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Members of Sha’ar Communities’ Gate of Discovery headed South to retake the pulse of the civil rights struggle.

Last November, as part of Sha’ar Communities’ Gate of Discovery, which uses travel as a setting for Jewish education and experience, seventeen of us, 13 adults and four teens, took off for a weekend of time travel – backward and forward – on the unfinished journey toward civil rights in this country.

Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham in four days. The pace was swift – all the better to work off the fried calories which kept us going. (Did you know they even fry beer down South?) With Billy Planer of Etgar36 guiding us through our itinerary, which was filled with legendary sites and real-life heroes of marches and demonstrations, along with text study, singing, ritual, and discussion, ours was an adventure that took us not only far away from our familiar places but deep within, to untraveled corners of our own inner moral and spiritual landscapes.

The pencil factory where Leo Frank worked, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the Rosa Parks Museum, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Freedom Park, the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the King Center and Memorial, and Ebenezer Baptist Church all were on our agenda, as were encounters with people who lived through the chaotic, violent years of persecution and the courageous, dangerous protests of the 1950s and ’60s. Meetings with rabbis and community leaders helped us understand Southern Jewish life, then and now, and the role of the Jewish community in the struggle for freedom.

Three vivid scenes paint themselves into our memories

The whole world is a narrow bridge

Joann Bland was a 9-year-old girl when she and her older sister, along with hundreds of others, attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday and Turnaround Tuesday in March 1965. Their mother had died in Michigan, waiting for a blood transfusion while the doctors attempted to find “black blood” for her. Her sister was badly wounded by the violence inflicted upon the marchers, who were finally able to cross unharmed two weeks later, and who reached the Alabama Capital building in Montgomery to demand equal voting rights.

Joann still lives in Selma and gives tours to those who come bear witness to its history. In the small visitor center near the bridge, in a room filled with books, memorabilia, and pictures of the march, Joann shared her tragic but redemptive story. On the wall behind her was a framed copy of the iconic photo of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marching arm in arm with now Congressman John Lewis, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and others, all adorned with leis provided by a delegation of supporters from Hawaii. When we told Joann that the teens with us all are students at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan, named after the man in the photo behind her, she pointed to Rabbi Heschel and said with a smile, “Who, him? Santa Claus?”

She explained that they had given him that nickname because of his mane of white hair and his white beard. Now that’s ecumenical!

We emerged into the sunlight from the visitor center and formed our own line of marchers as we crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. With the teens at the head (they always do seem to lead society forward) we began our re-enactment. We sang as we marched. The adults did their best with some of the classic protest songs, but eventually we all broke into a rhythmic chant of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav’s “Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od, vehaikar lo lephached klal” – All the world is a narrow bridge, and the essence is not to be afraid. It was a powerful cry of our tradition’s call for courage as we traversed a crossing haunted by the echoes of racial slurs, blessedly drowned out by songs of freedom. We waved to the cars as they passed (everyone waves to everyone in Selma), hoping to absorb some of the faith, determination and bravery that put Selma and its bridge on the map of human history.

A synagogue meeting you didn’t want to miss

After Friday night services at Temple Beth El, the Conservative synagogue in Birmingham, we filed into a boardroom for our Shabbat dinner together. After some eating and singing, we called a mock meeting of the 1959 temple board to order. Under debate was whether to provide accommodations and shelter in the synagogue to some Jewish northerners coming down to support the protests. You might think this would be an open-and-shut case, a simple and obvious decision for the board to make.

But it wasn’t.

Playing the roles of various community members of different ages and backgrounds, the group was deeply divided. Some saw it clearly as a Jewish and humanitarian obligation to do what’s right in the name of justice – that is, to take in the northern Jewish activists. Others were more hesitant. They thought of themselves as southerners first and Jews second. They had good relations with the whites around them. They had businesses that relied on white customers and clients. A backlash again harboring “Northern agitators” could get violent. They had families to keep safe and a congregation to protect.

It wasn’t all just drama. In 1958, 54 sticks of dynamite were placed outside the very building we were sitting in. They did not explode, only because the heavy rain that fell that day doused the fuses.

Our debate was intense. We learned that it’s easy for us as free, privileged modern whites to condemn white leaders, especially Jewish ones, for not helping the black community back then. But once we put ourselves in the context of the Deep South of the 1950s and understood the pressures impacting those decisions, we humbly acknowledged that if we had been in their shoes, some of us might not have done any better. Also, let’s be frank: while it’s true that Jews played a major role in the civil rights movement, not all Jews were on the right side of history. Some simply were racist.

Our vote was a stalemate. It still haunts us.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that while most Jews viewed themselves as southerners first and Jews second, southerners viewed them as Jews first and southerners second.

“Clap hands, all peoples; shout to God in a joyous voice” (Psalm 47:1)

Rev. Calvin Woods is a pastor and civil rights activist who exudes as much energy and passion today, at 80, as he did in his 30s, when he spent his days and nights standing up to oppression and mobilizing his community to demand justice. We waited for him in Freedom Park, across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. A few visitors to the monument-filled grassy square meandered by. And then, strutting his way towards us, came a man about 5 feet tall dressed in a sharp blue zoot suit, pointy-toed alligator shoes, and a baseball cap. Charisma oozed from every pore.

Rev. Woods came to tell us, or rather sing us, his story. He described Birmingham of the 1960s, the chaos from 50 years earlier as police officers brutally crushed demonstrations by children in the streets all around where we stood. He relived the terror of the bombs that took the lives of four young black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church directly across from us. He reminisced proudly about his relationship with Dr. King. But in the middle of his recollections he’d stop, and shout out spontaneous praises and salutations to God. Then he’d look us in the eyes and begin singing the spirituals that fueled the civil rights movement. Referring to the dogs that the police would sic on the women and children protesting in that very park and riffing on Joan Baez, he’d bellow, “Ain’t gonna let no dogs turn me around, turn me around, turn me around” and then he’d shout at us to sing. “SING!” he commanded. And we sang.

Boy, did we sing.

Wild and engaging as it was to experience Rev. Woods in this way, it was also deeply discomfiting. There we were, a band of white people, singing the songs black people sang in defiance of the whites who were attacking them violently, with black people all around us watching. White people, their former oppressors and deniers of their freedom, singing the songs that had carried them through the harshness of legal, social, and physical persecution. But Rev. Woods didn’t mind. He knows that the discomfort it brings his visitors is precisely what catalyzes us to serve as change agents in a society still suffering from racial inequality.

Before he took his leave, he urged us to keep learning the history of his people in order to write a better future for us all. Invoking his powerful faith and raising his deep, rich voice, he praised and blessed us using the verses from the Book of Numbers we call the Birkat Kohanim or the Priestly Blessing.

We thanked him, and then we blessed him too. Using the same words, chanting in Hebrew, we shared prayers for protection, grace, and peace.

Rev. Woods’ presence lingered with us throughout the rest of the trip. We reminded ourselves of his teachings, and tried the spontaneous praise-shouting once or twice. We even tried it at Shabbat services back in New Jersey. It definitely keeps a congregation paying attention. Or laughing.

Concluding thoughts

When we first arrived in the South, the Alabama drawls and deep-fried everything made us feel like we had landed on a distant planet. On the flight back, however, we understood that the familiar homes to which we were returning are inextricably linked to the entire world, no matter how seemingly foreign. We can no longer live in blissful ignorance of the struggles and injustices that ravage so many of our fellow humans. Selfishness is the enemy of progress and societal change. If all northerners decided to shy away from civil rights activism for fear of personal harm in the 1950s, the movement may have failed to integrate the South. Caution, of course, is understandable, but if we all focused purely on our own comfort, our dynamic society would become stagnant.

Our journey through the landmarks and heroes of the civil rights movement confirmed Rabbi Heschel’s timeless call to action: “In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.” We are profoundly grateful for the fortune and freedom into which we were born, but we cannot let our incredible luck of birth blind us to our obligation to all humankind. We are all part of something far bigger than ourselves, and no one can be whole until all human dignity is recognized and respected.

Adina Lewittes is the rabbi of Sha’ar Communities. Aaron Lewittes Tannenbaum, her son, is a member of Sha’ar’s board, a senior at the Heschel High School in Manhattan, and an incoming freshman at Yale University.