Montgomery, AL!

Through a lot of reading and some travel, I have been trying to get my head around the legacy of slavery in the United States, issues of racial justice, how mass incarceration is, indeed, the new Jim Crow, and my own white privilege. I have begun to confront my own ignorance about this brutal history and its lasting impact on the African-American community, as well as my own complicity in maintaining the status quo of such disparity in our country. I have the ability to “pass” as white though my experience as a Jew means that I, too, am “other,” even more evident now post-Charlottesville and post-Pittsburgh. Martin Niemoller’s well-known “first they came for” quote from the Holocaust is so relevant today as white supremacists are increasingly emboldened to spread their hatred against all “others.”

At my workplace, a social service agency, we have convened Undoing Racism workshops for staff and explored our implicit bias and micro-aggressions against people of color, and learned that merely living in the United States as a person of color can be a contributing factor to psychological trauma. Though I’m getting more “woke” each day, I am not always sure how to be an ally.

Some of the important books I’ve read have included White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement by Danielle McGuire, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and myriads of novels and memoirs that illuminate the African-American experience.

A few years ago I went to Atlanta to learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr. by visiting his childhood home and church, the MLK National Historical Park, the King Center, as well as the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. (Here is one blogpost from that trip particularly about Dr. King. Here’s another about my experience at the Human Rights museum.) I have also visited The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC and the plantations of Presidents Thomas Jefferson (Monticello) and James Madison (Montpelier), all three of which present hard truths about slavery through their exhibits and, in the case of the plantations, special tours.

And now here I am with 50 other Reform rabbis in Montgomery, Alabama (and Selma tomorrow) for a pre-High Holy Day seminar entitled “Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation.” In addition to a lot of reading, part of the preparation for this trip was to meet with an African-American clergy colleague to build relationship around the issue of racial justice. I had the good fortune to meet with a Baptist colleague in White Plains whose church had participated in an interfaith civil rights trip to Alabama with a White Plains synagogue, and I look forward to deepening my relationship with him when I return.

Today’s theme was truth and truth-telling. We visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both created under the auspices of the Equal Justice Initiative (the organization that is run by Bryan Stevenson and which I’ve supported for a number of years now.) The museum displays the history of slavery (and Montgomery’s particular role in it) and its legacy: lynching, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. One display of a full-page ad in the Selma Times-Journal in 1963 said “Ask Yourself This Important Question: What Have I Personally Done to Maintain Segregation?” I thought that this was an invitation for me to look at my own racism, my own white privilege, how I have unwittingly contributed to the perpetuation of segregation. In fact, it was an ad inviting readers to join a whites-only citizens’ council to help fight integration — and a reprimand if we are not doing so. Ouch.

Great quote: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” (Bryan Stevenson) In Legacy Museum Bookstore.

From the museum, we headed to the new memorial which commemorates those African-Americans who have died by lynching. (On the way, we passed the bus-stop where Rosa Parks got on the bus that resulted in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and other historic sites, such as the route that the marchers from Selma to Montgomery took in 1965.)

Here are some of my photographs of this sacred place.

There are 3 known lynchings that took place in Nicholas County in Kentucky. This is the pillar dedicated to their memory.

 

 

 

 

Each of these metal pillars is inscribed with the name of a county and state in which lynchings have occurred, and list the names of the victim(s) and dates of death.

When you begin walking through the memorial, the pillars are on the ground, but as you continue, they become suspended, as the bodies would have been.

Each pillar has a doppelganger laid out in a “memorial park,” in hopes that the named county will one day claim it, take it home for display, and in so doing, reckon with its history.

Slavery sculpture

The museum and the memorial both feature these jars of soil (what is called the Community Remembrance Project) from lynching sites around the country.

Wall of jars

In the evening we met with three local African-American ministers who spoke their uncensored and unvarnished truths to us. What they shared was heavy and painful and inspirational, but all three made it clear that this trip cannot just be a nice “field trip” for us but a catalyst to our speaking truth as Jews to the reality of racism.

The evening concluded with a service. Included was a powerful poem by Marge Piercy, “The Low Road” and a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when he spoke at a conference on religion and race in 1963 and first met Dr. King:

“Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking. Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?”

What have you done today?

Remembering MLK, Jr. and His Optimism

FDR's grandson at 4 Freedoms rally

FDR’s grandson at 4 Freedoms rally

4Freedoms March

4 Freedoms March

The last week and a half has been filled with action, art, learning, and prayer in response to the impending Hrumph presidency and the social ills it will undoubtedly exacerbate.

On a frigid cold Shabbat afternoon on January 7, I attended the Four Freedoms March and rally in Pittsfield, MA, ending in speeches (including one particularly inspiring one by FDR’s grandson!) about FDR’s commitment to freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship, and how we must continue to guard those freedoms vigilantly as they come under threat.

The next day, Chaim and I visited the massive Nick Cave exhibit at Mass MOCA. Part of it is a response to the collision of gun violence and racism.

Nick Cave exhibit on racism and gun violence. See the gun?

Nick Cave exhibit on racism and gun violence. See the gun?

Two days later I was in Albany for a day of action with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and scores of other progressive organizations to speak out on behalf of issues ranging from the Dream Act to Medicare cuts to police accountability. It was not a traditional day of lobbying (which I will be doing on January 30 specifically on reproductive rights issues), but more a day of disruption to call attention to a broad range of threats. Our action at state Senator Serino’s office was a “kitchen table conversation,” complete with a fold-up kitchen table (a big piece of cardboard) and hot cocoa on the topic of health care and potential budget cuts.

The kitchen table conversation

The kitchen table conversation

End-of-day rally in Albany

End-of-day rally in Albany

Albany, NY -- children's art honoring Dr. King

Albany, NY — children’s art honoring Dr. King

The rest of the week was filled with calling US senators in opposition to repeal of the Affordable Care Act and nominations such as those of Jeff Sessions as US attorney general and Betsy deVos as education secretary. But it takes so long to get through — I hope that means that hundreds, maybe thousands, of others are calling, as well. If so, keep it up!

On Thursday evening I heard Howard Dean address Williams College students and express great optimism about this generation’s ability to see past color, gender, sexual orientation and create a truly diverse society.

Howard Dean speaking at Williams College

Howard Dean speaking at Williams College

On Shabbat, I led the community in a service in MLK’s own words, matching some of his quotes to our traditional prayers. His last public speech (the mountaintop speech)  was a remarkably optimistic statement about the time in which he lived and how, if God could place him in any place and age, he would choose the country and era in which he already lived:

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding… And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…

I hear him lifting us up today as we face this specter of Hrumph’s presidency and reminding us that it is an opportunity to grapple and an imperative step on the road to ultimate survival.

Sadly, this was also a week in which Congressman John Lewis, MLK compatriot and civil rights hero in his own right, was attacked by Hrumph. We are compelled, like Lewis, to rise up against this demagogue and his self-serving and treacherous agenda.

Today I saw the film Hidden Figures, a great way to honor MLK Day and the evolution of civil rights for African-Americans and women in this country. See it!

For more on MLK and my visit to Atlanta to visit landmark sites associated with him, see my previous posts “MLK’s Atlanta” and “Fish and Human Rights.”

“I Can’t Breathe” — IMO Eric Garner

BREATH

noun

1. the air inhaled and exhaled in respiration.
2. respiration, especially as necessary to life.
3. life; vitality.
4. the ability to breathe easily and normally.
5. time to breathe; pause or respite.
6. a single inhalation or respiration.
7. the brief time required for a single respiration; a moment or instant.

***

Most of us take breathing for granted most of the time. It enters us and departs as a matter of course, no thought or effort required.

Those of us who have ever practiced mindfulness meditation know what it means to consciously watch the breath in and out, in and out, to keep that as a purposeful focus, letting go of other intrusive thoughts. As a secondary gain of this spiritual practice, we may attain a heightened awareness of the miracle of breath.

There are, of course, those for whom breathing is compromised due to illness or disease, who are regularly attuned to the miracle and vicissitudes of breath. My client Linda Moss, of blessed memory, fell into this category. Her fear and panic about whether she could take in enough air and whether she could catch her breath taught me to stand in awe for each unencumbered breath I am privileged to take. Her courage despite her suffering remains an inspiration — how she lived in that fear, yet continued to take as many breaths as she could for as long as she could.

We worked a lot with the Hebrew understandings of the interconnection between breath/n’shima and soul/n’shama, how God breathed life into the first man (adam), how breathing is therefore symbolic of the God-breath, the vital stuff of life, in all of us. Breath is a manifestation of grace in action, the greatest gift.

If we understand breath to be synonymous with life, the police officer’s callous non-responsiveness to Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe,” is already a first step toward homicide, long before the coroner ruled it one.

“I can’t breathe” is a terrifying thought. “I can’t breathe” is an even more terrifying feeling.

Undoubtedly, an injustice was perpetrated by the police officer. A further injustice was perpetrated by the grand jury that refused to indict him. So I marched tonight with a few hundred Jews, candles, and signs, to protest, under the auspices of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. We chanted “No justice, no peace” and “Black Lives Matter!”, and shouted the names of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. We recited the Mourner’s Kaddish and sang “Oseh Shalom/May the One who makes peace in the high heavens, make peace for us…” Those who were willing to be arrested sat down in the middle of Broadway at the corner of 96th Street, shutting down traffic moving southbound on Broadway. Twenty-five of our fellow protestors, some of them my friends and colleagues were, indeed, arrested and driven in two police vans downtown to Police Plaza.

This is the sign that I carried tonight, a quote from Proverbs 20:27, "The breath of the human being is the lamp of God," followed by "I can't breathe."

This is the sign that I carried tonight, a quote from Proverbs 20:27, “The breath of the human being is the lamp of God,” followed by “I can’t breathe.”

Sit-in on Broadway

Sit-in on Broadway

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice shall you pursue) - Deuteronomy 16:20

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice shall you pursue) – Deuteronomy 16:20

I was shocked and outraged by the failure of the grand jury in Missouri to indict Ferguson police  officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown just two weeks ago. But New York is MY city, and my shock and outrage is somehow even greater now, because the pain is closer and deeper. As a result,  the injustice seems even less comprehensible to me than that perpetrated in Ferguson.

This is a paradox — if something is already unfathomable, how can it ever be even more unfathomable? and yet, it is. It just is, like the Zen koan that my UU colleague Reverend Meredith Garmon shared with me this morning:

Once I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. Then I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now I am at rest, for once again I see mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers.

The difference is, I laughed at that paradox. It tickled me.

I am not laughing now. Injustice piles on injustice. I will never be at rest.

 

(see Truah’s statement about Eric Garner’s death by going to http://www.truah.org/who-we-are-general/634-justice-for-eric-garner-a-statement-from-t-ruah.html. You can also see more pictures of tonight’s march and rally by going to the JFREJ Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/jfrejnyc.)