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True Strength at America’s Journey for Justice

I know what strength is. Reflecting on marching in the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice, I witnessed true strength. Now back home in New Jersey returning from LaGrange, Georgia, my husband and I had joined the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ delegation of over 150 rabbis who are also representing the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center. We are taking turns supporting this 40-day march to Washington, DC. I sit here nursing sore muscles, while marveling that we actually walked 15 miles, all in one day, in August, in the South. And we also carried a 20-pound Torah, recalling the iconic photograph taken in Arlington National Cemetery of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, President of then-Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism, as he held a Torah scroll and marched next to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Yes, I feel strong for the physical feat, as I feel strong for engaging in action after I have felt so powerless watching tragic injustice after tragic injustice. I felt strong when I walked by Confederate flags, a pro-Confederate flag billboard, a Confederate monument, and scowling faces uttering rude comments. Yet, I felt proud that the majority of spectators, representing all races, were supportive or nicely inquisitive. They honked, waved, and leaned out of cars to ask about our unexpected parade, protected by the local police and state troopers. I smiled as mothers brought out their young African-American sons to see us walk by. Our leaders shouted that we were walking for them, so that they could get an education, stay out of jail, and have hope for justice.1mary

However, the true strength I witnessed was in the elders who led our march and carried the American flag. These men, beaten and brutalized so many decades ago, had marched with Dr. King during the original Freedom Marches. At their age and health condition, they deserve to sit or try some gentle exercise classes. Yet, they are dedicated to walking much of 18-22 miles a day for 40 days! Every night they will wrap blistered feet, sleep on uncomfortable cots and rise at 5 a.m. to walk with dignity. They are finding the physical strength to match their passion for justice. I also saw strength in a group of five women who joined the march, representing their local NAACP chapter. These five African-American grandmas showed up looking like they were ready to visit the shopping mall. Some did not even have sneakers or proper walking shoes. Instead, they wore their summer jewelry and sandals! They walked and sang uplifting church hymns in beautiful harmony. When our leaders announced that the last stretch would be walked at a pace double our normal stride, just as the heat index hit its peak at 120, these ladies dug in for the last miles with determination. Additionally, I witnessed strength in the young people, the next generation of NAACP professionals and volunteers, who have dedicated themselves to fighting injustice. Finally, I marveled at the strength of the woman, an African American community activist and organizer, who showed me the well-known photograph of herself at age 18 in 1996 throwing herself on a stranger suspected of being a white supremacist as an angry mob sought to attack him. She continues to have the strength to smile every day as she dedicates her life to bettering our nation.

During the walk, our shift of rabbis sang “Ozi v’zimrat yah, vay’hi li liy’shua. God is my strength and might; God will be my salvation. (Exodus 15:2)” I know I am blessed to have witnessed God’s strength working through so many amazing people. May the marchers continue to be endowed with strength to see the justice journey home.

Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the editor of and a contributing author to The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethics.

This blog was originally posted on Huffington Post Religion. 

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Taking Torah on the Road

Do you remember holding a Torah scroll? Its sudden weight in your arms and soul, the joy of connecting through the generations to Sinai in an instant. When was that moment? Was it being called to the Torah for the first time as Bat or Bar Mitzvah, accepting a Shabbat or High Holy Day honor, or passing the scroll to a child or grandchild? In almost all of these memories, likely that the place of that moment is in the sanctuary.

The contrast between holding a Torah in synagogue and holding a Torah anywhere else but a synagogue is what struck me the most when I held the Torah scroll on Friday, August 7. Along with twenty others, I was on Route US-29 walking for nineteen miles with the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice from Opelika, Alabama to West Point, Georgia, flanked by six Alabama State Police. The Torah had come down the mountain. I held the Torah tight, embracing its teachings, its symbolic presence, my personal memories of holding Torah when I was ordained a rabbi and when I handed the scroll to my son and then daughter as they became Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and my vision of the iconic photo in Arlington National Cemetery of the Torah in the arms of Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, President of then-Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism, as he marched next to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

The Torah in my arms came from Chicago Sinai Congregation because of the leadership of Rabbi Seth Limmer, who invited his congregation to lend a Torah scroll to make the entire 860 mile journey over forty days from Selma, AL to Washington, D.C. A waterproof backpack with Torah messages written on it and a banner from the Religious Action Center was at the ready if there was any threat of rain. Over 150 rabbis have volunteered escort the scroll, taking daily shifts during the entire journey.

Mirroring the forty days Moses stood on Sinai receiving the message of Torah, we will march about forty days bringing the values, teachings and relevance of Torah to the streets of America. On Friday, August 7, I was joined by Rabbi Peter Stein, from Rochester, NY. Several other fellow marchers enjoyed taking the scroll for a mile or so. Many were not Jewish but felt – as they called it – the inspiration of carrying God’s word.

For those watching us march, on their porches, in stopped cars, once in a while lining the roads, there were only two visible symbols: the American flag and the Torah scroll. That was all: six police cars, about 20 marchers, and two symbols. What could they be thinking? News reports prepared the remote townships about the march. We would sing our songs and shout our chants for justice. Still our march took many by surprise. I am sure that this was the first Torah scroll many had ever seen. I wanted to stop to explain, but we had our marching orders. We did not stop from 8 am to 4 pm that day; the Torah did not rest; our message was on the move. For those who knew even a little, the symbol of the Torah demanded a response: we have Jewish values that are synonymous with Christian values and Muslim values and many other peoples’ values and most importantly with American values: we cannot stand idly by when our neighbors are in need.

W.E.B. Du Bois said, “The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans.” Over those many miles, my feet though weary felt lightened by the embrace of Torah. Etz Chayim Hi – The Torah truly is a Tree of Life, and all who hold it tight will find happiness (Prov. 3:18). I will never hold the Torah scroll the same way.

Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker has served Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota for eighteen years.  

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s blog.

 

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Tora(h) is Her Nickname

I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama fifty years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led marchers to that city from Selma, sixty years after Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus there, and two days after America’s Journey for Justice began. As I explained to my congregation before I left, after too many needless deaths of African-Americans over the past year, participating in the march felt like the most powerful way I could stand up for the Jewish teaching that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).  So I set out for Montgomery, together with two members of my congregation, to march and most proudly, to carry the Torah along the route.

My connecting flight to Montgomery was on a small plane, the kind only big enough for one flight attendant.  The flight attendant was a young African-American woman.  “Welcome aboard,” she greeted us before take-off, “my name is Torah.”

Coincidence? That’s one way of describing it.

I had to know more about her name, so after the plane had landed, I told her a little bit about the Jewish meaning of Torah, and why I was coming to Alabama. She corrected me on the spelling – it’s actually Tora – and she told me it was her nickname.

Standing face to face with her, I thought of a legend about the early Chassidic master, the Maggid of Mezrich, who used to tell his students: Don’t just talk about the Torah. Be Torah.

And here she was.

It was a good reminder that the most sacred aspect of my journey would be listening to other people’s Torah.  Fundamentally, it’s not about issues, politics or policy; it’s about people. I came to the march, first and foremost, because I have plenty to learn about other people’s experiences with injustice in our society.  Just as importantly, I have plenty to learn from other people’s insights into how we can overcome it together.  The march seemed like an incredible opportunity to learn from other people who are busy being Torah.

So who was the Torah I learned while marching? I met Alabama churchgoers, New York union workers, college student activists, people who lived through the civil rights struggles of fifty years ago, and their grandchildren in tow, many wearing t-shirts with pictures of Dr. King.

I listened as one young organizer addressed the room, taking for granted the fact that everybody there knew someone who had been killed by a police officer, and most people nodded in agreement.

I chatted with one of the Alabama State Troopers who protected our group all day, in poignant contrast to the march of 1965, and who told me it was an honor that he held the Torah scroll for a few moments.

I commiserated about the heat with a woman who told me she had been searching for a job for so long, so long.

I sat on the bus with a retired minister and firefighter who had been beaten walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Dr. King, who described his childhood dread of the Ku Klux Klan, and the promotions he knew he had been passed over for at the firehouse because of his race, who explained to me why he felt so uplifted organizing this march, and why he was so confident about the power of the next generation to fight for a better world.

Rabbi Leib ben Sarah elaborates on the principle associated with the Maggid:  “A person should see to it that all her actions are a Torah, and that she herself becomes so entirely a Torah that one can learn from her actions and her motions and her motionless clinging to God.”*

I don’t know too many people who can claim to live up to that challenge all the time, but marching in Montgomery seemed like an important step in trying to meet it a little more fully. Like the other 150 Reform rabbis who signed up to participate in the march, I feel honored to have been able to participate in such a historic and sacred event, and privileged to have had the chance to jump on a plane to practice what I preach.

By carrying the Torah, I learned so much Torah; by learning so much Torah, I have seen again just how much this world needs us to be Torah.

*Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim. I adjusted the language for gender in honor of Tora.

Rabbi Beth Kalisch lives in Philadelphia and serves as the spiritual leader of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, PA.  

A version of this blog originally appeared on Rabbi Kalisch’s blog and the RAC’s blog.

 

 

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice

Welcoming Shabbat – A Model for Justice

Four hundred years ago, the mystics of Tzfat began walking out into the fields to greet Shabbat (many of us reenact this by standing for the last verse of L’cha Dodi). Contemporaries scoffed: Shabbat comes to you, wherever you are! But these creative leaders understood that sitting and waiting is fundamentally different than striving and embracing. Like so many things in our lives, taking an active role in creating Shabbat makes it a more powerful experience.

A few short weeks ago, America’s Journey for Justice was announced. An 860-mile trek from Selma to Washington, highlighting that “Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Jobs, and Our Schools Matter.” Some scoffed: Why go all the way to Georgia or South Carolina? Others are working on it, justice will come! Perhaps. But we are more likely to create a just society when we take an active role in creating it. So I went.

It was incredibly meaningful to carry a Torah through the heat of Alabama, surrounded by friends and strangers united by common purpose. Highly symbolic, I hope this march serves as a reminder that we have the capacity to walk out from our homes, our synagogues, and our communities – into the fields of poverty, illiteracy, and hopelessness. To forcefully meet challenges, rather than waiting for them to be solved.

Whether reaching out to welcome Shabbat or reaching out to embrace justice, I pray that we will be successful in our goals and fulfilled by our participation.

Rabbi Mark Miller is the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, MI.

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s blog.

 

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At the Start of the Journey

The Central Conference of American Rabbis is partnering with the Religious Action Center, the NAACP and other African American civil rights groups to call attention to the systemic racism in our society.  America’s Journey for Justice is focusing on restoring the Voting Act, jobs and education, the scourge of mass incarceration, police brutality and equality and liberty for all Americans.  I was profoundly moved by my participation and that of my colleagues on the first day. I was honored to hold the Torah scroll brought from Chicago Sinai by my colleague, Rabbi Seth Limmer.  Holding it in my arms as we crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge of Bloody Sunday infamy brought a welling up of tears at the holy work of bringing full equality that still lies before us.

These are the words I shared at the rally that started the Journey for Justice.  I was honored to speak on behalf of our CCAR:

Good morning. I am here on our holiest day of the week, the Sabbath, representing the over 2,300 Reform Rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  As President of the oldest and largest rabbinical organization in North America, we who have come to pray and walk alongside our brothers and sisters, and commit not only to talking the talk of justice and righteousness, but walking the walk. More than 150 rabbis from all over our country will join in this journey. We will be carrying with us a sacred scroll of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, that inspires our Jewish commitment to justice and equality and liberty.

As Rabbis of the CCAR, we pledge this day to stand with and work with and learn from you; to renew the historic Jewish – African American relationships and coalition that once worked together with ease. This is a new beginning.

We, rabbis and the Reform Jewish Movement, pledge to work with you to end the culture of racism in our country. We pledge to work wholeheartedly to end mass incarceration in our country. We pledge to work tirelessly with you to give every child the education she deserves. We pledge to work to root out gun violence in every neighborhood, to fight for economic justice for every person, and to secure voting rights for every American citizens.

God of All, bless those who march today and for the next 40 days.  May our feet be swift, our dedication to Your ideals of Tzedek u’mishpat, righteousness and justice, be strong. And lift us on eagles wings as You once did for the Children of Israel; so that we can bring about the glorious day when all shall eat at the table of liberty and the true Promise of America.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s Blog.

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice Torah

Being but a Cog in the Work to Make our World a Better Place

On August 1, 2015, I was lucky enough to pronounce the final benediction at a ceremony beginning the NAACP‘s 45-day American Journey for Justice. This was the day when I was able to share words of Torah in Selma, AL before marchers undertook the first steps of an 865-mile trek to make the world a better place. This was the day I was truly honored and overwhelmed by the privilege of carrying a sacred scroll of the Torah over the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, taking about 700 of the million steps that lay ahead on the sojourn to Washington, D.C. This was the day I walked12 miles down a highway in the blazing 98-degree Alabama heat.

“We are now bonded,” said my new friend, Mary Sorteburg, in a remarkable embrace that topped everything else. That’s how I felt after my day, only one day, one in a series that will be marched by my compatriots who yearn for justice, by my new partners and friends in the NAACP leadership, and by my CCAR colleagues who will march that same Torah scroll all the way to D.C. I felt bonded.

Bonded to Mary and her remarkable husband Jeff Merkley, who–despite being the Senator from Oregon–is now my spiritual representative in our nation’s capital.

Bonded to the remarkable Cornell William Brooks, the President of the NAACP, with whom I walked that remarkable road as we shared our stories in the blazing sun.

Bonded to leaders Leon Russell and Dwayne Proctor, with whom I shared continuing conversations; bonded to Sierra Club President Aaron Mair and a man named Middle Passage, both of whom I came to know as they carried the Torah down State Highway 80.

Bonded to Rabbis Denise Eger, Bruce Lustig, Beth Singer and Jason Roditch—who previously had been at best a quick ‘hello’ at convention or sometimes just a disembodied voice on the other end of the phone—and who are now brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

Bonded to Susan Solomon, Merle Terry, Jill and Grant Peters, who traveled with me from Chicago Sinai Congregation to help our Torah scroll take its place in the American Journey for Justice.

Bonded to the struggle to prove that Black Lives Matter.

Bonded to the fight to end racism, to fight racism, to talk honestly about racism.

And bonded to the Torah scroll.

I am not a rabbi overly focused on ritual, often moved by symbolism. But carrying this sacred scroll down an open highway, playing a small, literal role in a massive, literal journey erased any capacity for me to relate to Torah only metaphorically. Even having passed the scroll to a beloved and esteemed colleague, I now feel as if I have a missing limb: part of my mental energy is constantly wondering where the scroll is, in whose treasuring arms it rests. But with the Torah on that historical highway, I have never felt smaller and bigger: I was one brief person carrying the Torah down a long road for one brief time; I could hardly see the end of the day’s walk, let along the final destination. I have never stood so proud and tall as I did as the clock approached 6:00 and my feet were blistering. I was able to carry the Torah proudly, to serve my role, to play my small part. The knowledge of being but a cog—but a vital part of the machinery to make our world a better place—is exactly the lesson of our American Journey for Justice.

August 1 was filled with love, with hope, with solidarity and community. It was also filled with anger, confusion and disappointment. It was a day of contradiction. We were so generously and safely guided and granted passage by Alabama State Police; how different, not only from 50 years ago when police presence on the other side of the bridge signaled danger, but also what a vast chasm from the terror black people continue to face in nearly every encounter with law enforcement. The Chicago Tribune published a wonderful story about my colleagues’ choosing to walk in support of the NAACP; the only ink the Tribune spent on the American Journey for Justice was to document the participation of white people. In one day, I feel as if I built real relationships on the road that will last into the future; in 13 months in Chicago, I have built precious yet few relationships with black leaders. The contradictions of the day still puzzle me; it is upon me now to work towards their resolution.

On September 15, I will fly down to D.C. to meet up again with my comrades in justice, to carry that Torah scroll again in my arms as we bring it together into the very seat of our American democracy. I will travel with members of my congregation, my daughter and my determination to bring about racial justice. I look forward again to being with Cornell, with Jeff, with Bruce, with Dwayne, with Leon, with Mary, with so many more: the handshakes, the hugs and the commitment to end racism. A commitment that binds us as tightly as hands clenched together in hope and love.

Rabbi Seth Limmer serves as Senior Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation. He is also the Chair of the Justice and Peace Committee of the CCAR.

This blog was originally posted on the RAC’s blog.

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Why We’re Marching in America’s Journey for Justice

We are participating in the N.A.A.C.P.’s “America’s Journey for Justice” is, individually and as part of the collective of 140+ Reform rabbis, a giant step for Justice. This 40 day march from Selma, AL to Washington, D.C., with 5 final days in DC, focused on racial and structural inequality under the banner, “Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Jobs and Our Schools Matter,” is more than a Journey of many rabbis over 860 miles. With at least one rabbi marching every day of the American Journey for Justice, a sacred scroll of the Torah will experience the entire length of this journey. Our sefer Torah that teaches of our 40 year journey through the wilderness will accompany us on this 40-day journey for the justice our Torah demands.

Why are we working for racial justice at this time? Why are we marching?

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, 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.

Thank you for joining us.

Sincerely,

Joel Abraham, David Adelson, Erica Asch, Peter Berg, Shoshanah Conover, Wendi Geffen, Sam Gordon, Asher Knight Esther Lederman, Seth Limmer, John Linder, Greg Litcofsky, Ari Margolis, Joel Mosbacher, Mark Miller, Jason Rosenberg, Adam Spilker

On behalf of the ROR Leadership Team

This blog was originally posted on the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s blog

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America’s Continuing Journey for Justice

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.

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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. 

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We All Count: Shavuot

This blog is the eighth in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the period of the Omer to the issue of race and class structural inequality.  Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. 

Each day of intentional counting through the period of the Omer, as the attributes of mercy, spiritual strength, beauty, truth, compassion and justice shape us, we are brought to the night of Shavuot when, through our learning together as community, we glimpse the way the world can be.  From Passover to Shavuot the bread with no ego of Matzah and the simple barley of the Omer prepare us for the Challah; the symbol of being able to taste the sweetness of freedom without having our freedom and our privilege dependent on the oppression of others.  We pray that we will be able to enjoy the puffed up Challah without becoming so full of ourselves that we forget the lessons of our journey and that we will always remember never to do to others what was done to us.

Shavuot  is the climax of our story as Jews, to accept a Torah, a guide for living, that creates a world where all can flourish.  The Talmud dares us to fiercely defend the rights of all humanity to have infinite worth, to have a level playing field, and to be able to be creative and unique.  This is a radical vision in a world of have and have-nots, of the rich getting richer on the backs of the poor and by destroying the environment, of state sponsored laws and cultures that dehumanize and even brutalize other human beings.  Today there would be signs on the mountaintop that proclaim that black and brown lives matter, that Palestinian lives matter, that Jewish lives matter.  Signs that lift up the voices of those who are marginalized, who cannot find a place to be free from prejudice, who suffer the oppression of being judged by the hue of skin color instead of who they are.  Signs that affirm that these lives matter as much as all other lives.

Based on the models of truth and reconciliation sessions that have been used in South Africa, Rwanda, and in Greensboro we launched our first of ten sessions in St Louis this week.  As I listened to the black and brown truth tellers speak across lines of age, gender and class to the panel that practiced radical listening without defense and with open hearts, I heard a common agonizing thread.  Each person spoke from a strong place of self.  I could hear them saying, “I may be different from you but I am a whole human being of infinite worth, why don’t you see me and treat me as such?” They also said, “I do not want your pity or your sympathy but you must reach within to find a place of empathy.”

I thought about an article by the feminist lesbian woman of color Audre Lorde, in which she says that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.   Lorde wisely teaches us that “those who have been forged in the crucibles of difference,” must learn to take difference and make it a strength outside the structures of oppression and build a new world where we can all be valued.  I also heard the truth tellers (and Lorde) say that it is not their job to educate the oppressors.  It is an old tool of oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.  “Tell us what you want?”  is a diversion from the source of the problem that lives within the souls of those who do not see themselves as a part of the suffering of people of color in this culture that has been shaped by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws, old and new.  We are all a part of the problem and the Torah teaches us how to be a part of the solution.

The blacklivesmatter movement is challenging us to change the systems of policing and mass incarceration that threaten those lives daily.  Our demands are for basic the human dignities that come with access to health care, a living wage and a government that serves all the people.  The Torah teaches us that when we are more upset about the destruction of property than we are about the loss of these lives we are committing the sin of idolatry.  Make the counting we have done each day to arrive at this holy time of learning on Shavuot open the heart of the world to the healing necessary to count each and every life and make sure that every life counts.

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the CCAR’s Committee on Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.

Rabbi Susan Talve is the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, MO. Central Reform Congregation recently was the recipient of the Fain Award for their work on Ferguson Activism. 

 

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omer Rabbis Organizing Rabbis

We All Count: Counting the Days Until All Lives Matter

This blog is the seventh and final in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the period of the Omer to the issue of race and class structural inequality.  Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. 

Three years ago, when ALEC* rolled out model, corporate-designed, legislation in State Legislatures across the country, they targeted North Carolina as their test State for the most comprehensive of their initiatives. Within a few months the North Carolina legislature stripped State support programs in health care, education, aid to the poor, voter rights and more. Living in North Carolina’s capital I had been called in the past to lobby for one social justice cause or another. Early in 2012, those calls multiplied exponentially. Everyday brought a new crisis: State mental health beds drastically cut; teachers fleeing public schools; 500,000 left off of Medicaid roles… The deleterious legislation pulled at my heart; how could I sit idly by watching my State swallowed in this vortex of callous, corporate-funded, self-righteousness?

In short order, I realized that if I continued to answer the multiple calls for justice I would lose myself. There was no way any one citizen could speak to each of these critical issues. That’s when I heard of Rev. Dr. William Barber’s answer to the assault on North Carolina, as he was gearing up for the first year of Moral Monday Demonstrations. Barber, a minister and the president of the North Carolina NAACP, had been paving the road to advocacy for “the poor, the orphan, and the widow” for years and was primed to move for our State.

Barber fluently communicates with the wisdom and tenacity of the prophets; and he opens the podium, inviting young and old to speak truth to power. Barber’s leadership has garnered tens of thousands from all economic and social backgrounds to protect basic rights of jobs, health, education, and voting.

It quickly became apparent that working with Dr. Barber was the path to maintain my integrity against the assault on my State. I became a regular at Moral Monday meetings, sometimes marching, sometimes speaking, knocking on legislators’ doors and asking for comprehensive response so that the rights of children, the poor, and the sick, would not be sacrificed for the bottom line of the top earners.

Though much of the legislation being enacted disproportionately affects people of color, the NAACP and Reverend Barber made it clear from the start that the Movement is not about one race, party, religion, or gender. Rather, it is about humanity and the precious soul in every living being. Rev. Barber embraces leaders from religious groups ranging from Christian, to Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, and beyond. He invites professors from universities and single mothers who never had the opportunity to finish high school to the dais. All of us teaching from the depth of our personal backgrounds bring the core of our faith, intellect, and experience. This diversity of perspectives comes together to offer one united message: “We all count.”

Over the years of my rabbinate I have become versed in speaking before sanctuaries of worshipers, halls filled with students, convocations of legislators, and meetings with leaders. None of that quite prepared me for the impact of speaking before and with thousands of impassioned demonstrators, flowing to the music and to the cause, rallying for action. There you feel the pulse beating through the chants of the crowd, answering the call as you speak, and committing to bring that shared vision to reality. In the eyes of one, you see reflected the craving of the thousands. In that moment you know that the power of humanity, the glory of humanity, the blessing of humanity, will rise again and again over the forces that oppress. And therein lays hope and promise.

As we near the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer, and as we begin the reading of the Book of Numbers, the message of the Moral Movement shouts out of the prescience of this convergence. We count the Omer to remind us not to take our harvest for granted, to remind us that our bounty is not our bounty; but, rather, a gift that God brings forth from the earth. When we count the Israelites, in this first parasha of the book of Numbers, we do not count souls or heads. We count ½ shekels, one per person. In that way the rich and the poor are equal; the wood cutter and the CEO have the same value; no life is valued as greater than another. Thus it becomes apparent that the regard we afford the least among us reflects the greatest regard we have for human life. Each life matters. WE ALL COUNT.

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the CCAR’s Committee on Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.

Rabbi Lucy Dinner serves Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

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