz says:

Thank you Alan for this wonderful, lively and completely accurate story about my father. You caught his fervor, his passions (of all sorts) and his love of life which he translated into his support for those who did good works. He harnessed his talents for public speaking both in his sermons and in speeches like the one at the March on Washington in the service of causes that were often unpopular and, in Germany dangerous to espouse. When I thanked Philip Roth for his portrayal of my father in THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, he said: “I only gave him the words he would have spoken in real life.”
He taught his children to stand up to the forces of bigotry and injustice whenever we encounter them. This is his legacy to us and it continues to inform our lives.
And, by the way, what a wonderful web site. I’m a new fan.

Thank you, Tablet and Allan Nadler – Your article was magnificent and compelling personal, Zionist, civil rights, Jewish and American story. It stirred legacy reminders for young and old of our powerful, authentic and complex Jewish “Tikun Olam” roots and wings. May the life, ideals, complexities and accomplishments of Yoachim Prinz z”l be an inspiration and blessing in our continuous fight against the assimilation of our Jewish identity and values.

Prinz and his Wise mentor were consistently self aggrandizing. Self righteous egomaniacs loom large in their lifetime with radio access and publicity. The most interesting nugget in this obituary is Eichmann’s presence at Prinz’ farewell. Eichmann is remembered by history.

ina baron (nee Fisch) says:

When B’nai Abraham was in its final years in Newark, I was fortunate enough to teach at its Hebrew School. And yes, The elder Rabbi Prinz, was an egomaniac. I wish we had some egomaniacs just like Rabbi Prinz now…when we need him again.

yankel says:

That remark by “Prince”– especially the quip about Eichmann — is truly beneath contempt, and undeserving of a response. Rabbis Steven Wise and Prinz, of blessed memory — and, I may add Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, z”l (also an egomaniac)– did more to advance Zionism in America than anyone other than Justice Louis Brandeis. Shame on you, “prince.” This is a magnificent and well-earned tribute to a great man egomaniac or not.

Great piece, Allan. And with a lot of laughs. What a figure.

In trying to understand both Berlin and Hoboken, NJ during the years 1936 – 1937 – this article was ‘manna’ from heaven for me personally ! And, I thank Mr. Nadler for putting it together. I think it is important to remember that Rabbi Prinz was a German through and through based on the quote: , “Ámerika, hast du es besser?” By that I mean his attention to detail and confidence in what he what he thought and believed.

JackieFour says:

How ironic that Prinz thought racism in the USA worse than in Germany.

Dave Boxthorn says:

“Influential Newark rabbi”

That says it all.

Dave Bosthorn,
It says what all ?
What kind of silly, cynical remark is that ?
Newark was a major Jewish community before the racial unrest and riots. It had more than 60 synagogues and produced many important Jewish scholars and writers, Philip Roth only the most famous among them. Prinz was also the president of the American Jewish Congress for many years, and a national Jewish leader.
I can only imagine you’re the worst kind of provincial New Yorker; one who believes the only Jewish world that matters, ends on the Hudson and East Rivers. This fascinating tribute to a major Jewish leader, instead of opening your vistas, manages only to evoke your blindness. Thank you Tablet, and Rabbi Nadler, for a lovely and well-deserved tribute to an inspiring, and sadly neglected, Jewish hero.

joymars says:

Glen Beck’s persecution of George Soros has been met with late and tepid response from the Jewish community. Why? Because Beck and his like-minded American fascists (sure, he’s trying to co-opt that word by using it indiscriminately and inappropriately on HIS detractors, but those who know its definition are not fooled) — all of them are PRO-Israel.

Funny about that — how fascism can hide in all kinds of funny places. But because Beck and his lot are so successful at this, the likes of the Koch Brothers are able to wage their war against real democracy, and no one from the Jewish community says a word about it.

I wonder what Prinz would make our weird present-day dichotomies. I think he would have made the correct distinctions and spoken out loud and clear against the manipulation of the masses. We need such a voice of honesty and clarity now.

dr. zhid lovsky says:

“Prinz’s activism was widely criticized, and it must be said not entirely unreasonably”

how so? it would seem to be the opposite.

Mr. Nadler does it again. He’s a wonderful writer, and deep inside is a heart of gold that comes off with the well chosen words that he uses.

yehudah says:

yet again nadler skillfully gives his readers a fascinating lesson in jewish history

I wonder what Prinz would make of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. I don’t have to wonder. He would condemn the inhumanity without regard to its popularity. Too bad he isn’t around to help save Israel from itself.

Daniel Winter says:

Um, “…survive today almost only in the world of fiction.” Really? There’s one Rabbi like this currently alive in the carbon-based world? Where? There’s no “almost” about it.

Herbert Charles Beim says:

I was priveledged to hear Rabbi Prinze speak many times at his B’nai Abraham venue. As an orthodox youngster, we tended to give less credence to Conservative/Reform views. But no one of us would contend that Joachim Prinze was not a compelling advocater for the the Jewish people. The audience at B’nai Abraham was always filled with well over a thousand people and everyone listened with rapt attention. I still remember his “new thesis” of antisemitism post WWII all these many years later. He contended that it was no longer a problem for Jews but something that the larger community should be obliged to solve. Whatever one thinks of him there is no doubt that he was one of the most fomidable personages of his generation.

Philip says:

`…save Israel from itself.` Anybody can criticize israel. Anybody does. The Judenrat is still acepting members.

Gabriel ben A. says:

Simply said; it is for the likes of rabbi Prinz I became a Jew.
I’m sorry so many of my lander jump at the opportunity to criticize and condemn his heart-felt and intellectually astute activism. My dear neo-conservatives (such a nice name for neo-racists), a thought experiment: If German fascism was not anti-Semitic, say, they just wanted Poland and a nice chuck of White Russia, and the concentration camps were an equal extermination opportunity, directed to the loyal opposition: socialists, democrats,dissidents, outsiders, but not Jews in particular, would that have been OK? Please feel free to consider this a test question, and answer for and against.

lamicofritz says:

Dear Mr. Nadler, this was an outstandingly informative piece of journalism about a person all but forgotten by those who do not live in close range of Newark Jewry, thank you very much! I’d be interested to ask how Prinz and A.J. Heschel- both radically engaged in the fight for equal rights-connected? Do you have any information on this?

Thank you for this article. The Jewish Women’s Archive recently launched a new online curriculum — Living the Legacy — on Jews and the Civil Rights Movement( Rabbi Prinz is featured in the lesson plan on the March on Washington: If you’re interested in his story, please check out this educational resource.

Allan Nadler says:

Although it is not my practice to intervene in comment-discussions on my writings, there are two questions that have been raised that I should like to address:

“Zhid lovksy” wonders why I wrote that the neo-Conservative criticisms of Rabbi Prinz were “not entirely unreasonable” and suggests it was just the opposite. I chose my words carefully here. For all of my admiration of Rabbi Prinz, and it is great, in the aftermath of the Newark riots, he did seem to have a blind spot for the Jewish community’s best interests when it came to his passion — a wonderful passion as I hope I made clear — for human rights. His analogies between the deep south’s treatment of blacks and the Holocaust — although clearly rhetorical in nature — also rankled many Jewish thinkers like Norman Podhoretz and Milton Himmelfarb, as I say, “not unreasonably.” I take no sides here. Prinz in my eyes was a great hero, but he wasn’t perfect.

The other question is more intriguing and merits a serious study; namely the relationship between Heschel and Prinz. Heschel is very well remembered for marching in Selma with Dr. King. He is the Jewish face of the civil rights movement. But he was a prophetic figure; by inclination a mystic. In many respects, Prinz was the very opposite. He had no interest whatever in Jewish mysticism; he was a determined pragmatist and a political thinker. His book, The Dilemma of the Modern Jew is a masterpiece of non-theological thinking about the condition of American Jewry in the 1970′s (I wish it were re-printed; it is a truly great book). In this work, and in his many essays published in the AJC Bi-Weekly, Prinz expressed a deterministic conception of Jewish identity, but one rooted in historical and political reality, not in the kind of metaphysics that Heschel was so enamored of. So, two great rabbis, working from diametrically different angles, for the same great cause: civil rights for American blacks.

Allan Nadler

Ernest Holzmann says:

THANK YOU, Dr. Nadler, for wrting with passion and clarity!

Dani Levi says:

Allan Nadler writes:
“His book, The Dilemma of the Modern Jew is a masterpiece of non-theological thinking about the condition of American Jewry in the 1970′s (I wish it were re-printed; it is a truly great book)”

Why does Nextbook not publish this book? Please.

I would read it.

Steve says:

If Prinz was a so dedicated Zionist why did he not go on Aliya or even preach Aliya to his congregants?

Jews have died for blacks but blacks have never died for Jews. Often it is blacks killing Jews.

There is something so distorted in the way Jews view themselves that they have to help people they deem “the underdog” although they have not yet achieved parity or acceptance by non-Jews. What possesses a Zuckerburg to donate 100 mil to Newark to help black children but not ten mil to help Jews or Israel. Most American Jews are anti-Israel believing our enemies version of Occupied Palestine.

The biggest enemy Jews face is themselves and their fractionalization that the Nazis exploited so well in Europe and Moslems, blacks and anti-Jews exploit so well today. We truly are “The Perfect Enemy” and in spite of all our wealth and fantastic contributions in making this country great we just don’t like each other. I am not embarrassed or ashamed of being a Jew. I am a strong Jew but embarrassed and ashamed of all the weak Jews like Rabbi Michael Lerner and his ilk.

Bill Levy

lamicofritz says:

Dear Mr. Nadler, thank you for your answer to my question. Looking forward to an essay on this epic yarn Heschel/ Prinz fighting for American blacks. The two make quite a contrast: the pure of heart mystic and the master orator-womanizer, the Hasid and the very rational Yecke. Add Dr. Martin Luther King with his very human mix of faith and rhetoric gift as well as others strong drives and hope some gifted narrator will soon accept the challenge of retelling this story. In the meantime, again thank you for your comment on the reply.
Friedrich Lersch

virginia says:

In the latest Plot against America is being hatched by the current version of th Klu Klux Klan which the morfed into Southern respectability by becoming the White Citizen Council which Proved so shamefulThat they changed it to the Conservative Citizen Council. Then they became even more respectable because the were “consevative” while still retaining all that bigotry’ Never forget their leader David Duke who went to eastern Europe to stir up trouble’ He traded in his white sheets for his Gestapo uniform

try reading wir juden

you might get a different perspective

Jay R. Hodes MD says:

I attended Bnai Abraham Hebrew school from age 9 until my Bar Mitvah. Later, Dr. Prinz officiated at my wedding. I clearly remember that day. He and I were sitting on a bench in the boys’ gym locker room, waiting for the wedding ceremony to begin. Young boys, naked or only with towels around their waists, were laughing and chasing each other about. On the other side of the door were relatives and friends awaiting my entrance. The contrast was unreal, and I was almost paralyzed with anxiety. Dr. Prince must have sensed it, because he turned and asked me, “Jay, are you sure you want to go through with this?” I gulped, gathered myself, and heard myself say, “Yes.” I will never forget his intuitive presence at that moment. He was one of the great men in my life.

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I’ve said that least 1236624 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

stop making prinz into a  hero   which he  wasnt   i found  him  downright arrogant

so typical of our german jewish  bretheren   they could cxare less about there dirt poor brothers of the shtetls

they saved their own asses pretty good in the  30s  while the soul of judaica  died in the   ovens       spare me prinz

Stone Cold says:

I was one of many of Dr. Prinz’s congregants — just a kid the; he officiated at my Bar Mitzvah — that often confused him with God. That’s how powerful an impression he made. Dr. Prinz’s sorrow over the first signs of Jewish abandonment of the quest for justice for African Americans was remarkably farsighted. Today, the major secular and religious branches of the Jewish-Establishment have no programs that focus on our African-American fellow citizens; instead, they have gone with the most au currant politically-correct fashion and support a bogus “civil rights” movement for illegal Mexican aliens who have no right to here and who steal jobs and drop wages for the most vulnerable American, African Americans among them. I suspect he would be anguished about making a choice, but I have no doubt he would follow the admonitions in the Talmud and seek justice first for those bound to one by ties of kinship, community and nation.

Nice article, except that it skips how Prinz wanted to be a Nazi collaborator in Germany before he was expelled. Prinz said:

“Everyone in Germany knew that only the Zionists could responsibly represent the Jews in dealings with the Nazi government. We all felt sure that one day the government would arrange a round table conference with the Jews, at which –after the riots and atrocities of the revolution had passed– the new status of German Jewry could be considered. The government announced very solemnly that there was no country in the world which tried to solve the Jewish problem as seriously as did Germany. Solution of the Jewish question? It was our Zionist dream! We never denied the existence of the Jewish question! Dissimilation? It was our own appeal!”

Joachim Prinz, ‘Zionism under the Nazi Government’, Young Zionist (London, November 1937), p. 18.


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The Plot for America: Remembering Civil Rights Leader Joachim Prinz

The influential Newark rabbi was a confidante of Martin Luther King, but he’s been all but ignored by history