There’s a saying attributed to Rabbi Elliot Kleinman that the weather at convention is always “72 and fluorescent” (I’d say it’s closer to 65—bring a sweater) because there is so little time to explore the city in which the conference is held. But from the moment we got started this morning, I knew that this year was going to be different.
We are in a city with such a rich, varied, and complicated history. So it made sense that we began our journey with an exploration of Atlanta’s historical landmarks, in an Etgar 36 tour called “The Long Arc of Civil Rights Through the Eyes of Jewish Atlanta.”
We began at the Pencil Factory, the site of a murder that was wrongly pinned on Jewish businessman Leo Frank, who was convicted and then lynched in 1915. We visited the Naming Project, makers of the AIDS quilt. At both sites, we spoke about how easy it was for the “other” to be victimized, whether by acts of violence, in the case of the former, or by “shame, stigma, and silence” in the case of the latter.
The highlight of our visit was stopping by the grave of Dr. King and then attending worship services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father had served as preachers. This morning, the preacher was Reverend Dr. Traci deVon Blackmon, who gave a passionate “drash” connecting the story of the Hebrew midwives in Egypt, which she called “Sheroes of the Exodus,” to our modern-day struggle for justice. (Full disclosure: I wrote my thesis on this story, so I geeked out pretty hard at this).
The Pharaoh’s command to the midwives to kill the Hebrew baby boys, she said, was one of the first recorded incidents of “racial profiling.” The Pharaoh, not realizing the contributions that the Hebrews had made to his nation in the past, demonized the Hebrews and tried to break them. “Only fearful leaders create oppressive policies,” Reverend Blackmon said, “but often the thing that was meant to break you is what makes you stronger.”
The midwives would not be broken, and they would not do the acts of violence that Pharaoh asked of them, because they feared God, and “when you fear God, there are some things you just won’t do.” Reverend Blackmon also gave an interesting interpretation that the reason the midwives told Pharaoh that they missed the births of the Hebrew women was not because they were lying, but because they would spend that time praying, so that they could determine what God wanted them to do.
“It’s decision time,” Reverend Blackmon said. Like the midwives, she said, we have to decide whom we are going to serve, because, “It doesn’t matter who is in office, as long as God is on the throne!”
Reverend Blackmon then went through a long list of people she considered “midwives for justice”: Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Congressman John Lewis, and members of the church itself. She urged the congregation to join their ranks, saying, “We need some midwives right now!”
The theme of this year’s conference is, “Being a Rabbi in Turbulent Times,” and will feature conversations about social justice and professional ethics. Reverend Blackmon’s words helped us to ground our own pursuit of justice in the story of the Exodus, and asked us to consider who it is we serve, what it is we will (or won’t) do, and how we will be partners in bringing life into the world.
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz serves Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, NY .