Thirty summers ago, my family packed into the station wagon for a cross-country road trip. One of the highlights of our entire experience was a visit to the old Universal Studios. My favorite part of the back lot tour, was this trick you could play, back in the day when Universal was a fun-filled studio tour and not a massive amusement park. After driving through Amity Island and having Jaws attack your boat, after parting through the waters of the miraculously parted Red Sea, there was a random van sitting in an otherwise empty parking lot. This was just a standard seventies junk-mobile: no crazy Cadillac or even quirky VW Minibus. Still, this van was special: it was made out of Styrofoam. Therefore, quite easily, you could lift up the entire “vehicle” with just one hand and hold the rear bumper high over your head. A properly taken photo made it look like you were Superman: saving the day, rescuing whatever family member had the tawdry task of lying down on the ground so you could “rescue” them. Somewhere there’s a picture of my dad rescuing me from such a crash; I remember thinking how cool it was, and how much I wanted to grow up and be Superman, rescuing the day, just like my dad.
Fifty years ago, two other phenomenal photos were taken that continue to inspire me, too. This one’s more famous. It was taken on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Captured in the center is Martin Luther King, undaunted, returning to cross that bridge peaceably no matter whet Sherriff Jim Clark had waiting for him on the other side. In the crowd of leaders walking with King stands out a bearded face: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who later famously described the moment crossing the bridge as “praying with his feet.” The second photo, taken three days later in Montgomery—when the voting rights march had reached its destination—featured not only Dr. King with Rabbi Heschel on his right. Standing immediately to the left of Dr. King was Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, President of the Reform Movement of Judaism. In his arms, Eisendrath holds a sacred scroll of our Torah. Judaism standing for justice: these photos are the reason I became a rabbi.
Three weeks ago, I participated in a conference call for the National Conference on Civil Rights. Because too little has changed in 50 years, most of the call discussed strategy and tactics for a key Voting Rights rally in Roanoake, VA. Yet, towards the end of the call, NAACP President Cornell Brooks asked for “fifteen more minutes of our time” to share with us some important news. By the time that quarter hour had concluded, I was inspired: the NAACP was undertaking a 40 day march from Selma, AL to Washington, D.C., calling it “America’s Journey for Justice.” The remarkably appropriate headline of the trek was, “Our lives, our votes, our jobs, and our school matter.” Every night of the 860-mile journey, travelers would come together in prayer, and study together in teach-in sessions on the compelling civil rights issues of our day. A massive rally would celebrate the Journey’s reaching our nation’s capitol, and a large-scale advocacy day for civil rights would follow.
I was “in.” My mind immediately made associations: 40 days of walking towards the promise of a better America were so perfectly parallel with my people’s saga of walking 40 years towards our own Land of Promise. The two pictures from 50 years ago entered my mind: I knew the Jewish community needed to be on this march, from beginning to end. Inspired by the image of King and Heschel on the bridge, I wanted to find a way to make sure a Rabbi—most likely a succession of 40 different ones—shared the entire distance of this journey. Compelled by the picture of Eisendrath, I thought it would be powerful if our Torah scroll didn’t just appear in DC for the final rally, but accompanied us the entire 860-mile journey. I knew I could no longer be inspired by pictures of the past if I wasn’t willing to walk the walk in the present.
This week, our Reform Movement went public with our support for and participation in “America’s Journey for Justice.” Coordinated by our Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., there will be countless opportunities for participation. Our Rabbis, through the work of our Central Conference of American Rabbis, and our Rabbis Organizing Rabbis campaign, will coordinate no fewer than 40 rabbis walking the distance of the journey, carrying the sacred scroll of our Torah (a scroll from my own Chicago Sinai Congregation, bearing the most appropriate cover “All its ways are Peace”). The Congregations will come together not just to walk, but to be vocal participants in the many “rally days” to be held in multiple State Capitols along the way. Learning resources and advocacy materials about voting rights, structural economic injustice, mass incarceration, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement will be brought to the institutions of Reform Judaism throughout America. Those who can walk will form relationships on the ground made through the experience of shared travel; the many who cannot attend will likewise be able to learn about the depths of racial injustice in America, and work to solve them. I cannot wait to see how I, how we, are changed by the experience. And how this shared experience of a Journey for Justice can change America.
I was lucky enough to visit Selma eight years ago. In its lovely Civil Rights Museum, visitors are greeted by a wall covered with post-it notes with the words “I was there” printed across the top. The remainder of every note contained personal reminiscences of those who stood on both sides of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. It is a wall of powerful testimony.
I ask myself, “What do I want to put on the post-it note that will be read by the next generation?” That I watched the Journey on TV? That I read about it in the paper? No. I want to write, “I WAS THERE.”
This new generation can no longer look at pictures of the past to draw inspiration. We need a new generation of Reform Jewish leaders to step forward and to say, “We were there.” We need to be there today. There might be some who think the task is too big, be it the coordination of multitudes to march 860 miles, or making serious changes to the structural injustices so deeply ingrained in American society. However, if we really want to make our nation a true land of promise for all, we need to take a page out of the old playbook from Universal Studios: we need to think we are Superman, and we need to imagine accomplishing the impossible, we need to believe we can do all that is required to bring justice to our United States of America. And lest we think that is too long a road to travel, we need to remember every journey worth taking begins with a simple step.
I look forward to taking my simple steps on August 1, in Selma, Alabama.
Rabbi Limmer currently serves as Senior Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation. He is also the Chair of the Justice and Peace Committee of the CCAR.