I spent this past weekend learning about the Civil Rights movement with an incredible group of KI members, most of them teens. We visited places that were – and still are – at the heart of the battle for equality in our country: Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and Atlanta. We stood in the footsteps of Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. We walked across Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday, which had hundreds beaten as they attempted to start the Freedom March, a fifty-four-mile trek from Selma to Birmingham to demand full voting rights and justice. We visited the Lynching Memorial, which pays tribute to the thousands of souls murdered because of their race, their public, gruesome killings designed to terrorize an entire people. We visited Ebenezer Baptist Church, the famous worship site where Dr King’s grandfather and father served as pastor. We immersed ourselves in the soulfulness of the community and their inspiring worship. We visited the grave of Dr King and paid tribute to his moral courage and unflappable spirit.
The teens were wide-eyed throughout the weekend. They knew we stood on hallowed ground again and again. They understood the significance of these places and the great pain endured by the many victims of callous racism. We talked at length about what it means to stand up for the other and build a world that is less violent and hate-filled, as Dr King attempted to do in his own time.
There were many themes that we returned to over the course of our trip: protest, faith, tolerance, understanding, education… I could not help but notice the many times that water was part of what we experienced. Dr King’s grave, which itself is surrounded by water, is flanked by the prophetic words: ‘let justice roll down like mighty waters’ (Amos 5:24). At the Lynching Memorial, flowing water pays tribute to the many victims whose names are still not known, their lives like a drop in a vast sea of lives ended too soon. At the Legacy Museum, which tells the story of slavery, visitors begin their experience by standing in a room covered by screens that display massive crashing waves. It is as if we are experiencing the nerve-wracking passage from Africa to America, the waves emblematic of our lack of control and inability to see or understand what awaits us. All of it speaks to the tidal wave of hate and persecution then went unstopped for far too long.
I am so proud that we at KI have our kids experience this transformative weekend. I want them to know that they can make a difference today, building up a world that is more accepting and more kind. I want them to know that otherwise ordinary people made extraordinary choices and thus changed the very trajectory of history. Perhaps they will do the same. In an age when hate continues to live, and the waves of intolerance still loom large, I want them to be proud Jews, bearers of Torah and bearers of justice.
Rabbi Benjamin David