Trip: 11/30-12/3 14 Kislev-16 Kislev 5778
Temple B’nai Abraham on Etgar (Challenge)
by Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz, 12/6/17
Tzedek tzedek tirdof. [Deuteronomy 16]-Justice, justice, you shall pursue. These three words were the cornerstone of my senior sermon in rabbinical school and now that I am in my twenty-fifth year in the rabbinate, I see how they continue to inspire and motivate me as a rabbi and human being. The doubling of the word tzedek emphasizes the importance of pursuing justice. Doing justice work is living Torah’s values.
Etgar (tour company) leads a Civil Rights Journey and introduces people to individuals who stood up for justice in the 1960s and those doing justice work today. The translation of Etgar is Challenge and that’s exactly what this journey is. I had the honor of leading a group from Temple B’nai Abraham, 11/30-12/3/17.
As Jews, it is horrifying to learn the story of Leo Frank, owner of the Pencil Factory in Atlanta, who was lynched in 1915. Now, more than 100 years later, Jews are experiencing increased anti-Semitism in the country.
As a rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham, each day before I enter my office I see photos of past TBA rabbi, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who escaped Nazi Germany. When he came to America he was shocked to see discrimination of Black people and was a major civil rights leader. He spoke at the March on Washington August 28, 1963 with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and continues to inspire us today to stand up for justice.
From Atlanta we traveled to Montgomery on the auspicious 62nd anniversary of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus, 12/1/55. We stood and sat on a replica bus and visited the museum honoring her. Rosa Parks stood up for justice more than a decade before that day, leading a campaign against sexual assault on Black women.
While in town, we visited the Montgomery Bus Depot where non-violent freedom riders were attacked on May 20, 1961. This publicized the struggle for Civil Rights. After watching films depicting the vicious attacks, it was humbling to visit the site of these acts of hatred.
Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is a modern day hero. EJI works to end mass incarceration, the death penalty clients, end life imprisonment of children and honor the memory of lynching victims. As we entered the offices of EJI, there was a profound sense of holiness for the work they do. Photos adorned the walls in the hallway of acts of hatred and inequality. In the soil room, we saw containers filled with soil collected from the 800 counties where lynchings occurred in this country. It was overwhelming.
In Alabama, the Black population is 25% but are 60% of those incarcerated. Alabama is also the highest death row rate in the country. Until April 2017 Alabama allowed judicial override. This meant a judge was able to change a sentence verdict and view it only as a recommendation. For example, the judge could change life in prison to the death penalty. 25% of the people on death row are there because of judicial override.
“Criminal justice system treats you better if you are rich and guilty vs. poor and innocent.” [Bryan Stevenson]
Adding to the intensity of the presentation, we met two visitors, African American brother and sister. The man was sentenced to life in prison for the “three strikes law.” His sister worked tirelessly on his behalf and he received parole a few years ago after he served eighteen years in prison for the crimes of receiving stolen property, marijuana and a stolen car. Seeing an individual who was successfully reentered into society filled our hearts with gratitude after learning about the challenge of mass incarceration.
On Saturday we traveled from Montgomery to Selma, in reverse of the route that was marched in 1965. When we can see ourselves in the story, it becomes our reality.
What can one person do? How can we each stand up for justice? We learned about Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a Detroit mother of five who witnessed the horrors of Bloody Sunday on television, March 7, 1965. She was active in civil rights work locally and decided to go to Selma for the march later in that month and help register African American voters. She was murdered while driving a Black man in her car between Montgomery and Selma.
Viola was the first (only) White woman murdered in the Civil Rights struggle. Her death, after the deaths of Andrew Goodman, James Cheney and Michael Schwerner in June, 1964(two white men and a black man), expanded the Civil Rights movement well beyond the Black community. When one can see oneself in the reality of a situation, it becomes personal.
We drove by Viola’s death site on our way from Montgomery to Selma.
Saturday morning, we stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and gathered for a creative Shabbat service. We expressed our gratitude to God for the gift of this day, reflected on themes of the liturgy (such as freedom—Mi Chamocha) and studied the Torah portion, Vayishlach. We focused on Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, whose voice was silent in the text even after being sexually assaulted. Reflecting on the Torah portion in connection to current events and the need to stand up for justice resonated deeply with everyone. Time Magazine has even named the Silence Breakers “Me Too” as the person of the year.
In Selma, we met with Jo Ann Bland, a survivor of Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965), Turn Around Tuesday and the successful march from Selma to Montgomery (March 21, 1965). On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, she and her sister were on the bridge and her sister as beaten. Hearing her eyewitness account of the terror was heart-wrenching. After an intense presentation from Jo Ann, sitting in the visitor’s center overlooking the bridge, we walked over the bridge, feeling the weight of history.
On to Birmingham where we learned about Martin Luther King’s Project C—for Conflict or some said, Controversy. In order to get more non-Blacks involved in the cause for Civil Rights, he decided it was time to amplify children’s involvement. Adults could lose their jobs for demonstrating but children just had to miss school. The police brutality was fierce with attack dogs and water hoses. We explored the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum which was declared a National Monument last year by former President Barack Obama.
Children would often not tell their parents they were going to a protest and DJs had secret codes they would say on the radio letting the children know where to meet.
We were honored to meet Bishop Calvin Woods who was a leader in the movement. He taught us songs and shared his stories. There is a memorial in the park to the four young girls murdered 9/15/63 in the church bombing across the street. How many lives will be destroyed by hate?
On our way back to Atlanta, we stopped in Anniston, AL for pizza and salad. The restaurant is located near the spot where the Freedom Riders bus was blown up in 1961.
Havdallah at the hotel was an opportunity to reflect on the experiences of the past two days. The intensity of our journey made it feel like we were away for much longer.
Sunday morning in Atlanta began with a visit to the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. The AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, never mentioned by name by the president, is a civil rights issue. The Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) published an article in 1981 stating ‘homosexual men’ were getting an immune disease. Inserting the modifier ‘homosexual’ stigmatized the disease and the Gay community was ostracized and shamed even more.
In 1987, a group of friends made placards to document friends’ lives and the idea of the quilt was born. Now there are more than 48,000 panels. The entire quilt was displayed in Washington DC and now is sent around the country in sections for display.
After the AIDS quilt, we traveled to the Sweet Auburn District where Dr. King preached and where his grave is. Sitting in the original Ebenezer Baptist Church listening to his speeches was inspiring. We attended lively services at the new Ebenezer Baptist Church across the street where Reverend Raphael Warnock delivered an impassioned sermon about Fear and Hope. He mentioned that Friday was World AIDS Day and this first Sunday in December was AIDS day at the Church. He invited everyone to get tested after services with him. He said that “we haven’t nipped the AIDS virus because of fear.”
Hope and Fear. We are the people of hope─Ha Tikvah─The Hope─is Israel’s national anthem. The Reverend said that “Fear is false evidence appearing real.” “Those who use fear and bigotry to maintain power, your spirit is not the spirit of God.”
Our final stop was the Center for Human and Rights─and the accompanying exhibits served as an intense finale to our intense journey. Particularly gut-wrenching was the Lunch counter simulation. Wearing headphones, one felt the screams, banging and threats of violence. The experience was deeply disturbing and only scratched the surface of how horrible it must have been for the actual lunch counter demonstrators.
Reverend Warnock also told us, “Don’t go home the same path you came.” All of us who traveled on this Civil Rights journey traveled a different path home because of this transformative experience. The Journey in the South has concluded but our journey for justice must continue.
Tzedek tzedek tirdof. You must surely pursue justice. [Deut. 16:18]