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In Memoriam: Janice Rothschild Blumberg (1924-2024)

By Eric L. Goldstein, Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies

The Tam Institute for Jewish Studies community mourns the loss of Janice Rothschild Blumberg, a long-time friend and supporter of the Institute, who passed away at her home in Atlanta on Feb. 21, 2024, having recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Nationally-known as an author, Jewish communal leader, and cultural influencer, Janice was especially beloved in her home city, where she is remembered as a key participant in—and interpreter of—Atlanta’s Jewish and Civil Rights past. 

An Atlanta native, Janice graduated from the University of Georgia at the age of 18. She joined the American defense effort during World War II, working to combat malaria in the Panama Canal Zone for the Army Corps of Engineers and as an employee of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Washington, DC. In 1946, she returned to Atlanta, where she met and married Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, a Pittsburgh native and former Army chaplain who had recently become the spiritual leader of the city’s flagship Reform synagogue, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (“The Temple”), where Janice had been raised. The couple soon became parents to two children, Marcia, who died in 2015, and William (Bill), who is today a prominent Atlanta attorney.

Soon after assuming The Temple’s pulpit, Rabbi Rothschild became known as a trailblazer, often having to drag some of his congregants along in his advocacy of two controversial causes: Zionism and Civil Rights. In a city where Jews had long felt pressure to conform to prevailing cultural and racial mores and still carried troubling memories of the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, many feared that such activism would visit fresh trouble and exclusion upon their community. As a native southerner, Janice served as an effective ambassador for her husband’s transformative agenda, helping to shepherd these new directions in Jewish communal life. Their partnership was particularly apparent during the dramatic events following the 1958 bombing of the Temple by white supremacists, who objected to her husband’s strong support of public school desegregation.

While fielding phone calls, tending to her children’s needs, and helping to organize the response to the bombing from her Buckhead home in the days after the blast, Janice received a threatening phone call. The caller identified himself as one of those responsible for the attack, informing her that a second bomb had just been placed at the Rothschild residence, which was quickly evacuated. Later, because Janice had been asked by the FBI to identify the voice of the caller, she was called as a witness in the trial of George Bright, who had publicly protested outside of one of Rabbi Rothschild’s pro-integration speeches and was accused of being one of the culprits in the Temple bombing. Bright’s flamboyant lawyer, Reuben Garland, harassed Janice on the witness stand in an attempt to discredit her testimony, which did not directly implicate Bright, but went to show that the bombing was part of a larger conspiracy to intimidate and terrorize the Jewish community of Atlanta. Years later, author Melissa Faye Greene, who wrote about the case, discovered that in an effort to cast blame away from his client, Garland had gone so far to spread a rumor that Janice, not Bright, had carried out the bombing in order to gain sympathy for her husband’s civil rights work.

Although the state was unable to prove its case against Bright for lack of evidence, public opinion in Atlanta, and across the nation, rested squarely with the Rothschilds and their community. The episode also propelled the family even more firmly into the role of working to bring Atlanta’s white clergy, business leaders, opinion makers—as well as members of their own congregation—into the Civil Rights camp. Janice did not hesitate to tell off one of her husband’s congregants who called to complain that the Rothschild’s daughter, Marcia, had been spotted at an integrated birthday party. Resolving to push back against such pressure, the Rothschilds invited Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta, who had returned to Atlanta in 1960 after their stint in Montgomery, Alabama, to dine with them in their home, and the two couples became personal friends. Later, after King was awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Rabbi Rothschild overcame great obstacles to convince local white power brokers to organize a gala dinner—the first integrated public dinner of its kind in Atlanta history—to honor King on behalf of the city. Janice was tasked with selecting a gift to present to King on the occasion; she chose a Steuben glass bowl, which was rush-ordered and engraved with an appropriate inscription and her original sketch of a dogwood blossom, the symbol of Atlanta.

After Rabbi Rothschild’s death in 1973, Janice married David Blumberg, an insurance executive from Knoxville, Tennessee. The couple relocated to Washington, DC, when Blumberg became the president of B’nai B’rith International. Their many travels on behalf of the organization and the host of dignitaries and cultural figures they met through this work further expanded Janice’s field of activity and brought her into contact with many of the most important shapers of Jewish life during the last quarter of the twentieth century. She continued to live in Washington until returning in 2009 to Atlanta, where she spent the rest of her life.

While Janice played a key role as a partner to her two husbands in their important leadership activities, she also made her own distinctive mark, using her talents as a writer, speaker, and arts enthusiast to advance the cause of Jewish culture and to tell the rich story of the Southern Jewish experience, often from her own unique perch as a participant in, and shaper of, that history. Her first major contribution in this area was in 1967, when she wrote As But a Day, a history of The Temple (and, by extension, of the origins of the Atlanta Jewish community) issued to mark the congregation’s centennial. Coming almost a decade before any professional scholarship had been produced on the history of Southern Jewry, it was a pioneering book that would serve as an important source for future researchers. During the 1970s and 1980s, she became active in several Jewish organizations promoting Jewish culture and historical research, serving on the board of the American Jewish Historical Society and as the chairwoman of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum. She was also a crucial builder and supporter of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, serving as the group’s president from 1984-1986.

Janice’s most consequential writings were those that documented the rabbinate and Civil Rights activism of her first husband, often written from the perspective of her own role in those events. In 1983, she published an article-length memoir of the events surrounding the Temple Bombing in the journal American Jewish History, a piece that was crucial in the subsequent framing of the 1958 tragedy as a major turning point in the self-perception of the Atlanta Jewish community. Describing the attack as “the bomb that healed,” Janice argued that, despite the trauma it induced, the bombing led to an outpouring of support for the Jews of Atlanta, which finally gave them the confidence to uphold the cause of racial justice and to more fully assert their Jewish identities. Two years later, in 1985, Janice published One Voice: Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild and the Troubled South, a book-length study based on a trove of materials from Rabbi Rothschild’s papers, which Janice had meticulously organized and donated to what is now the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library of Emory University.

In later years, Janice wrote a biography of her great-grandfather, Rabbi Edward Morris Benjamin Browne, known colloquially as “Alphabet Browne” because of the way he shortened his long name with the use of the initials E.M.B., and also owing to the many letters, indicating various academic degrees, which followed his name. A colorful figure in the history of 19th-century American Judaism, Browne worked not only as a rabbi but also as a journalist, lawyer, and activist, in some cases prefiguring some of the same work and supporting some of the same causes that Janice and her two husbands later supported during their busy careers. Most strikingly, Brown briefly held the same pulpit at The Temple that had been occupied by Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild almost a century later. Janice’s final work, an autobiography titled, What’s Next?  Southern Dreams, Jewish Deeds, and the Challenge of Looking Back while Moving Forward, was published in 2022, and pointed to the energy, vision, and optimism that Janice still brought to her work at the age of 98.

Janice held a special place in the TIJS family as the guiding spirit behind our annual Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild Memorial Lecture. Established in 2009 by a large group of donors to honor the late rabbi, the lecture brings a noted scholar or speaker to Emory each year to address a topic related to the theme of social justice and the Jewish tradition. Janice faithfully attended the lecture each year, and she and other Rothschild family members traditionally attended a pre-lecture dinner, at which Janice was typically seated next to the speaker. Having observed these interactions over many years, it was clear to me not only that Janice enjoyed her repartee with the distinguished visitors, but also that the visitors considered meeting Janice and hearing about her experiences to be the highlight of their visit to Emory. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, when it was impossible to hold a dinner and when the Rothschild lectures were conducted via Zoom, an online meeting between Janice and the speakers was scheduled in order to continue this important tradition.

The leadership, faculty, and staff of TIJS extend our heartfelt condolences to the entire Rothschild and Blumberg family and to the many friends, readers, and admirers of Janice who so profoundly mourn her loss. Her impact on our community and on our work have been unmistakable. May her memory be a blessing.

A public memorial service will be held 2:00 pm, Monday, March 11 at The Temple, 1589 Peachtree St NE, Atlanta, GA 30309. 

Published 3/4/24