This blog is the fifth 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.
There is a meditation in Mishkan T’fillah that was carried over from Gates of Prayer: “Prayer invites God’s presence to suffuse our spirits, God’s will to prevail in our lives. Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, rebuild a weakened will.” This meditation was penned by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was personally invited by Dr. Martin Luther King to help lead the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965. When he returned from that march, Rabbi Heschel wrote, “I felt as if my legs were praying.”
Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King are long gone, but I felt their presence and those of everyone who marched from Selma half a century ago: those who marched and were beaten and clubbed in “Bloody Sunday,” those who tried to march and stopped to pray, and those who finally succeeded in marching to Montgomery, where they heard Dr. King tell us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I felt their presence and even heard from some of them when I traveled to Selma in March for the commemoration of the marches.
Rabbi Fred Guttman of North Carolina organized a Jewish contingent to participate in the event. We met at Temple Mishkan Israel, the beautiful (Reform) synagogue of Selma’s now tiny Jewish community. In addition to Jews, those present included members of the African American community, and among them was a contingent from the North Carolina NAACP. I made friends with a future divinity student in that group. We were challenged by Dr. William Barber, President of the North Carolina NAACP, who reminded us that “moral dissent can never take a vacation.”
We heard from David Goodman, whose brother Andrew was lynched along with Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in Mississippi during the Movement. We heard from Dr. Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Heschel, about the challenges her father set forth for us. We joined in as Peter Yarrow sang “Blowin’ in the Wind,” just as he had done in Selma 50 years ago. And we heard Clarence Young, one of Dr. King’s chief advisors, tell us that “the true story of Selma is the story of the participation of the Jewish people and Jewish leadership.
And we saw a beautiful African American woman, short in stature but proud in bearing, who faced the weapons and the hatred 50 years ago.
Then we left, and with tens of thousands of others, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was celebratory, and it was emotional, but it was much more than that.
Our gathering in that synagogue was a form of prayer. It served to rebuild a weakened will. Much has gone wrong in our country when it comes to creating a unified society. The Supreme Court has gutted the very voting rights protections that the Selma march was designed to guarantee. Since then, states have engaged in campaigns of voter suppression. Economic inequality continues to grow, and racist actions, some trivial, many not, continue to show up on our television and computer screens. It is tempting to throw up our hands and let the world go on its way.
But Selma is always there to remind us that despair is not the way. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel first met in 1963 at a conference on religion and race. In his keynote address, Rabbi Heschel said,
“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’s words were, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go….’ The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but it is far from having been completed.”
As we move away from Passover, we must recall that we are the descendants of those who challenged Pharaoh. We are the people who crossed the sea to freedom. We have to keep crossing it, and bring all those in search of freedom with us.
And this brings me from Passover to Chanukah. The word means “dedication,” and the holiday celebrates our rededicating the Temple after the forces of oppression had vandalized it. What I learned in Selma is that we have to rededicate ourselves every day to making this world – God’s temple – into a holy place. We need to repair the damage that has been done. That is the true meaning of tikkun olam. And that is the meaning of Selma.
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 Tom Alpert serves Temple Etz Chaim.