John Eaves was teaching at a Presbyterian supported college in North Carolina in December 1989 when a staff member asked permission to buy some poinsettias for the office. “What is a poinsettia?” he asked. When the staff member explained that poinsettias are a plant traditionally used as Christmas decorations, Eaves responded, “Oh, I didn’t know that. I don’t celebrate Christmas; I’m Jewish.”
Like many people who have met Eaves throughout his life, the staff member was surprised to learn that Eaves is Jewish since he’s also Black. “Sometimes at the temple I’ve belonged to for years other members welcome me as a visitor,” he said during his Feb. 10 talk at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, one of two Black History Month events being held this month at the center.
Eaves explained that his grandfather immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in the early 20th century and became interested in Judaism after hearing a public figure suggest that Black people are a lost tribe of Israel.
“We have been strict observers of the faith over the years,” Eaves said, noting that there were times in his youth when his faith meant he couldn’t participate in events at school. “I was on the football team in high school—in fact, I was a star player—but if there was Friday night game, I couldn’t play. If the prom was held on Friday night, I couldn’t go.” During the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday and continues until sundown on Saturday, many nonreligious activities are forbidden.
Although Yale University was founded to educate Congregational ministers and continues to be supported by the Christian sect, Eaves chose to enroll in Yale’s divinity school for graduate study after graduation from Morehouse College in Atlanta. “I studied religion as an academic discipline,” Eaves explained. “Particularly, I studied the history of religion.”
At Yale, Eaves started to realize that while being Black and Jewish is unusual in the United States, it is not unusual elsewhere in the world. “DNA tests have confirmed that many Black South Africans are descendants of the tribe of Levi. There also have been Jews in Ethiopia, Nigeria and other parts of Africa for thousands of years.” He said following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, many Jews migrated south into Africa.
Eaves said he thought more African Americans would be attracted to the Jewish faith if they knew more about it. “Many Black people in this country are interested in the Old Testament. I think they would be more interested if they knew much of their history is there.”
He added that more African Americans should know about the active role Jewish people played in the Civil Rights Movement. “I think many younger Black people don’t know that one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest allies was Rabbi Jacob Rothschild. We have to tell that story.” From 1946 to his death in 1973, Rothschild was rabbi for the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, Atlanta’s oldest Jewish synagogue.
Eaves cited two notorious Atlanta incidents that he said demonstrate that African Americans and Jews are natural allies because both have been targets of discrimination and violent acts of hate. In 1958, Hebrew Benevolent, popularly known as The Temple, was bombed in response to its civil rights activities. In 1915, Jewish businessman Leo Frank was the victim of one of Georgia’s most infamous lynchings. “Being Black and Jewish gives the Ku Klux Klan two reasons to come after you,” he observed.
Eaves acknowledged that at one point there were American Jews who did not warm up to the idea of having Black people as members of their synagogues. He told of a Black man he met who married a Jewish woman. The man went to temple with his wife but would not join because he felt unwelcome. Eaves added that some members of the Black community are unfriendly to Jews because of misinformation they have heard. “I think that’s changing and the change is benefiting both communities. The Jewish community if stronger when it has more diversity of color and the Black community is strengthened by religious diversity.”
Although he was born in Jacksonville, Florida, Eaves along with much of his family, including his uncle, the late Atlanta Pubic Safety Commissioner Reginald Eaves, adopted Atlanta as a hometown. He is former chairman of the Fulton County Commission and is currently running to represent Georgia’s 7th congressional district.