Today was another impactful day that has left me raw. We began with text study with Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva (daughter of the famed Judge Abner Mikva), Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary. Who knew that texts from the Mishna and Talmud could shed so much light on issues having to do with anti-racism work and the argument for reparations? Rachel reminded us that the first documented ship that carried slaves landed in Virginia 400 years ago today. The New York Times has created the 1619 Project to shed light on this history and anniversary.
Rachel showed a short film that reduced me to a puddle of tears and shame for continuing to traumatize our youth of color. Watch this film (and weep) entitled “Dear Child: When Black Parents Have to Give the Talk.”
We could have spent all day — really our entire lives — studying and discussing the amazing texts that Rachel pulled together for us, but we had a packed day yet ahead of us, so we got on our bus to visit the POWER House (People Organizing for Women’s Empowerment and Rights). Located just next door to one of three abortion clinics still operating in Alabama, this advocacy and support institution escorts women to the clinic, watches their children (who are not allowed in the clinic), houses women coming from out-of-state (due to Alabama’s 48-hour waiting period), offers educational workshops, and serves as a safe space for all human rights organizations. How could the Reform movement sponsor a trip to Alabama and NOT have us confront the very real threat to reproductive freedom that is happening here?
But of course, reproductive justice work is intrinsically related to racial justice work. Those most impacted by abortion restrictions and criminalization related to abortion are poor women, particularly women of color.
Our bus then took us to Selma, 50 miles from Montgomery. There we met activist Joanne Bland who was 8 years old when she became active in the civil rights movement and was the youngest person to have been jailed for civil disobedience during that era. (She says she was in jail 13 times by the time she was 11!) She was, of course, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. She gave us a comprehensive civil rights history tour of Selma, starting at Brown Chapel AME Church which was the starting point for the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965, as well as the meeting place for the SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference).
We, too, walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, two-by-two, as the activists had then, both on Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965) and again when they successfully crossed on their 50-mile, three-day trek from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery (March 21, 1965).
On the other side of the bridge (BTW, Edmund Pettus was a grand wizard of the KKK) is a lovely Civil Rights Memorial Park with a number of art installations.
One of the most troubling aspects of our day was actually our visit to the beautiful synagogue in Selma, Mishkan Israel. Here, we met with the president of the synagogue, where there are a total of 4 surviving members. Sadly, he confirmed that the congregation was uninvolved in the civil rights movement that was swirling around them. Though there were some congregants who apparently housed white northerners who came down to volunteer with the movement, the rabbi wanted them to stay neutral. Not only were there confirmed segregationists in the congregation, but 50% of Selma’s businesses were Jewish-owned, and they were afraid of repurcussions and “didn’t want to be involved.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. said “One must not only preach a sermon with one’s voice but also with one’s life.” And as rabbis, we are are each grappling with what that means for us. What the Selma rabbi proposed, and what the president (who was a boy then) sheepishly admitted, was that they were complicit in their silence.
If the response of Southern Jews was complex and fraught, our subsequent conversation as a group revealed how complicated the issue is for us still, as well. One of our rabbi participants shared how she has nurtured her relationships with her local small-town police department post-Pittsburgh and how her congregation cannot afford to pay for police protection if they do not have this support. Yet she wants to be able to be present for her African-American colleagues on the front-lines when necessary. “Show up for us” is what her African-American colleagues expect of her is this time of heightened risk. Is she willing to compromise her relationship with the police (and the safety of her congregation) to do so?
Our evening concluded with reflections from Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center, about where the Reform movement is now in regard to its racial justice work and where it is headed. Recognizing that there are more and more Jews of color with huge personal stakes in the issue is a noteworthy change in the dynamic of black-Jewish relations today. He is probably correct that talking about systemic racism or white privilege is more possible today in our congregations than it was even five years ago, but we still have a long way to go. At the next Biennial there will apparently be a resolution to support reparations! (If you haven’t already read it, it’s worth reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations.”)
Our trip concludes tomorrow, but the work goes on.