The Rabbi's Gift
One of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s strongest allies throughout the civil rights movement was Rabbi Joachim Prinz.
Prinz was a popular and outspoken rabbi in Berlin in the 1930s, warning Jews to leave Germany as Hitler rose to power. He immigrated to the United States and became deeply involved in America’s struggle against discrimination, seeing it as the same battle he’d been in against the Nazis.
As president of the American Jewish Congress from 1958 to 1966, Prinz worked closely with King and spoke at 1963’s March on Washington just before King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
His legacy is being celebrated this week with the inauguration of the Prinz Project, which includes a high school curriculum based on his life’s work and culminates next weekend with a musical tribute by the IRIS Orchestra that will premiere a commissioned piece in Prinz’s honor.
“If he saw what’s going on in Paris and many other places today, he’d be talking a lot about it,” says his son, Jonathan Prinz, reflecting on his father’s abiding involvement with fighting injustice.
Prinz says his father’s involvement with the civil rights movement happened quickly. “From the moment he came to the United States (in 1937), he looked at what was happening to African-Americans and was appalled. He identified closely with black Americans that were facing many of the problems that the Jews faced.”
Soon after coming to the United States, Rabbi Prinz was invited to lead one of the oldest synagogues in the country in Newark, New Jersey. From that pulpit in a city with a large African-American population, Prinz spoke long and loud about Jewish issues and civil rights issues. He had King come to preach twice to the congregation.
“They had a very strong rapport, and both were great orators,” Prinz’s son says. “I think they admired each other in terms of that skill they had.”
King’s speech at the March on Washington has become an indelible part of American history, but Prinz’s speech also carried great weight.
One of the powerful lines from his address was: “… bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”
Prinz’s life, words and deeds continue to reverberate. The genesis of the Prinz Project came about when a young violinist, Sharon Roffman, asked a composer friend if he would write a concerto for her.
Roffman not only got composer Bruce Adolphe to write the piece, but imagined ways to take it even further.
Roffman says Adolphe told her he’d been contemplating a violin piece about Prinz, who died in 1988. “I’d never heard of him,” Roffman says, “but Bruce told me how Prinz bridged the Holocaust and the civil rights movement.”
Not much happened for a while after that, but in 2012, the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, prompted Roffman to action. “It had a profound effect on me as it did everyone,” she says. “I do a lot of work in elementary schools, and I started thinking how I could use music to help students develop empathy and connect with their emotions.”
She reasoned that the lack of empathy is at the root of violence. It would follow, then, that music could make a difference. “I have this very romantic, ideological belief that if more people felt that and thought about that, it would change the way they view the world and behave with other people,” she says.
Roffman reached out again to Adolphe to do the concerto.
Then she set about working on a related curriculum. “I have a nonprofit called ClassNotes where we go into schools and teach academic subjects through music,” she says. “I thought I could use Bruce’s piece as a foundation for a broad curriculum about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement and how to use the arts to fight injustice and teach empathy.”
Then, in a serendipitous moment, she met Michael Stern, the artistic director and conductor of the IRIS Orchestra. She was playing a concert for youngsters at the Greenwich Public Library in Connecticut. “Afterward, this nice man came up and said, ‘Hi, I’m Michael Stern and I loved the concert.’”
From that came e-mails and conversations, and she mentioned to Stern her idea about the concerto and curriculum. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had ideas shot down,” Roffman says. “But Michael has a real vision and openness to creating new things.”
Soon Roffman and Adolphe were meeting with IRIS executive director Dave DePeters and the project came to life.
Stern said the idea that Roffman and Adolphe presented clicked immediately. “When you get an interesting idea from interesting people, it’s hard not to be interested,” he says.
The proposal also appealed to Stern as a way to present music in creative ways. “We are about performance, but it’s great to push our creative juices as well,” says Stern, who notes that the Prinz Project “lets us do something larger than ourselves, touching on so many areas of concern about how we live as a society.”
He says that so often a concert inspired by a person or event is presented, but when it’s over and done, there’s only a limited impact. “Whereas this, from the beginning, gives us a chance to do something really remarkable — creating an entire curriculum built around a world premiere. It starts a conversation about tolerance and justice at a time when events around the world are more potent than ever, but we put money where our mouths are in bringing education and music outside the concert hall.”
Roffman dove into developing the curriculum. “I wanted to focus not only on Prinz’s life but on the role of music and art during the Holocaust and civil rights period. I also wanted to create something teachers could use on their own time, something easy to use as a supplement to what they already were doing.”
She credits Dr. Marilyn Taylor at Overton High School for developing questions and assignments based on Prinz’s Washington speech. “I did more of what is associated with music,” Roffman says. “I wanted students to listen to a lot of music and interpret how music can change the way one feels and thinks.”
Roffman also has had to find time to work on Adolphe’s concerto, and it’s presented a bit of a different challenge.
“I’ve played a lot of new music, but it’s been chamber music, so I’m learning it with others and we hear it together. With this, I don’t have an orchestra in front of me. I’m so excited to hear it for the first time when I get to Memphis because there are certain things I can’t do on my own.”
She says the piece specifically represents Prinz and his beliefs. “The violin is often very high and out on its own, and it represents that you have to stand up for what’s important. The violin is wailing out there. There are moments in the score that the orchestra will just drop out and the violin is alone. It’s going to be an incredibly powerful thing to play.”
For Rabbi Prinz’s son, the fact that music is being used as a tribute is entirely fitting.
“Music was his muse,” Prinz says. “We constantly had classical music playing in the house, and it was always playing when he was writing or working. It was one of the pillars of his existence.”
Adolphe’s composition taps into the kind of presence that Rabbi Prinz had.
“His style was different,” his son says. “He talked a lot about contemporary things. They weren’t all Bible lessons as a lot of preaching was. That was not his thing. He preached about issues that touched people, contemporary issues. His sermons were emotion-stirring.”
Prinz echoes Roffman in how the violin represents his father. “It’s described as the violin standing in for him and the orchestra standing for the people around him. That’s important about his life: He was a strong voice for many causes but always cognizant of the people he worked with or represented.”
The Commercial Appeal, January 18, 2015