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

St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society mourns the death of Rabbi Richard Levy


Rabbi Richard Levy

Just 72 hours after the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society marked the 55th anniversary of the largest mass arrest of rabbis in U.S. history, Rabbi Richard Levy, one of the 16 rabbis arrested, passed away. Levy, along with a denominational administrator, came to St. Augustine in support of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Council to desegregate St. Augustine. Attached to this effort was the desire to keep the Civil Rights movement on the front pages of newspapers around the country while the U.S. Senate fillibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 continued.

Levy came to St. Augustine along with his colleagues in the wake of news reports of snipers targeting civil rights marchers. On the morning of June 18, 1964, Levy and his colleagues attempted to pray with African Americans at the door to the lunchroom of the Monson Hotel on Avenida Mendenedez. They were arrested and held in the St. Johns County Jail.

Levy came to St. Augustine just weeks after his Rabbinic Ordination at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He served as rabbi of the Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles and went on to lead the Hillel Organization of Jewish students at UCLA and the Los Angeles Hillel Council. His unusual abilities were quickly recognized and he soon rose to the post of director of the School of Rabbinical Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles. He also served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the CCAR, the Rabbinic organization of the Reform Movement in North America. It was at the CCAR Convention in Atlantic City in 1964 that Levy answered the call to rise for justice and to support the effort to attain dignity for all people regardless of the color of their skin or religious affiliation.

On his return to St. Augustine in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrests, Levy was joined by five of his colleagues who had been jailed together. The rabbis were gathered and brought back by the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society. When Reverend Ron Rawls, who now occupies the pulpit at St. Paul AME Church, St. Augustine, the same church from which the day that ended in the arrests began, asked, "Where do we go from here?" and noted that the work of the Civil Rights community is far from complete, "it was Rabbi Richard Levy who rose to applaud Rawls," noted Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, president of the St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society. "Half a century may have passed, but Rabbi Richard Levy was as ready as ever to rise to defend the cause of justice!"


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