This past summer, many of our HUC-JIR alumni joined the Journey for Justice, marching in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Our alumni share their reflections:
As I marched for ten miles in the heat of the day, in the middle of August, in the middle of the south, those are the words that went through my mind again and again. Keshia Thomas, human rights activist and volunteer, acted as our cheerleader along the route, leading us in that chant as we marched.
I honestly wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting into when I signed on to attend this march. Our rabbis had promised to be a part of the group of Reform rabbis who were taking a leg of the march and they offered me the amazing opportunity to join in this historic event. As I considered dropping everything in the middle of the back to school rush and High Holiday prep, all I could think about was “praying with my feet” and the image of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama all those years ago. I knew I had to be there.
We arrived in the late evening and were greeted by a group of tired marchers, some of whom had already marched for hundreds of miles over the last three weeks… and they all were smiling. They introduced themselves and immediately fed us, then we set up our cots in the Payne College Auditorium. That is where I met Middle Passage and Keshia Thomas, two volunteers who had traveled miles to join this march. Middle Passage laughed at me when I couldn’t figure out the army cots and proceeded to help me set them up for my whole group. Keshia showed our group the Torah that we would guard overnight until the rabbis arrived, then we chatted for a while before bed.
The next morning, we drove to our march site and set off on our journey for the day. Our group marched in formation, listening to the tap of Ivan’s cane as he led us with the American flag. Royal kept us in line and marching to pace. We marched with purpose, taking turns holding the Torah with pride. We told stories and shared the reasons why we were there. Some had experienced injustice in this world and hoped for a better future. Some wanted better for their children. Some wanted to end the “school to prison pipeline.” Some wanted to make sure all who chose to could vote.
All I could think about was how I wished we didn’t have to march for justice. I was so proud to be part of this experience and so honored to march for these causes – but as I marched, I prayed with my feet (and all of my heart and soul), that this would be the last time that we would have to join forces and march for the freedoms and the rights that everyone deserves.
As I came back to my congregation, I felt forever changed. I have always been passionate about teaching my students and families the importance of standing up to injustice and taking action, but now it seems all the more relevant.
As I move ahead, I still hear Keshia leading our chant, the tap of Ivan’s cane, Middle Passage’s laugh, and Royal’s marching orders. For me, they will forever be the sounds of justice.
In loving memory of Middle Passage, who did not make it to Washington D.C.
--Leslie Scheck is the Director of Early Childhood Education at Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
First-hand experience has taught me what it feels like to be unwanted. I grew up in Ukraine, where as a Jew, I felt that I was a second-class citizen. Even though my family immigrated to the United States when I was only 13 years old, numerous memories bring back the painful sting of discrimination. There was the time when in the opening week of first grade, I went to the library to pick up my textbooks. I was carrying my newly-minted library card. Written on it were my last name, first name, and nationality. I noticed that everyone else’s library card listed the nationality of the holder as “Russian” or “Ukrainian.” Mine read “Jewish.” I remember carrying the card strategically so as to cover the word “Jewish” with my index finger. I was 7 years old. There was also the time in 4th grade when one of my classmates ran though the school hall screaming derogatory comments about Jews because he knew that I was within earshot. And, then, there was the time when someone rang the doorbell to my family’s 5th and last floor walk-up apartment. When we opened the door, there was no one there. We could hear the hurried steps of someone running down the stairs and we could smell the nauseating fume of the fresh defecation smeared all over our doormat.
When my family immigrated to the United States in 1992, we did so in an attempt to leave behind the anti-Semitism that defined our lives in Ukraine. We moved to this country because we no longer wanted to feel unwanted and unwelcome. While my early experiences with discrimination had been painful, as I have grown, the pain has transformed into an empathy toward those who are treated unfairly and into the fire that pushes me to work toward a more just society.
None of us need to be reminded of the tremendous injustices that have transpired within our country over the past year. These injustices have brought into focus a broken justice system, ugly racial tensions, and an absence of opportunity for certain segments of our society. As a nation, we have been shaken as the very moral fabric supposedly undergirding our nation has been exposed to contain gaping holes and deep rifts that are impossible to ignore. It is because I cannot ignore these injustices and because I am commanded by God to pursue “tzedek” (justice) that I chose to participate in America’s March for Justice in early September.
America’s March for Justice, organized by NAACP in partnership with the Reform Movement, commenced on August 1, the 50thanniversary of the Voting Rights Act. The march was meant to do more than commemorate history. Rather, the ambitious march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC was meant to highlight the many injustices that continue to plague our society today and to “mobilize activists and advance a focused national policy agenda that protects the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education.” As had happened 50 years ago, clergy and sympathizers from around the country, many of them Jewish, joined the March during its duration from August 1 through September 16, along each of the 1,000 miles.
I joined the march on September 3, 2015 outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. At 6:30am, we gathered at a church with the other participants. From there, we were bussed to the location where the march had left off the night before so that we could continue the journey that others have begun before us. Before we started to march, we were led in heartfelt prayer by Cornell William Brooks, the President and CEO of NAACP. As we stood in a circle, arms linked, black and white, policemen, NAACP staff members, and volunteers, together we listened to Brooks’ passionate words calling on each person walking to do so in the name of justice and God. Brooks spoke about the Torah scroll, along with the aspirational values that it contains, which has accompanied the march for the entire route, carried at the front by Jews and non-Jews.
When you walk with others, you hear their stories. There was Jake, the 30-something writer, who was marching on his first day of ten because it was “the least he could do.” There was Kevin, the NAACP staffer who works with the Department of Justice. He had just returned from Iowa where he advocated for employment and voting rights of people with a felony on their criminal records. There was Ann, a retired nurse who had converted to Judaism just three years ago and who was marching with her congregation, located an hour away in Greensborough, NC.
And, there were also those who had marched the entire way, since the journey’s very beginning. There was Middle Passage, a 68-year old veteran with a warm smile, who carried an American flag at the front of the march every day. I asked Middle Passage why he had left his hometown in Colorado to spend over 40 days walking 25 miles per day. There is a lot of work that still remains to be done, said Middle Passage. It’s about justice and it’s about love. Middle Passage was walking in memory of his brother who had been active in NAACP. Tragically, Middle Passage died on September 13, having walked 920 miles. He fell ill while marching and was not able to be revived. Those of us who had been lucky enough to walk beside him, however briefly, felt the strength of Middle Passage’s character and have been forever altered by having met him.
There was also Keshia Thomas. Keshia is a charismatic African-American woman with a bright smile and a twinkle in her eyes. She is a civil rights activist who quit her day job so as to be able to march the entire journey from Selma to Washington DC. If you were to look up Keshia’s name online, you would see an iconic picture of her taken in Ann Arbor, Michigan when Keshia was just 18 years old. In June of 1996, the Ku Klux Klan had announced plans to hold a rally in Ann Arbor, which resulted in a counter-protest on the same day. Keshia was one of the people attending the counter-protest. At a certain point, several of the counter-protesters noticed a middle-aged white man in the crowd wearing a t-shirt depicting a Confederate flag and sporting an SS tattoo. The white man tried to run, but was knocked down, kicked, and beaten with placards. Seeing this, Keshia threw herself over the white man, shouting for the others to stop, shielding the man from the attackers, and saving his life. When I asked Keshia why she had done this, why she had risked her own life to save the life of someone who hated her, her answer was unassuming and simple: “Because it’s the right thing to do.” This was also the reason that she quit her job to join the march – because it’s the right thing to do.
So much can happen in a short period of time. I feel forever transformed by my experience on America’s Journey for Justice. I am acutely aware of the work that remains to be done. Simultaneously, I am humbled by the incredibly dedicated people whom I had encountered on my part of the journey and with whom I had the honor to walk side-by-side. I know that real change is possible when we march together in the light of God, toward a more just and equitable Promised Land.
Fifty years ago, many from Congregation Solel where I serve as the cantor, walked alongside Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel for justice in their time. Reflecting on his journey, Heschel wrote: “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to pray with my feet at America’s Journey for Justice. The march leaves me with the recognition of the tremendous work that remains to be done before we can stop marching on this journey.
-- Cantor Vicky Glikin serves Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.
Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum, who participated on the Journey for Justice this past summer shared a reflection in the form of a poem on his blog.
--Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum is the Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of East Meadow in East Meadow, New York.
After listening to Cornell William Brooks (CEO and President of the NAACP) preach, it is impossible not to become engaged. Last January, Cornell spoke at Washington Hebrew and mesmerized everyone. He, like all of our Martin Luther King Jr. Shabbat speakers, did not paint a rosy picture of issues today, but rather was honest in the challenges we face. When the NAACP announced America’s Journey for Justice, Washington Hebrew immediately got involved. We housed the final interfaith service, the teach-in for preparing for advocacy, and 150 marchers who slept in cots in our social hall. I knew some of my rabbis were marching, but I had not originally planned to march myself. My efforts were spent creating the interfaith service. However, on Tuesday, September 15, the opportunity presented itself to walk the final leg of the march, from Crystal City, VA to the Lincoln Memorial.
Despite my exhaustion from Rosh Hashanah, I was invigorated and moved as I walked with others from California, Texas, Rhode Island and more. Too often I come across political issues that I want to help eradicate or preserve, but I do not act because I am not sure how to take the first step to get involved. On Tuesday, I took that step, and literally, many more followed. It felt amazing to be present and accounted for, voicing my opinion for the challenges our country faces. I was in awe of how one organization, the NAACP, can shut down entire highways of traffic, at lunch time no less, and the cars we passed were honking in support, not protest.
Some of the marchers were present for the entire 1000-mile journey, others, like myself, had joined that day or the day before. As I pointed out DC landmarks, most notably the Pentagon and the 9-11 Memorial, as well as minor landmarks like the marina located just off the Potomac, I appreciated in a new way the city in which I live and the political system which allows us the ability to safely voice our beliefs.
That evening, as Cornell Brooks and other Reverends and Rabbis graced our bima again, I proudly stood with all who had marched and once again allowed myself to become mesmerized by Cornell and the feeling that I had made a difference.
--Cantor Susan Adelman Bortnick is the Cantor at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, DC
I have gotten involved locally in #Black Lives Matter, Voting Rights, and Gun Violence/Incarceration Inequality issues and my congregation is passionate about these issues as well. While I had hoped to meet the march earlier than the last day, joining for the final walk in DC was powerful. With members of my congregation, new friends from around the country as well as Jews from congregations in Boston and Chicago who marched with us, we slowly walked toward the alabaster white halls of our Capital. Though I come to DC frequently with family and with visitors, it felt like a brand new visit, to cross the Memorial Bridge from Arlington and climb the steps toward Lincoln's grand seat to cheers and banners waving to show solidarity with and commitment to the NAACP and the Journey for Justice. The power of the Jewish community's support for Voting rights and other issues of import to all of us, but particularly the black community, serves to remind us that the fight for freedom and equality continues still to this day and is our most important call to action.
--Cantor Rosalie Boxt is the Cantor at Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD.