What bothered me most about last years cinematic representation of the march from Selma to Montgomery was the absence of the rabbis.
During the Civil Right’s movement, as you know, prominent Reform and Conservative rabbis became public civil rights activists, speaking out to their congregations, marching with Rev. Dr. King, and getting arrested at demonstrations (sometimes to the disapproval of their congregants and/or denominational leadership). Among the most famous was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose photo marching arm in arm with King in Selma in 1965 has become an iconic image of Jewish civil rights activism, and whose description of that march as “praying with my legs” is often quoted by Jewish activists.
In the movie however, as I’ve mentioned in the past, there is no Heschel standing next to Dr. King, although there was a quick flash of a kippah in the crowd. This bothers me for two reasons. To begin with, the way that Heschel and other rabbis put themselves literally on the line during the Civil Rights Movement has had a deep impact on my own Jewish identity and my understanding of Judaism’s call to fight for a just world, not only for ourselves but for everyone. I didn’t just feel like Heschel and the other rabbis were missing from the story, I felt that I was missing from the story.
The second reason their absence bothered me, is that it seemed like a wasted opportunity in terms of educating today’s youth about the role of Reform Jews in the Civil Right’s Movement. These days especially, as we find ourselves facing renewed fears of increased or visible Antisemitism in the world around us, it seems all the more important to take advantage of a little good PR when we can get it, and to find ways to teach others about the good we do in the world. It makes me sad to think that there may be young people today who don’t realize that a large part of what it means to be Jewish is to fight for the rights of others, and that indeed, Jews have done this in marked ways in the past, and in prominent moments in America’s history especially.
The Reform Movement has publicly supported civil rights since the beginning of the 20th century, first coming out against lynching in 1899 and passing resolutions throughout the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond), asserting their commitment to civil rights and racial justice. I was surprised to learn recently however, that Civil Rights activism was often more complicated for rabbis in the South than for their northern counterparts. Southern rabbis generally supported racial equality in principle, but were concerned about the practical implications of taking a public stand against segregation and for civil rights. A rabbi’s public support of civil rights, it was feared, might strengthen the segregationists’ claim that Jews threatened the southern way of life, and could put the Jewish community in economic and physical danger.
Jews in the South were facing discrimination of their own, with several communities experiencing the boycott of Jewish businesses and sadly, some synagogue bombings as well. Thus, the social position of Jews in the south was precarious –they were accepted as part of the social fabric of “White America”, but they were also seen as different. They had to work hard to fit in, and many Jews were reluctant to take action that would set them apart from the other white community leaders. They felt they needed to assure their own equality and security first. And some even went so far as to call segregation a “Christian problem”, punting the issue over to their Christian colleagues.
Although I cannot know what it is like to be a rabbi in such a time and place, I was saddened and disturbed to learn about this. Even though I can imagine someone making a similar claim today – that now is a time to lay low and not call extra attention to ourselves – I, personally, would much rather stand up and demonstrate what Judaism is all about as a way to push back against Antisemitism, than bury my head in the sand and hope the storm passes. Racism or inequality of any kind is not a Christian problem. It is also not a political problem. It is an American problem, a human problem, and, I deeply believe, a Jewish problem.
Which is why, when the call came late last month, I was quick to answer.
The NAACP has organized America’s Journey for Justice, an historic 860-mile march from Selma to Washington D.C. In response, the Reform Movement, in keeping with our long history of involvement, partnership and collaboration with the NAACP, has quickly mobilized rabbis from around the country to participate so that our presence and support will not only be felt throughout the march, but will be visible on each day, as rabbis will take turns carrying a Torah scroll throughout the 40 day journey. Even though the call for action came at short notice, and even though the last days of the march lead right into Rosh Hashanah, 150 rabbis have already signed up to participate and more are joining every day. Each morning of the march, 2-3 rabbis will receive the Torah from the rabbis who marched the day before and will carry it forward, thus carrying the Jewish values that compel us to stand with our neighbors and fight for racial justice and equality.
I am incredibly proud to share that on August 12, this Wednesday, I will receive the Torah with two other rabbis and will carry it through an area of Georgia near Atlanta, participating with my own hands, feet and heart, in this historic event.
This 40 day march, this Journey for Justice, is focused on racial and structural inequality. Together we will be marching under the banner, “Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Jobs and Our Schools Matter”. The march is a peaceful protest advocating for economic and educational equity, voter rights, reform to the criminal justice system, and an end to racial profiling and police brutality. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a key piece of legislation designed to protect voting rights and prohibit discriminatory voting practices. And yet, despite this historic anniversary, there is still much work to be done as we continue to see racial disparities all across the nation, from the streets to the voting booths.
As we mourn the death of Michael Brown, just about a year ago today, we recognize that marching will not bring him back, but we hope it may be one step in ending the cycle of brutality in our country that has taken his and so many other lives. These steps we are taking – 40 days of steps; 860 miles of steps – are important steps toward acknowledging the humanity, dignity and equality of all Americans. Hopefully they will be just the first of many more steps to come.
Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, a joint partnership of URJ’s Religious Action Center and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, sent out this statement just last week:
Why do we march?
We march because we say enough. Enough of the tragedies. Enough of the subtle and overt racism. Enough of standing by. We march not only in the name of those whose deaths woke up our nation’s consciousness, but for the millions of others whose loss of life, loss of home, and loss of dignity never made a headline. Our hearts break for the world as it is–parched by oppression–constant, crushing, and unacceptable. We remember the slavery and oppression that bloodied our own past even as we recognize the privilege into which many of us were born. We, therefore, march arm-in-arm with other people of faith in our humble attempt to live up to our tradition’s demand to be rodfei tzedek, pursuers of justice, equality, and freedom. We feel called by our God, our tradition and our consciences to march. At the same time, we know that simply marching in this remarkable forty-day Journey to Justice is not enough. We march for the forty-first day, the one-hundred and twentieth (day), and the years and generations to come. We march, as our ancestors taught us, to get from Egypt—the world as it is, filled with injustice—to the Promised Land. We march toward a vision of this land’s promise: our world redeemed, overflowing with chesed, tzedek, umishpat—compassion, justice and righteousness.
On Wednesday, I will be marching with this vision at the front of my mind and my heart. On that day, I will be marching in the name of those Southern rabbis who did take action even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do, like Rabbi Perry Nussbaum of Jackson, MS, who survived the bombing of his synagogue and home, as well as an attempted removal by some of his own congregants who did not agree with his public stances on civil rights issues; I will be marching in the name of Rabbi Heschel, along with Rabbis William G Braude, Saul Leeman, and Nathan Rosen, who came to Alabama to march with Dr. King; and I will be marching in the name of the 17 rabbis who were arrested in St. Augustine in 1964 (some of whom became my teachers at rabbinical school 40 years later).
In a joint letter entitled “Why We Went”, those 17 rabbis wrote, “Each of us has, in this experience, become a little more the person, a bit more the rabbi he always hoped to be (but has not yet been able to become. . .We came to stand with our brothers and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God.”
I too, am looking forward to Wednesday as a day when I will become a little more the person and a bit more the rabbi I have always hoped to be but have not yet been able to become. I too hope to learn more about myself and my God through physically and personally acting for what I believe in.
I march for equality; I march to maintain the history of Jewish involvement in Civil Rights that I care so deeply about; I march for myself that I may practice what I preach; and I march for you, my community, in the hopes that you might join me on this march, or on some march in the future; that you might follow my example and take up the call for justice; and that you might see our contemporary issues of equality and justice not as political issues, but as Jewish issues, and engage with them for the sake of Torah and the betterment of our world.
May each of us march on proudly; May our world be healed one step at a time.
Kein Yehi Ratzon.