A large KI group spent four days in the south this past weekend, exploring the history of the civil rights movement. Our feet stood on hallowed ground: the spot where Rosa Parks boarded the bus for her fateful ride, the site where the 55-mile Selma to Montgomery march ended, the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Bloody Sunday took place. We saw the home where the Revered Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was raised. We visited Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both Dr King and his father served as pastor. It was an invigorating, inspiring and eye-opening journey. We bonded as a group, drawn together by the powerful stories of resilience and revolution, the bishop who saw hate with his own eyes and would not be deterred and Lynda Blackmon Lowery who, as a teen, refused to be silenced by the bigotry all around her.
We went as students of history. We went with a willingness to challenge ourselves. We wanted to better understand the hate that burdened (and burdens) a people and the history with which we must grapple as Americans. We went too because any form of hate is important to us as Jews. We cannot look away from it but rather must confront it and learn from it.
While antisemitism rages all about us and we are doing all we can to preach tolerance, the story of the south gives us guidance and direction. It shows us once more that non-violent protest, advocacy and right action can in fact lead to change.
I wanted to share some of the reflections from trip participants. Their words capture our experience beautifully:
Leon Chudzinski wrote: “As we stood before the frozen pool that surrounds the tombs of the Dr King and his wife in Atlanta, I could not help but notice the relationship to reflection. The reflection of the words built into the pond wall itself mirrored onto the ice, “…Until justice rolls down like water…”
There exists a tragic metaphoric irony with this fountain, as an identical casting of this fountain, also flowed in Memphis, at Court Square, the day Martin Luther King was killed at the Lorraine Motel. Has justice rolled like water, or have we just contained it in another whitewashed fountain, hoping the splash will fade the message that surrounds it?”
Donna Keller wrote: “We just completed a three-day Civil Rights Journey in Atlanta and Alabama with KI friends, old and new, and I feel so many things at once: humbled, deeply-moved, transformed, inspired – and also, ashamed, horrified, angry and sad. With open hearts and ears, we delved into the tragic history of Black people in our country, from slavery to the Civil Rights era to mass incarceration today.
As we studied the many experiential and artistic exhibits, historical documents, photographs and interviews at museums and memorials, looping endlessly through my mind was, “who does this??” The unfortunate answer is: we do. As Americans, we need to own our part in these atrocities, recognize the dangers of staying silent, and consider what kind of person we want to be going forward… Rabbi David helped us process this emotional journey, and led us in meaningful Shabbat prayer and discussion. We learned anew that racism is so deeply embedded in every facet of life in the U.S., and that fighting injustice requires a lifelong promise to stand up and speak out against it.”
Karen Sirota noted: “I felt extremely fortunate to participate in KI’s journey. All that we learned, the places we visited, our remarkable tour leader whose words continue to inspire me, the thoughtful perspectives by Rabbi David, the sentiments shared, the stories told that were unthinkable, unnerving and shocking, yet somehow filled with hope remain with me. I was privileged to walk in the footsteps of those who endured such horrors as we joined to honor their memory. And all along the way, our group forged connections to each other, and inspired a deeper commitment to KI’s social action initiatives as part of our sacred obligation.
Rabbi David’s relevant truth which introduced our time together is that “to be a Jew is to be a student” but I might add that it also underscored that “to be a Jew is to make a difference.”
Dr Robert Sirota sent these challenging questions:
“We have been taught Jewish exceptionalism in synagogues and homes, from our friends, parents, and relatives, literally from cradle to grave. Are we “exceptionally” oppressed? Do we have “exceptional” views about our role in the world? Are we “exceptionally immune” from our worst human tendencies, from the problem of how we might treat one another, and “others”? How do we reconcile our “exceptionalism” with what Israel is doing NOW? Should we take a harder look at ourselves and realize that we are not as “exceptional” as we might think? Should we try to identify more with other “oppressed” peoples? Should we stop, or mollify, teaching Jewish exceptionalism?
Are we more oppressed than the next group of oppressed peoples? Do we have the right to the moral high ground because of our history of always being “the other”? The Holocaust was bad, but so was the Trail of Tears, slavery, the Armenian genocide, and on and on and on.”
Alina Dolitsky shared the following in a stirring poem she wrote:
At first, I looked for Jewish names
But all the victims in this case
Had one thing in common: their race
Their names cut into rusted slabs
Of steel, they stand and gradually
rise to Heaven
It didn’t matter, young or old
Their gender, character, or size
What mattered is that they were black
Which put a bullseye on their back
To whip, to lynch, to kill, to rape
To steal their children
To enslave today, tomorrow, and Forever
Don’t preach morality to me
While hanging people from a tree
Exalting God and white supremacy
I taste the bile on my tongue
My tears are stifled in a silent scream
This isn’t human
But I know better
I know that fear, stupidity, and hate
They know no bounds
The evidence around me abounds
The robes changed from white to black
The tree, the courtroom, or the street
With ropes, handcuffs, knees on neck
The dead and persecuted numbers
Of black people grows
It’s up to us, not them, to make amends
And to acknowledge that this sin was done
And we must stop mass incarceration
We must do more
Whatever it will take
We must extend our helping hand
Or we will face, as Dr. King has said
I pray that we, like the many heroes who preceded us, use our time, our resources and our voice to bring about greater peace, understanding and hope.