Journey For Justice
Local rabbis heed the call to stand up for all people.
On the simmering blacktop of the “Selma Highway” in Montgomery, Ala., we hand the Torah to another marcher. She is not Jewish. She is a young, black woman from Chicago who has never held a Torah before. In 93-degree heat, she envelops it in her arms. “Wow,” she says, “it’s not as heavy as I thought, but it is pressing right against my heart.”
As rabbis, we have carried Torah scrolls in synagogues, schools and Jewish summer camps. We have held them aloft on mountaintops, danced with them in the streets of Detroit and passed them to generations of Jews before the open ark.
And on Monday, Aug. 3, we embraced a Torah scroll as we walked in the footsteps of the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
On Aug. 1, the NAACP initiated “America’s Journey for Justice,” an 860-mile march from Selma to Washington, D.C., to highlight “Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Jobs and Our Schools Matter.”
The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and Central Conference of American Rabbis quickly took a leadership role and promised that a rabbi would be on every step of the journey. And because Torah has always been our guide and inspiration, we decided a Torah should accompany the entire journey … a scroll from Chicago Sinai Congregation, wrapped in a mantle with the fitting words, “And All Its Paths Are Peace” (Proverbs 3:17).
Compelled To Act
As rabbis from Metro Detroit, we understand well the racial tensions that can tear a community apart. Committed to addressing the racial injustice that continues to plague our nation, we were among the first of more than 150 Reform rabbis (and dozens of lay leaders) who volunteered to walk through the Deep South and advocate for change.
As we marched from the outskirts of Montgomery to the State Capitol building, we met politicians, activists and ordinary people who felt compelled to act.
We walked alongside Cornell Brooks, inspirational president/CEO of the NAACP, whose vision shaped this journey. With gratitude, he asked why so many Jews agreed to travel across the country to march in the summer heat of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C. The answer is found in the words of our new friend … it is pressing against our hearts.
We spend our days building Jewish community, teaching our tradition, celebrating joyous moments and healing from difficult ones. And, for 4,000 years, our mission has been broader. We possess an eternal covenant to work as God’s partners in the ongoing act of creation. To make this beautiful world a better place. And that means caring about more than just our own community.
In Pirkei Avot (Wisdom of Our Fathers), Rabbi Eliezer says, “Other people’s dignity should be as precious to you as your own” (2:10). The Talmud also suggests: “If you shut your eyes to [others] created in God’s image … you are not much better than one who prays to idols” (B. Ketubot 68a).
Fifty years ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that his “legs were praying” as he walked with Martin Luther King Jr. He understood our Jewish heritage demanded that he respond to Dr. King’s admonition that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
The same call brought others. Rabbi David Teitelbaum traveled to Selma in 1965 with four other rabbis, and stated simply: “This was living out what Judaism itself has been teaching all along, that you have to help the oppressed, the underprivileged — not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
Of the thousands of white activists who came to the South during the Civil Rights Movement era, nearly half were Jewish. The Jewish community often boasts about this history. But it cannot just be history. When we were asked to come in 1965, we went. When asked to come in 2015, we need to go.
Making A Difference
Jim Marks, a member of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township, always wondered what it would have been like to be there in 1965. When he heard about the Journey for Justice, he stepped forward. He held the Torah proudly. He looked around him, interested in the stories of others who had come. And he wondered aloud if our walk would make a difference?
NAACP’s Brooks responded that the goal of this march is to give people “moral agency” by stepping aside from endless policy debates and putting a human face on these issues. We can only make a difference when one marcher initiates 10 conversations and perhaps hundreds of social media connections. Movements grow, but they start with ordinary people willing to take extraordinary steps.
At the end of our day’s march, we passed the Torah to the rabbis who would continue the next day. We relished the moment, celebrating with hundreds of people we didn’t know a day before. And after returning to Detroit, we smiled as Jim Marks shared his reflection on what we had done:
“We can make a difference in the fight for justice by living a just and righteous life ourselves and teaching our children to do the same. In my opinion, the fight for justice begins with me.”
By: Rabbis Mark Miller and Ariana Silverman Special to the Jewish News
Rabbi Mark Miller is the rabbi of Temple Beth El. He sits on the National Core Team for Just Congregations, a project of the Reform movement that has been heavily involved in bringing issues of justice to the center of American Jewish sensibilities.
Rabbi Ariana Silverman is the interim manager of lifelong learning for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She has served as a rabbi of Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield and the Grosse Pointe Jewish Council. She is a proud resident of the city of Detroit.