Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Ralph Goldman assisting Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with his coat.

 

Jerome Bornstein in 1979

In conjunction with the JCRC's Grits and Bagels Brunch, over the next few weeks, The Heritage is running a series of articles about local Jewish community members who made an impact on the Civil Rights movement. This is the first in the series.

While many civic leaders select an organization or a cause to champion, Jerome J. Bornstein (Jerry to his friends) selected many. Known in the Jewish community as a visionary-president of both the Jewish Community Council and Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando, one of the founders of Temple Israel and the Kinneret Towers, and a moving force behind the scenes to secure, among other foundations of the local Jewish community, the property on which the Maitland community campus stands, he was equally committed to upholding and protecting civil rights and liberties for all Americans.

Armed with a law degree from the University of Chicago, Jerry first worked for the famously left wing law firm of O. John Rogge in New York City-the firm that defended the Trenton Six, African-Americans convicted by an all-white jury of the murder of an elderly white shopkeeper-and David Greenglass, who was charged with espionage and in the process implicated his sister Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. When he returned to Central Florida with his wife Rita, he continued his work as an attorney on behalf of minorities whose rights had been denied or compromised by the entrenched Southern conservative power brokers of Orlando.

For years Bornstein was the only American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer practicing between Miami and Jacksonville. He also volunteered his time as an attorney for the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and it was in this role that he oversaw one of the most famous cases in his career, when he defended eight black families in a class action suit that sought to overturn the long-standing practice of segregation in Orange County schools. In the 1962 case Ellis vs. Kipp, Board of Public Instruction of Orange County, Florida, he finally succeeded in 1964 in forcing the school board and the courts to implement a desegregation policy for both students and teachers in the local school system. He was largely responsible for integrating the schools in Orange and Brevard counties. During this time he received anonymous letters threatening to tar and feather him, had swastikas drawn on the back wall of his house, and once, a cross was mistakenly burned on his neighbor's yard (the cross burners mistook their address for his).

In 1960 he represented 39 families, members of the Jewish community as well as other faiths, in suing the Orange County School Board to halt the distribution of Gideon Bibles on public school campuses in an effort to uphold the separation of church and state. He won the case in the Federal District Court of Appeals. After the school board appealed the ruling to the United States Supreme Court, he argued before the court and won a final ruling against the Bible distribution practice in 1970.

He also represented Orange County teachers who refused to sign a loyalty oath (another case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court), students who objected to the strict dress codes against long hair, anti-Vietnam protesters, and even defended the right of Tammy Faye Baker to have a church in an industrial area. He sat on the State of Florida Commission on Civil Rights, and actively volunteered at the Neighborhood Law Office, an Orlando organization he helped found that provided free or low cost legal aid for the poor (this was long before this need was acknowledged by local and federal agencies).

While he may be known to many as a member of the great generation that founded the Central Florida Jewish Community, he is known to all as a champion of the individual, the voiceless, and the disempowered, and he dedicated his life to defending the rights of the minority against the oppression of majority rule.

The Grits and Bagels Brunch, featuring Brad Herzog, will be held Sunday, Nov. 2 at 1 pm in the auditorium of the JCC. Admission is free but RSVP is requested. The program is hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando and is sponsored in part by The Florida Humanities Council and Landry's Restaurants.

For more information about Grits and Bagels, please contact Lisa Sholk at 407-261-3175 or lsholk@jfgo.org.

 

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