In 1965, a group of marchers — mainly African American, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — advocating for civil rights, particularly the right to vote — made its way from Selma to Montgomery, both in Alabama.
It was the third attempt at that walk, and the first two attempts ended in violence — police administered beatings, two deaths — amid the jeering of hostile crowds. It was an extraordinary time, and the marchers’ courage and forbearance was made even more vivid by the ugliness that surrounded them.
Famously, the black marchers were joined by some white civil-rights advocates. Primary among them were clergymen; some were Christian, priests and ministers, including James Reeb, a white Unitarian who was murdered by an angry mob, but many were rabbis, identifiable because of their kippot.
There is an iconic photograph of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the influential mid-20th century theologian who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, marching next to Dr. King, but he was far from the only rabbi there. Rabbi Heschel also wrote a sentence that has become a mantra for liberal Jews as they advocate for civil rights. “When I marched in Selma,” Rabbi Heschel wrote, “my feet were praying.”
Rabbi Israel Dresner, who is now rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne and was a close friend of Dr. King’s, was among the many other rabbis who marched in Selma. (It is important to remember that quite a few went down south, either to march or to register voters or to be Freedom Riders. It is important, too, to remember that it took a great deal of courage, both physical and moral, to do that.) Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who was the longtime rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, also was close to Dr. King, and delivered a powerful speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, another civil rights milestone, in 1963. (It was at that march and rally that Dr. King told the rapt world that “I have a dream.”) Rabbi Martin Freedman of Barnert Temple, then in Paterson, was a Freedom Rider, jailed in Tallahassee, Florida, for unlawful assembly in an attempt to desegregate a restaurant.
Now, 50 years after the three marches from Selma to Montgomery, 52 years after the rally in Washington, the NAACP has organized a new march, from Selma to Washington.
Much has changed in those 50 years, and much has remained the same. To begin with, the march is not the same. It is far more ambitious in its length and duration — it’s an 860-mile trek, set to take 40 days. (It began on August 1 and is set to end on September 15.) It is organized differently — some people will walk the full journey, but most have come in for a day or two. It is set in stages, based in one place for a few days at a time, with people sleeping in churches or other institutions, or in roadside motels if they prefer, and then meeting to take a bus to begin where they had ended the day before. Each day includes teaching in the evening; there is a rally in each state, organized around a different theme. A large rally is set for the day after the march ends — which also is the day after Rosh Hashanah — in Washington.
The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, through its advocacy group, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (known as the RAC), has arranged for its rabbis to join the march. A Torah scroll, from Chicago’s Sinai Congregation — the shul’s rabbi, Seth Limmer, is a passionate advocate for social justice and civil rights — has accompanied the marchers from the beginning, and there always is a rabbi to cradle it in his or her arms on the walk.
Rabbi Paul Jacobson of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge went to Alabama on August 11. “I got an email at the end of July saying they were looking for rabbis to carry the Torah on part of the journey, in keeping with the values of the Reform movement,” he said. “I turned to my wife, and said that I really wanted the opportunity to participate, and she said that if you can work it out with your other responsibilities, please go and represent the congregation and the movement.
“I carried the Torah,” he said. “It was a huge responsibility to carry it, and to feel its weight. And it was the values of the Torah, even more than the physical symbol. The weight of the Torah was the responsibility to explain and to cherish the values of justice and dignity that it teaches us, and having the opportunity to share it with other people who were marching.
“It was a really powerful experience. It was exhausting. We had an easy day — it was only about 86 degrees, and some colleagues said that it was about 104 when they walked. But it was exhilarating.
“It’s a reminder that it’s not just about walking. The journey is symbolic. It’s about what we and our communities and our congregation are doing to effect lasting change.”
Rabbi Jacobson took the pulpit at Avodat Shalom when his predecessor, the shul’s rabbi emeritus, Neal Borovitz, retired, and the two serendipitously ended up marching together.
Rabbi Borovitz was struck most by his conversations with two men. One, Millard Farmer, is a white Georgian, a civil rights lawyer “who in the 1950s and 60s was going into jails and defending African Americans,” Rabbi Borovitz said. “I was also struck by Cornell Brooks, the new young dynamic president of the NAACP.”
There were only a few rabbis in the room, he said, and he didn’t know if Mr. Brooks knew that any of them were there, when the NAACP leader “started talking to this primarily African American crowd about the important relationship that had existed between the NAACP and the American Jewish community, and particularly the RAC. He talked about how well we worked together. It felt incredibly good.
“He talked about how we brought a Torah with us, and he talked about the story of Joshua and Caleb,” two of the 12 spies Moses sent out to see if Canaan was good. The other spies said it was too strong to be conquered, but Joshua and Caleb reported the opposite. “He said that the majority of people were naysayers, who can’t get there. We can’t get there with them. We have to be the Joshua and Caleb of today, and say that we can overcome.
“He said that Joshua and Caleb were the first people to say ‘We will overcome.’”
Rabbi David Widzer of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter flew into South Carolina on Friday, August 21, and marched on Saturday. “It was an opportunity to have Shabbat in a very different way,” he said.
“The day I was there was Parashat Shoftim” — judges —”which was so fitting and meaningful. It has the words ‘Tzedek tzedek tirdof’” — justice, justice shall you pursue — “and I had an image in my mind of walking through South Carolina chanting words of Torah.
“We didn’t need the text read out loud. We were living it there and then.”
Rabbi Widzer walked though South Carolina’s Aiken County on Jefferson Davis Highway. “The irony was not lost on anyone,” he said. “We passed a Confederate war memorial, with a small Confederate flag. We passed a couple of folks who looked askance at us, but plenty of folks driving by honked their horns, shouted, and waved at us. People came out on their porches or stood by strip malls and restaurants to wave at us, to support the NAACP.
“It was eye-opening. You don’t march for 25 miles with people without talking to them, sharing life stories. I marched with a family that had a grandma and husband and wife and two kids in strollers, all of them walking together.
“I was marching next to a man wearing a button saying ‘I walked for civil rights in Washington 1963.’ It was his grandfather’s. His grandfather had been there and heard Dr. King speak. This guy was in his mid-40s, and his grandfather had given him that button when he was 5 years old.”
The march was so powerful, and its call for civil rights must be amplified and heeded, he said. But how? (All the rabbis interviewed asked themselves that question.) Rabbi Widzer has written about it in various media, from Facebook to the synagogue’s weekly email, and he will speak about it on the holidays. “We will do some social justice and advocacy work on some of the policies that will make a difference,” he said. “We may do a book group and continue to support putting Jewish values into action to address the important issues of our day.”
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, who marched in Georgia, was struck by the people he met, particularly with the ones who plan to march the route from beginning to end. “If this were the Appalachian Trail, we would call them through walkers,” he said. “People who are going the full distance. People who rearranged their whole lives because they believe that the country is broken and they need to call attention to it.”
One of those through walkers is a man who calls himself Middle Passage. (“Some people call him MP, and some call him Colorado because that’s where he’s from, but he introduces himself as Middle Passage,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. The Middle Passage was the leg of the Triangle Trade — “Molasses to Rum to Slaves,” as the musical “1776” put it — that saw human beings shackled and shipped from Africa to slave auctions in the New World.)
Another, Keshia Thomas, is a young woman who many of the rabbis mentioned, each with awe.
In 1996, at a rally in Ann Arbor, Mich., protesting a planned Ku Klux Klan gathering there, the crowd set on a white man wearing a shirt showing a Confederate flag. Ms. Thomas threw her body between the man and the crowd; a famous photograph shows her on the ground, her arm over the man huddled there, facing angry demonstrators with sticks. Her courage and decency radiate from the image.
“Keshia is totally amazing,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. “She is sweet. She is smart. She is unassuming. She wasn’t going around touting her 15 minutes of fame. Other people had to tell me about it. She’s not like ‘Look at me,’ but when you talk to her, she just burns with a passion to make communities stronger.
“She said, ‘I know why people say black lives matter, but all lives matter. I know that we have to work together, that it can’t just be the African American community alone. We have to do it together.’”
Rabbi Mosbacher said that he, Ms. Thomas, and Royal Mayo, a former NAACP local president from Steubenville, Ohio, were walking together when “we walked by a house with a huge Confederate flag in front. He didn’t say anything to us and we didn’t say anything to him, but what ensued was a long conversation amongst us. Someone said that we should have stopped and talked to that guy, and Roy said that if someone has a Confederate flag, there is no point talking to him. ‘It’s not worth my time or breath,’ he said.
“‘And Keshia said, ‘You know, I am optimistic about people.’ Despite all that she’s been through, she is fundamentally open and optimistic and it was incredibly inspiring.
“If I had been her and had seen what she has seen, I would be incredibly pessimistic.’”
Perhaps the most “animating conversation I had was with Royal,” Rabbi Mosbacher added. “We both have 17-year-old sons who have just started driving, and we connected on that level, as two dads anxious about sons driving for the first time.
“We were similar, but in fundamental ways we are different. My biggest anxiety is that my son will be in a car accident. His biggest anxiety is that his son will be pulled over and shot for driving while being black. So we connected, but I understood that we don’t have the same realities. There are things that he worries about that I can’t even imagine.
“I wear a kippah all the time, but when I want to, I put a hat on. It’s always a White Sox hat — I’m a third-generation White Sox fan. So when I want to quote unquote ‘pass,’ I can pass. But he can’t hide, if he would like to, even for a few minutes.”
One of his congregants, Jonathan Theodore, joined Rabbi Mosbacher on the walk. “He drove all the way from New Jersey; got into his car at 3 in the morning, drove 16 hours, marched all day, and then drove back.
“It was quite an amazing thing,” Rabbi Mosbacher said.
So now what?
“Was this just a moment in time, or was this the beginning of something real?” he asked. “Will this be more than a romantic opportunity? Will we be able to look back and say we marched too, or will it be something deeper and more sustained? That is the question.
“What are we going to do as a community of people of faith? I don’t have the answer, but I know that the question is sitting with me.”
Rabbi Steven Sirbu of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, who marched from McBee to Cheraw, both in South Carolina, on August 27, also saw a man with a flag. “He stood on the front lawn waving a Confederate flag. As soon as he was spotted, the leaders of the march said, ‘Don’t look at him. Don’t talk to him. Don’t interact with him. But some people did say hello to him anyway. He was very friendly verbally while still waving this symbol that so many associate with hatred. But that’s not to say that in waving it he associated it with hatred.
“We don’t know, because we weren’t allowed to talk to him to ask.”
On the whole, he said, most people were far more unequivocally friendly. “We would wave to people, and a lot of people waved back. A lot of people took out their phones and filmed us.” But that, too, is inherently ambiguous, he pointed out. “These days a lot of people film a lot of things for all sorts of reasons. There is no way to know if they filmed us because they supported us or they were suspicious of us.”
A member of his community, Jaime Rubin, accompanied him to South Carolina, and he “got a very large outpouring of support from my congregation,” he said. “The response was more than I expected. I think that’s because there is so little partnership going on these days. Partnerships are hard to form. This was both an opportunity to remember the partnerships of days past and to try to form new ones.”
Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes brought two students and two adults from her congregation, as well as a friend from Long Island, to South Carolina for the march.
“All of us recognized the difference between this march and the ones 50 years ago,” Rabbi Frishman said. “Our lives are not in danger. We were grateful for the police protection,” which, she said, had been careful, kind, and sincere, “and seeing it reminded us of the need for protection, but we were worried more about lone crazies than about the KKK, and we weren’t worried about state troopers charging into us instead of protecting us. There has been such a change.
“But for us at Barnert Temple, Rabbi Freedman z’l, who really put his life on the line, is part of our heritage. We didn’t think that we were imitating what he did — we didn’t have that arrogance — but we did feel in a small way it was a way for us to make a statement that this matters to us. That black lives matter.
“All this summer, there has been a growing conversation about racial and economic disparity in our nation. Everyone participating in this wants to say very publicly that it is not because people aren’t interested in working hard enough or because people smart-mouth policemen. It is because there is true injustice that has to be addressed.
“We also have to recognize that while persecution and anti-Semitism are imprinted on our heritage and our memory, nonetheless it is not a deeply embedded part of our personal experience.
“We are highly educated, we are successful, we have every opportunity we want. We have fears, we have concerns, we are vigilant, but our daily lives are not impacted. We don’t worry walking down the street, and we believe in the system.
“AIPAC is a great example of our belief in the system. We know how to use it to make policies change for us.
“But the American black community, even with President Obama, suffers hugely. The poverty cycle, which so many people don’t understand, is an obstacle. And so we marched to remind ourselves of these things, to be recharged with the real stories and experiences of the people we walked alongside, and to realize that when we come home, we have to work harder.
“When we got back after the long day of walking, we had a wonderful ritual, unwrapping the Torah and talking about the journey to freedom. And then we went to dinner and talked about what we should do, what we should be advocating for. It isn’t obvious. It isn’t like here, oh, we can do a, b, and then c. That troubled us, because we want to be able to act, but it’s not clear what to do.
“The problems are so endemic. It requires building more coalitions and listening to what people want us to do.
“The solution is not to go into a poor minority community and do something for them. That doesn’t change the culture, it just makes us feel good. The solution has to include dialogue that helps to shift racial attitudes. We have to have teens talking to teens, adults to adults, mothers to mothers, fathers to fathers, so that there is a deeper understanding across the racial divide. And then through that we have to begin to work on projects together.
“We are not the comfortable folk working to help the less fortunate. That’s where the conversation we are having is taking us.”
Rabbi Debra Hachen of Temple Beth El in Jersey City had not yet gone on the march — her plans put her in Raleigh, North Carolina, at the end of this week. “The most important thing is not the rabbis, but what the NAACP is doing,” she said. “We Jews have such a long tradition of being involved in civil rights, and we rabbis wanted to come out and support the NAACP. The Reform movement is very much in favor of the renewal of the provisions of the Civil Rights act. All of them are starting to be undercut. That is one of the march’s big issues.
“I will be in North Carolina, which has a history of gerrymandering districts. They draw these arrow-shaped districts to ensure that the black vote will be diluted.
“The march is also about economic justice and equal treatment under the law. As Jews, we know what it’s like not to be considered as full citizens, to have people trample on our rights, and we also know from the Torah what it means to understand those who are oppressed and to be called to do something about it. Sometimes people are oppressed in faraway places, overseas, places we can’t get to personally, but here we can go and bear witness.
“I could stay at home and send a note, but the experience of marching side by side with African Americans is a chance to hear their stories and bring their stories back to my congregation.
“Here in Jersey City, we know these stories,” Rabbi Hachen continued. “There are African American members of our congregation —and we know a certain amount about what our African American neighbors and fellow congregants go through. The experiences in the South are far worse.
“Our congregation is involved in community organizing with the larger interfaith community of Jersey City. More than 30 of the churches and synagogues involved are African American, so we work a lot with the African American community here.
“I know that we have to do more than just pay lip service so I thought that this would be a good opportunity for me to go and to talk in a different way to my congregation about this issues.
“We already talk about this all the time in my congregation — about national issues, about racial equality and discrimination. We are very mixed; we have Hispanic Jews, Asian Jews, African American Jews. We don’t draw any distinction within the congregation — but we know that when they go outside, they face all kinds of challenges.”
The six rabbis who will have walked on part of the journey from Selma to Washington, from the deep South to the nation’s capital, will come back with a wealth of new stories, images, associations, friendships, and knowledge. As they stand looking out at their congregations on Rosh Hashanah, with that new information still fresh in their hearts and minds, what they say and do might be subtly different. We’ll all see what happens next.