May 27, 2024 /

A Journey South – February 2023

In a few days, I will be joined by our Educator, Matt Vogel, as well as a few parent chaperones, as we take our teens on a civil rights trip to the Deep South. Our stops will include Montgomery, Alabama where we will visit the Rosa Parks Museum as well as the Memorial for Peace and Justice (also known as the Lynching Memorial), we will head to Selma and march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and meet with someone who was there at the beginning and marched across the bridge with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. We will be going to Birmingham and taking a tour of the Freedom Park and the historic 16th Street Baptist Church where four girls died in a bombing. On Sunday, before we come home, we will be going to Ebenezer Baptist Church and meet with the congregation before heading to the King Center. We will be learning about the Civil Rights Movement in the places where history happened, and we will be learning about how Jews were a vital part of the movement.

On January 14, 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave the speech “Religion and Race,” at a conference in Chicago. There he met Dr. Martin Luther King and the two became friends. That ultimately led to Rabbi Heschel marching with Dr. King at Selma, Alabama in 1965. Here is an excerpt of Rabbi Heschel’s speech: “In the words of William Lloyd Garrison, ‘I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject [slavery] I do not wish to think, to speak, or to write with moderation. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.’

Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the word “race” and feel no self reproach?…. Faith in God is not simply an afterlife insurance policy. Racial or religious bigotry must be recognized for what it is: satanism, blasphemy…. To think of [humanity] in terms of white, black, or yellow is more than an error. It is an eye disease, a cancer of the soul. The redeeming quality of [humanity] lies in [our] ability to sense [our] kinship with all [people]…. How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; whenever one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.”

We are taking our teens to see where much of the history we teach our kids happened and we will march with them where people of all faiths marched in the past. But we will also highlight how many of the societal “cancers” that Rabbi Heschel spoke of still exist today. My hope is that when we return to New Jersey our teens will be inspired by our history to help impact our future and understand that inequality for some is inequality for all, and as Jews we must always work for freedom for all.