|Rabbi Steven Sirbu, right, and Pastor Keni Ashby in front of a tree in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park. The plaque near the tree includes words written by Anne Frank.|
Rabbi Steven Sirbu returned from Birmingham last week with new insights into social injustice, a mandate for change, and a partner to help him carry out that change.
The religious leader of Teaneck’s Temple Emeth – together with Pastor Keni Ashby of the Covenant House of Faith International, also in Teaneck – joined five other “teams” convened by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs to strengthen relationships between the Jewish and African-American communities.
Seeking to develop what a JCPA spokesman called “concrete steps blacks and Jews could jointly implement to help alleviate poverty and promote justice in their local communities,” the teams spent four days in Alabama, hosted by the Birmingham Jewish federation. The initiative was part of the JCPA’s anti-poverty initiative, “There Shall Be No Needy Among You,” launched in 2007.
Participants needed to apply as teams, said Sirbu, noting that he already knew Ashby through involvement in dialogue programs between Jews and Evangelical Christians.
As part of the mission, participants visited sites important to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These included the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where a bomb killed four little girls in 1963.
“We had the chance to tour the building, including the pulpit where Martin Luther King and every other civil rights leader spoke at one time or another,” said Sirbu.
The group also visited Kelly Ingram Park, a central staging ground for large-scale civil rights demonstrations. A tree was planted there in April in memory of Anne Frank and other victims of the Holocaust.
At the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma – made famous by the march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965- Sirbu and Ashby were called upon to offer reflections and lead prayers.
The focus was not simply historical, said Sirbu, pointing out that the teams also took part in a service project in Birmingham’s West End, where they confronted poverty and discussed its causes. While the immediate focus was Birmingham, “there was the assumption that the same general causes apply nationwide.”
“We were impacted in different ways,” he said, pointing out that the civil rights movement “affected both African Americans and the Jews involved” in that struggle.
Among other issues, the group discussed access to education as well as inequality in the justice system, “something that really resonated with Keni,” said Sirbu.
Sirbu explained to the Standard that in Alabama, young teenagers can be sentenced to life imprisonment, even if they haven’t killed anyone. “Most kids who get sentenced are victims of abuse and neglect,” he said. “It offers no chance for redemption or rehabilitation.”
While New Jersey is not as punitive, he said, “that’s not to say we’re doing everything we can to make sure kids are getting age-appropriate justice.”
Sirbu said he intends to explore this issue, looking for ways to partner with others to bring about needed changes.
He added that while his experience will take some time to fully digest, “I’m sure there will be a sermon in this.”
Calling the mission “absolutely of value,” Sirbu said “there are very few ways to get a good grasp of how poverty affects our communities and the resources available to reverse it.”
Not only did he learn a lot about the juvenile justice system and the Birmingham civil rights movement, but he did “extra research about Abraham Joshua Heschel and the friendship he had with Dr. Martin Luther King and how important that friendship was in maintaining King’s support of the Jewish community and Israel for his entire life.”
He also noted that he was “shocked to see how Alabama’s state constitution was an impediment to social change.”
“It’s an example of how laws written over 100 years ago can tie the hands of people working for change today,” he said. “It was written in 1901 by landholders to protect their interests and has a provision allowing for judicial override.”
That means, he explained, that a judge can override a jury decision sentencing a person to life imprisonment, changing the punishment to the death penalty.
Since judges are elected, he said, “overrides only seem to increase in an election year,” with candidates running on a “law-and-order platform. Tragically, it becomes a campaign tool,” he added, noting that only three states have this kind of override.
“New Jersey isn’t one of them, but there are other aspects of our judicial system that offer inequality,” he said, adding that if we don’t work together with other groups, “we’re missing a huge opportunity. There’s definitely a gap and plenty more to do.”