Why a Road Trip Focused on Justice?

It started when I thought about going to a summer retreat sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. After having completed the Clergy Leadership Program a few years ago, I had not had the opportunity to participate in any subsequent retreats.  Since it was to take place near where my parents live, I thought I would possibly take our younger son, or both kids, to visit their grandparents.

Then, Yohanna expressed interest in the retreat and the idea formed of taking a family trip to the east coast from the Pacific Northwest.

Then, since we are up for adventure, we thought, what if we drive there, rather than fly?

Then, if we are driving, we thought, what else would we like to do and see?

Then, in thinking of the times we are living in right now, the age of our kids and what they can learn and experience, what we want to learn more about and witness, and what seems important right now, we decided to head south to see the important sites of the civil rights movement.

Then, in mapping out that route, we thought, what else it is important to see in reflecting on justice, on the history of our country, and on the challenge of the present moment? So we added a visit to a WWII Japanese internment camp, the US Holocaust Museum in DC (specifically the new exhibit on “American and the Holocaust”), a Trail of Tears site, and others.

We called this trip chronicle, “Two Rabbis Cross America” because we are two rabbis, and we are literally crossing America, from the west coast to the east coast and back again. But we are also “crossing” in the sense of challenging, of confronting, of looking at the negative aspects of our history to learn from our past to improve our future.

(And, yes, we will have some fun too, eat good food, visit family, and explore the natural beauty that surrounds us.)

We plan to post pictures and reflections from the journey, so you are invited to come along.

Walking in the Footsteps of Kings

From Seth

Arriving back at the synagogue after a long vacation seems somewhat surreal. In many ways, it as if I hadn’t left. In other ways, I feel like I have been gone for much longer.

Taking these 3 ½ weeks off has been a tremendous gift. I feel blessed that I am supported by the congregation with generous vacation time, and this year was the first that we as a family were able to use a good amount of it all at once. Between all of our schedules, we had this time and we took it. We wanted to expose ourselves, and our children, to the important civil rights and justice sites, primarily in the South.

This trip was full of many different experiences. Aside from all the driving, the visiting, the touring, I did get to spend several days in spiritual retreat through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, a welcome and restorative respite both from the travelling and from my daily work as a rabbi. It was a week of growth and exploration.

And the road trip itself was one of growth and exploration. Seeing all of these sites of American history, ones we do not generally visit, felt truly important and necessary. As a kid growing up in the east, I was exposed to the historical sites of colonial America, Civil War battlefields, national monuments. This trip I feel like I added a necessary chapter to that narrative.

There is much to reflect on and process, and I know it will take some time. I walk away with a deeper appreciation of place, in that we can understand so much more of our history when we actually visit the places where key events took place. Reading about the Selma-to-Montgomery march in a book or a museum is informative. Walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is transformative.

We sat in the pews of the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King preached in Atlanta. We drove along Route 80, the path of the march between Selma and Montgomery. We stood a few feet away from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King was shot. To be at these places was to be on hallowed ground, for these were places of liberation, of martyrdom, of hope, and of commitment.

Returning to the congregation in time for parashat Eikev, I open up the Torah to the Book of Deuteronomy and read these words:

Remember the long way that Adonai your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep the commandments or not. God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, in order to teach you that one does not live on bread alone, but that one may live on anything that God decrees. The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years… (Deuteronomy 8:3)

The context is Moses preparing the Israelites for their entry into the Promised Land after being freed from Egyptian bondage and wandering in the desert for forty years. At first it reads like falsehood, how can that physically be? But then it reads like inspiration and hope, if we can make it this far, we can make it even farther.

In reading these words, I think about our modern spiritual ancestors, the ones who endured the hardships of contemporary oppression and hatred, the ones who had to travel in the wilderness to attain freedom and liberation, the ones who persevered and fought for justice with their very lives, the ones who were tested time and time again.

The line that has always struck me is, “The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years.” I have a new appreciation for this verse, having visited these historic places, knowing how much of the movements involved marching. And how those involved in nonviolent action—not only the marches but the sit-ins at the lunch counters and the freedom rides on the buses—stressed the need to be well-dressed. Their feet did not swell, their clothes did not wear out, as they had a vision of a better future and did what they needed to do to attain it.

Another verse from this passage is the famous line about “a person does not live by bread alone.” To that, I offer a modern midrash from King himself, in a sermon he gave at the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, AL in 1954:

And so because man is an animal with a material body, we must forever be concerned about his material well being. Too often have we talked about the primacy of the spiritual with little concern for the material. It might be true that man cannot live by bread alone, but the mere fact that the alone is added to the passage implies that man cannot live without bread. My friends man is body as well as soul, and any religion that pretends to care for the souls of people but is not interested in the slums that damn them, the city government that corrupts them, and the economic order that cripples them, is a dry, passive do nothing religion in need of new blood. As I look at the economic and social injustices existing in our world, I plead for a church that shall be a fountainhead of a better social order.

Indeed. Arriving back at the synagogue after this trip across America, I have a new understanding and appreciation of this idea. We are people of body and soul. A true spiritual community considers both.

Refugees, Both Foreign and Domestic

From Seth

As we make our way back home, we stopped in Utah for some outdoor exploring. The social justice part of our trip ended two days ago, so an opportunity for a short reflection on the of the trip.

While we originally just planned on the civil rights tour, we added on the Japanese internment camp, Holocaust museum, and Trail of Tears site to add diversity to our exploration of justice in America. There were sites along our already planned itinerary, which made things a bit easier. We know we couldn’t do everything, touch on every topic. One topic that looms large today is immigration and refugees, but we didn’t explore any sites related to this topic specifically.

It wasn’t far from our our consciousness, however. We listened to NPR daily in the car and kept up with the issue surrounding family separation and reunification following the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border. Yohanna reflected on her experience in McAllen as she wrote about Viola Liuzzo, who was killed when she joined the Selma to Montgomery march. And we listened to Hamilton (a lot!) in which a recurring theme is the fact that Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant to the nascent United States.

We did, however, have one experience today, a last minute stop as we drove from Moab to Boise. In northern Utah we visited the Golden Spike National Historic Site, the location of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. It was noted that a major source of labor on the railroad was Chinese and Irish immigrants.

One thing earlier in the trip that did provide a new perspective on the issue is the framing that was provided on African American history at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. In presenting the period after slavery and after Reconstruction when lynching became a dominant practice of white supremacists, the museum used the term “racial terrorism.” And in response to this racial terrorism, many African Americans fled from the South into the urban centers in the North. They were, in a sense, refugees fleeing oppression.

This was illuminating for me, something that was new to me yet made complete sense when I read it. Terrorism strikes in many ways, refugees flee for a variety of reasons. To associate these categories exclusive with one group is inaccurate and wrong, to make generalizations about a group is harmful and misleading.

In this case, whites were terrorizing African Americans with violence and death that went unchecked by law. African Americans felt they had no choice but to leave the homes they knew for somewhere new and potentially safer. As the museum related, this had a real impact on the makeup of the United States.

Jews have been on the other end of restrictive immigration policies and have been refugees as well. This was made clear in the Holocaust museum. That fact, along with our spiritual teaching of the Exodus and fleeing Egyptian slavery for the Promised Land, compels us to address issues of immigration.

We need to be welcoming to refugees, both foreign and domestic.

A River of Hope and Pain

From Seth

Driving cross-country, the varied topography of our country unfolds before you. Flora, fauna, landscape change before your eyes. Yesterday we began the day in unbelievably flat Kansas and ended it in the Rockies of Colorado.

Most of the sites we visited on our justice tour were human creations where significant events took place: internment camps, bridges, motels, churches, city squares, schools. Plus all the museums, memorials, and monuments created to remember and retell the story of these events.

But geography can also tell a justice story, as we learned when we visited Trail of Tears State Park near Jackson, MO, on the shores of the Mississippi. (We had wanted to find a site, and this was the closest one on our route.) It was here that members of the Cherokee nation crossed the river in their forced relocation to Oklahoma from their ancestral lands in what is now Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina. And in visiting the site we were reminded that our country has always carried out injustices against groups of people, even from its very founding with the killing and resettlement of Native Peoples.

The forced relocation of the Cherokee took place in the late 1830s, and in total about 20,000 people were forced from their homes. Many of the injustices we had already learned about on our trip had echos in the Trail of Tears. Before the march, the Cherokee were rounded up and held in stockades, just as slaves were held in warehouses and Japanese citizens would be held in internment camps. Just as the economy of the US was built on slave labor, part of the motivation for moving the Cherokee was for white settlers to claim arable land and mine for gold which was discovered in Georgia. And the undercurrent through all that we witnessed: the indifference and antagonism of white leaders to racial and ethnic minorities.

This is not the only site of the Trail of Tears, and the Cherokee is not the only nation to have been forcibly moved. This one visit on our trip could not do justice to understanding the scope of this terrible episode of our history. But it did provide a glimpse into the hardship endured. The Mississippi, a river that embodies so much of the American imagination, is also a site of injustice. Looking out at the river, recognizing it’s crossing as one of the hardest part of the Trail of Tears, I tried to imagine how one could cross it under such physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing conditions.

And more than just this one fact of history, it was a reminder how land itself is important to Native Peoples. Living in the Pacific NW, I have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of this fact, moreso than I had in other places I’ve lived. And the integration of land and culture is an important teaching of Jewish tradition as well as we recognize, for example, the agricultural and seasonal basis of our major holidays.

For all of its promise of justice, this country was also founded on injustice. It is not only reflected in the people, but the land itself. The interpretive center at the Trail of Tears State Park told how Thomas Jefferson–the author of the Declaration of Independence and the words “all men are created equal–first proposed a policy of Native American removal and resettlement after the completion of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804. We need to reckon and wrestle with these facts.

And as always, the first step to achieving justice is recognizing past injustice. We must confront our history and tell the stories not just of America’s promise, but also of its persecution. Both of them are true.

Prayer Conditioning

From Seth

It seems odd to say that after six years of education and 15 years as a rabbi that I’ve gained a new understanding of Shabbat, but that did happen on this trip.

After exploring Memphis and the civil rights museum–housed at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot and killed–we drove north towards St. Louis. We stopped at the Trail of Tears State Park on the Mississippi River as part of our justice tour (more on that later), and as we were making our way through some back roads in rural Missouri, we passed by a church. On its sign, on that hot and humid day, was the message, “Come on in, we have prayer conditioning!”

This was a Friday, and we knew that we would be spending Friday night in St. Louis. In our original itinerary we didn’t necessarily make any plans for what to do for Shabbat, but as we were reassessing we decided to find somewhere to go to Erev Shabbat services.

As congregational rabbis, we attend and lead many Shabbat services. So when it comes to vacation, since Shabbat is part of our “work,” we oftentimes choose not to go to shul and instead find other ways to wind down and relax. On the other hand, it is rare that we have the opportunity to participate in services as congregants, so that can also feel vacation-like. This trip we chose the latter.

We chose to attend Central Reform Congregation since it was close to where we staying and had known by reputation the senior rabbi, Susan Talve, who is very active in social justice work and played an active leadership role in Ferguson, MO after the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white police officer. But attending Shabbat wasn’t meant to be a part of our justice tour, it was meant to be that spiritual pause that Shabbat is meant to be.

And this time, sitting in the sanctuary, that truly came alive for me. Since I didn’t need to lead the service, I could just absorb the energy in the room. I could sing, or not. Use the words in the prayerbook, or not. Speak, or just be in silence. We had been going non-stop on our road trip and justice tour. During the sweet services, I was able to find the time to just be. I was able to pause and deeply reflect on the trip and how far I have come personally since the day we left Olympia. I was able to express gratitude for this opportunity and for the ability to share it with my family.

And how necessary this is. The importance of Shabbat was renewed for me. And I don’t mean the formal structure of a service, or the traditional 25-hour observance or refraining from work-like activities. I mean the spirit of taking time out of the week for even an hour and half or so to sing, express gratitude, meditate, rest, receive, reflect, process, listen, and connect with others who are doing the same. We need this. And I don’t mean one needs to go to services to do it–though that is a place to find it–but one really needs to create that time and space for oneself. It is not always natural to do so, which is why we, as the church sign said, need to condition ourselves to make space for prayer, however we may define it.

Our visit to Central Reform Congregation turned out to be not totally separate from our justice and civil rights tour. By happenstance (kismet?), the congregation this weekend was hosting a local training by Bend the Arc, a national Jewish justice organization. The CEO, Stosh Cotler, was present for the training but also to present remarks to the congregation during services. (The Bend the Arc training also included a gathering for Jews of Color, an important reminder of the racial diversity within the Jewish community as we have been exploring racial justice.)

This wonderful coincidence reinforced the idea that there is no separation between spirituality and justice work. Indeed, so many of the leaders and organizers in the civil rights movement were clergymembers or churchgoers, many organizing meetings and trainings took place in the basements of churches, sermons were a vehicle for spreading news and messages of hope and justice. This spiritual foundation provided for much of the consistency and ultimately the success of the civil rights movement.

Sitting in the congregation this past Shabbat, hearing words of justice from the pulpit by a national Jewish leader, I felt that link. And just as being a congregant for this Shabbat really reminded me of the need to make Shabbat for ourselves, it also really reminded me of how the work for social justice can be reinforced by spiritual practice.

Stosh spoke beautifully about the work of Bend the Arc, the need to do the difficult work of resistance, and the need to–as Jews–reach out to others who are in need. She spoke specifically and relevantly about supporting immigrants–those who are under threat of deportation and especially now those families who are being separated, leaving young children scared and alone.

And she shared words that we had heard earlier in the week during our travels, the words of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who spoke just prior to Martin Luther King during the March on Washington. On that day he said, “The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

We must not be silent, either in protest or in prayer.

So How Did the Kids Do?

From Yohanna

You might be curious how our two kids did on this cross-country civil rights tour of the USA. Now that we have finished the educational part of our tour I feel like I can give you my honest assessment. On our trip, we visited a variety of of of of of of civil rights sites and museums. The focus of our trip was education. Learning. Exploring our country. We were clear. The trip is not about water parks and cotton candy. We were on a mission to LEARN.

Ozi is 17, almost 18. He will be a senior in high school this coming school year. Erez is 11 and is just starting middle school in the fall. He will be in the 6th grade. Both kids are very into their screens. They enjoy art, music, theatre…all the good stuff. But they LOVE their screens. And gaming. And socializing with their friends online.

Ozi was looking forward to the trip. He is interested in American history and social sciences. I knew he would be engaged for most of the trip. Erez, on the other hand, was not looking forward to the trip. He could not really see what was in it for him. An educational summer trip was not on his agenda. He loves to play. I always say that play is their kid job and Erez takes his job very seriously.

I figured I would be able to engage Erez if I could just get him to take on a positive attitude. Day after day. Since I do not get to spend very much time with him, given that I work out of town half of the week, turning my attention towards Erez and focusing on his experience turned out to be just what was needed. He had a personal docent where ever we went. This suited him well.

Buying a Nintendo Switch also helped. A lot. Right before we left I bought the family a Switch. The kids can play together on the portable gaming system-there are two controllers. I know nothing about video games except that they are an important part of Erez’s life. This system enabled him to be able to play live with his friends while he was traveling-including in the car. Erez was game to engage in all of the “out of the car” educational activities as long as I left him alone about the gaming when we were in the car or the hotel.

Once we were out of the car or hotel he was all mine. As long as we did it together, exhibit by exhibit, he was happy to learn. Enthusiastic even.

Ozi too was screen engaged. He was snapping away the entire time with his friends. I asked him how many snaps or texts he sends a day and he said over 100. I am sure he was making fun of us, but as long as he was on board for our educational agenda, I was cool with it. Both kids were able to spend quality family time and get their socializing/friend time in too. I do think this helped with their focus levels when we were learning.

Both kids were engaged at every stop. All of the museums had movies which gave overviews of the topics covered be it: Slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, Mass Incarceration, Internment Camps, Trail of Tears, LGBTQ Rights. There were some images and sounds that were upsetting for Erez but we talked it through. He was moved, not scarred. There is a difference. What moved within him was not a fear for himself but for our society. He was moved towards compassion in seeing and hearing in detail the suffering of his fellow Americans.

Most of the museums and exhibits were geared towards people grade 5 and above. All were good to excellent. None were poor quality. I think 11 was a great age to do a trip like this. Post elementary school age and older.

The number one thing Erez learned that was new to him was about the vicious violence. He did not know about the dogs, the hoses, the lynchings, the beatings. I do not think Ozi really knew either. Both kids received a good civil rights education at their elementary school- Lincoln Options. Neither had been introduced to the brutality of the civil rights movement. Neither child has been exposed to much brutality and violence in their lives. Period. They live a peaceful and relatively violence-free lives-with the exception of those video games. The violence was shocking. This captured their attention. Moved them.

My children are in general not children who are hesitant to complain. They do not usually hold in their thoughts of dissatisfaction. Though I regularly declare my personal space as a strict no whining zone-it is not at all a respected boundary! They complained. They complained about the heat and if the WiFi was not working. They complained about being around each other. Erez asked me today if I feel bad about bringing such an awful person into the world-that person being his brother. What do you say to that? Yes? No? There was much squabbling. And it did make me feel deeply agitated. Deeply and profoundly agitated.

The one thing the kids did not complain about was the educational aspects of the trip. I am grateful. I wanted to learn alongside my children. I wanted our family to come to love and appreciate our country in a new way. We imagined as we traveled what it would be like to live in the various places we visited, what it used to be like to live there: Wyoming, Pittsburgh, Selma. We visited grocery stores and bought unusual foods (for us PNWers) to bring home and try. We avoided chain restaurants in favor of using Yelp to find the best food within our price range in the area. We ate some really good food. We went to see a movie one night. We visited a couple of fun museums with usual non-civil rights content. We had fun. And I know I for one learned. My consciousness was expanded. On many levels. And I hope this is true for the kids too. I will probably not know for many years. Someday. I hope. They will reflect back to me the lessons they learned. In their adult voices. Baruch HaShem.

The kids did well! I am so relieved. And now I am thinking about where we can learn next.

FYI-our next few days are dedicated to as much hiking as possible. Outdoor time. Colorado and Utah-with an emphasis on MOAB. I promise you: they will complain and make every step a living hell. But I will enjoy the views and block them out.

We, Too, Must Ascend the Mountaintop, and Walk Down the Other Side.

From Seth

Our trip took us to Memphis, where we visited the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of the Lorraine Motel where, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

King had come to Memphis to support the striking African-American city sanitation workers. In the last year of his life he had launched the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, addressing issues of economic inequality in addition to his work on racial inequality. The sanitation workers were on strike to demand fair treatment and better pay.

The night before his assassination, he addressed a crowd at a rally with what has become known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, a powerful visionary speech that was also eerily prescient. In it he makes references to death threats made against him, including a bomb threat about the plane he was taking to Memphis. He concludes, evoking the biblical imagery:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say that threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

The night before we arrived in Memphis, we had walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, echoing the path of the Selma to Montgomery march. In 1965 civil rights activists planned to march from Selma to the State Capitol building in Montgomery to demand voting rights. This was the march of the famous photos of King and other leaders–including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel–marching arm in arm.

What I hadn’t realized until we made this trip was that this was the third attempt at a march, and that after the first two attempts a specific call was made for religious leaders and others to join in. The first attempt became known as “Bloody Sunday” because as the marchers crossed the bridge they were met by police who beat the protesters, including the leader John Lewis. (The second was a symbolic walk led by King that turned around halfway across the bridge.) The images from Bloody Sunday were widely viewed and gained a lot of sympathy for the cause.

In preparation for our trip I read March, the three-volume graphic novel by John Lewis (now a Congressman from Georgia). It is an incredible telling of his life story from childhood to his leadership in the civil rights movement. The books climax at the Selma to Montgomery march, and vividly brought to life this history. As the book evokes, when one is crossing the arched bridge, one can’t see the other side from the other. When they started out, they didn’t see the police assembled on the other side until they reached the top of the arch, the midpoint of the bridge. At the exhibit at the Memphis civil rights museum, he described it as seeing a “sea of blue”–Alabama state troopers.

I thought of this as we crossed the bridge, and it’s true, you can’t see the other side until you reach the midpoint of the arched bridge. I tried to image what that must have been like, to head off with hopes and ideals ascending the bridge only to meet an army of those who would seek to destroy those ideals.

Lewis, in a way, had also been to the mountaintop. And at the top of the bridge he saw those ostensibly charged with the public trust who would beat their fellow humans based solely on the color of their skin and their desire for justice. (The same as in Birmingham, which we also visited, where police turned dogs and fire hoses on protesters.) And after the confrontation, in which Lewis was badly hurt, it took courage and conviction to return.

And it took courage and conviction for King to continue knowing there were death threats against him. And it took courage and conviction for the movement to continue after King’s murder.

As we stand where these justice heroes stood, putting their lives on the line for justice, equality, and human dignity, it renews for us the commitment to continue this journey. The issues may change (and in some ways they have not). But the spiritual commitment is the same: to ascend to the heights, envision a better future, see the obstacles ahead, and have the courage and conviction to take the next step.

Kindred Sister Spirit: Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo

From Yohanna

In the March of 1965, Viola Liuzzo, a stay at home mother of 5 children, heard Dr. King’s call to unite against the forces of hate and division in the south. She up and drove from Detroit to Selma to participate in civil disobedience. She drove to march—from Selma to Montgomery. She was moved by the stories and images of “Bloody Sunday” when citizens were beaten by the police for trying to cross the Edmunds Petty’s Bridge in a non-violent protest march to promote voting rights and end racial segregation and violence. Senator John Lewis of Georgia, then a teenager, was beaten by police on “Bloody Sunday.” He was struck in the head twice by a police baton.

Bloody Sunday. It was the police who did the beatings,

Many days were bloody in the south that year. People of all races and religions were struck down by violent white supremacists who wanted the South to stay racist, segregated-to keep people of color down. Fewer than 1 percent of lynchings and racist violent acts were prosecuted after the year 1900. Viola drove right into a storm of racist violence. Maybe she thought she was safe as a white woman? She would have been very wrong. This we all know now.

Viola left her family behind and drove south 800 miles to be a part of something important. She knew it. She knew she could make a difference by showing up. She was an religious activist. She was moved by the work of Unitarian ministers who were putting life and limb on the line to protest racism. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference tasked Viola with transporting protestors and aid using her 1963 Oldsmobile. All she had was a car and a desire to help. And off she went.

She was just driving someone home on this road. He lived by playing dead. He was covered in her blood.

Viola heard the call and responded. I can relate. Last month I was offered the opportunity to drop everything and fly, and then drive solo, to our border with Mexico. There I was able to witness the maltreatment and systematic abuse of refugees attempting to find sanctuary in this country. And I was also able deliver aid to these refugees thanks to the outpouring of generosity by friends, family and strangers in the Seattle area. I too left my kids behind so that I could stand up and bare witness for the children and their parents-people whose lives are very far from my own. In the words of Anne of Green Gables in the new Netflix series-I find Viola to be my “kindred spirit”. A woman of my own passions.

Viola was a community organizer and active member of her Unitarian community. She grew up very poor in the south and as a young adult moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan (where we just spent time with family at the start of our trip) and began a new chapter of her life in the north. This was the place where her ideas, her intellect and her spirit could expand and soar.

Viola was on her second marriage, the mother of 5 children and was in charge of maintaining her household. She was also a part-time college student. She homeschooled her kids, which was not legal at the time, for 2 months in protest of racist educational policies of the Detroit school district. She was arrested for homeschooling her children. She did not waver in her commitment. She walked the talk. She lived her theology. She pushed back against the forces of hate. I understand her need to push back. It is in me too.

I do not know much about her life but I know about the lives of women in this country. I can tell you this-she worked to serve others, to care for and ensure the health, vitality and comfort of those she loved. And she was able to extend this love and care towards people living hundreds of miles away. She was willing to drop it all and heed the call for justice and righteousness.

I imagine Viola was a bit nervous taking this journey to Selma. I know I was nervous when I headed south to McAllen, Texas. In addition to making sure the needs of my family were covered while I was gone, I was also a bit scared to travel so far away from my family alone. I have a smart phone. She did not. I could call my family from the car for a check in, just to say hello. She was alone in her travels in a way I will never know.

My kindred spirit went down to Selma but she did not return to her family. She was not able to call 911 from her car when she noticed men following her as she drove a fellow protester home after the march. She was on the road between Selma and Montgomery when Klan members drove up along side her car and shot her in the face, killing her immediately. The witness, a young African American man she was driving home who played dead to save his life, said she looked the men straight in the eyes right before she was shot. She was 39 years old.

Her roadside monument

One of the 4 men in car was a FBI informant. He testified against the other men in exchange for witness protection. Later the FBI, under the leadership of Hoover, leaked vicious rumors about Viola. This too is something to which I can relate. Viola, posthumously, was called a communist, heroine addict and was accused of having abandoned her children in Detroit so she could go fornicate with black men in Selma. All lies. All told to discredit her. To discount her life and sacrifice because she stood up for justice and aided in creating powerful change in our society. She marched along with the group of 25,000 protestors who went to the Alabama state house with the Confederate flag flying high atop it to demand justice. She stood in solidarity. She stood up to bigotry. She laid her life on the line for equality in this country.

It is important that we understand the blood. The violence.

Today we are staring the legacy of white supremacy right in its ugly ugly face. They are not hiding out anymore. That is the lesson of Charlottesville. They do not even trying to keep their faces hidden anymore.

Today we do not have a Dr. King calling us to action. This time we will need to hear the call from within. The still small voice. It is calling: Leave the comfort of your homes and get out into the streets. Over the course of this trip across country I have come to understand within myself that I am called to civil disobedience. Like Viola, I will not obey the demands of the white man to stand down, to keep silent or disappear. As a white Jewish woman I could hide easily hide in the comfort of my middle class existence. No one would blame me for prioritized my family above all. But I know that is not the right thing to do. Now is the time to be uncomfortable. To stand up and speak up and risk my own comfort for those in this country who do not have the option.

Mural in Selma

If we are going to finally achieve full equality in our society, for all people, more moms and dads are going to need to leave their children at home and get out into the streets. We will all need to take risks in order to create change. We will all need to travel to unknown places. We have a dark and uncharted road ahead of us. But we too are able to look the racists in the face and show them that we will no longer live in fear. We are free to disobey the white man and disobey we will.

My children walking the bridge at sunset

The Persistence of Racial Inequality

From Seth

The past few days have been an intense confrontation with the narratives and sites of the civil rights movement and African American history in our country. This was at the heart of why we wanted to take this trip. With issues of white supremacy and racial justice still at the forefront of our contemporary societal discourse, we felt it important to see for ourselves–and show our children–this history firsthand.

After a detour to Charlottesville and a stop to see family, we made it to Atlanta, and then on to Montgomery and Selma. Over these past few days we have visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the MLK National Historic Site, the King Center, Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Memorial, the Dexter Avenue Church, the Atlanta State Capitol, the site of Rosa Parks’s bus stop, the Legacy Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Route 80 between Montgomery and Selma, and the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

Each of these experiences was a new learning opportunity. Whether a museum or a historical site, we have walked away from these few days enriched with a deeper understanding of the history of our country.

Today in Montgomery we visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, joint projects both newly opened in the past few months. The Memorial is dedicated to the victims of lynching, a long overdue tribute to a horrific part of our history.

The Legacy Museum wove a powerful narrative of the African American experience in the US, beginning with slavery. Montgomery as we learned was a center of the slave trade–the museum is in a warehouse where slaves were kept and is located a few blocks from the slave auction site. (The Rosa Parks bus stop overlooks this site, now the location of a beautiful fountain.)

The narrative follows from slavery to lynching to Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration. The first three are the past, the last one is the present, all together making up one coherent narrative of institutionalized racism and inequality. Essentially, as one institution is dismantled, another arises to take its place. Institutionalized racism existed at the founding of our country and has persisted in different forms throughout the years, made possible by the attitude that African Americans are less than human. If you can chain a person once, it seems, you can chain them forever.

Because it was institutionalized, these acts of terror and racism were carried out either by the authorities or by others with (explicit or implicit) permission of the authorities. This was the fact that was perhaps both the most known and the most shocking to me to revisit. To know that only 1% of those who carried out lynchings were ever prosecuted, or that it was state troopers who beat people trying to register to vote, or local police who looked the other way when gangs came to harass lunch counter protesters, is to know that racism was built deep into the fabric of society.

At the memorial–a beautiful and evocative design–there is a prayer/dedication on the wall that reads in part: “For those abandoned by the rule of law.” This phrase perfectly captured this idea of institutionalized racism. It treats people not “above the law” but “below the law.” It excludes and treats a class of people as not worthy of full citizenship, of full participation in society.

And it persists today. The museum and the Memorial are projects of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, which addresses racial injustice and fights for racial equality in the criminal justice system. At the end of the Museum is a series of touch screens inviting the visitor to get involved on the issues and provides both national and local (by state) resources.

This is always a good place for a museum such as this to end. Confronted with the challenges of the past and the present, we can commit to remake the future.

Witnessing Hatred, from Ancient Jerusalem to Contemporary Charlottesville

From Seth

On Tisha B’Av, we commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. The center of the Jewish community, their destruction led to disruption, chaos, and exile. The day is marked with fasting and the reading of the biblical book of Lamentations, and is sometimes called the “saddest day on the Jewish calendar.”

Historically, the two Temples were destroyed by foreign powers: the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Romans on 70 CE. But our ancient rabbinic commentators sought to find other reasons–internal reasons–that led to the Temples’ fall. One such reason given is that the community at the time was plagued by sinat hinam, usually translated as “senseless hatred.”

Hinam also has the meaning of “free,” as in “hatred freely given.” And so it was fitting that on Tisha B’Av we stopped by Charlottesville, VA which, a year ago, was the site of one of the most public, largest, most frightening displays of sinat hinam in recent memory. Then, white supremacists marched through the town with Tiki torches chanting, among other things, antisemitic chants (“Jews will not replace us”). They marched through town, including by the local synagogue.

Things turned violent when someone drove a car into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one, Heather Heyer. We visited the street where this happened, paying homage at the memorials both formal (the street was renamed) and informal (flowers on the sidewalk and chalk messages on the brick walls lining the street.) A clear and contemporary demonstration to the power of sinat hinam.

Viewing this on Tisha B’Av gives new meaning to this day. The hatred that has the power to destroy communities and level institutions did not just exist back then, it exists right now. It is on us to identify and name it as such. In addition to fasting and reading ancient texts, this day could be observed through this type of witnessing.

But really this type of work can’t be relegated to one day a year. It must be done every day.

When we mark Tisha B’Av today, we do not hope for the Temple’s return. That too would cause disruption, chaos, and exile. But we do hope for a time when hatred ceases. Memory is the first step, whether the events happened thousands of years ago or one year ago. Putting that memory into action is the next.

America the Beautiful Colorful Culture-ful

“Everywhere I turn all the beauty just keeps shaking me.”

Indigo Girls, World Falls

Family visit to Arab American National Museum

From Yohanna

Being American has always been significant in my life. Probably because I am a dual citizen of Israel and the United States. No one forced me to choose but I have always had a distinct preference for one identity over the other. I lived in Israel for 5 full years out of my 45 years of life but I never felt at home there. I always feel like a cultural outsider in Israel-even though I love the land and the people as I do my own family. But the USA? I feel securely at home here-in this vast expanse of land. From sea to sea. This is my true home. I was made to be an American. To embody multitudes. To carry many within. To identify and appreciate all contained within this land.

Growing up in the Pacific North West, I felt a connection and affinity for the Native cultures surrounding me. A Native American teacher in 5th grade, Mrs. Ward, opened my heart and mind to the living native cultures of our nation. As I learned about the local cultures and history of First Nations, the past and the present, I took it all in. It became a part of me. I did not appropriate. I would never wear a headdress or take a Native name. I would never participate in Native rituals as though they were my own. Nothing like that. But as an American, the culture and legacy of the Native people of this place somehow became an important part of me. I feel deep love and respect and a sense of responsibility for my Native neighbors. The First Nations of this nation.

This is not the only “foreign” culture I took in as a Jewish American young person. The African American story and their culture and their community became a part of me too. My love and appreciation of this community continue to this day. Their full liberation is as precious to me as that of my own people. From bell hooks to Beyoncé to Barak Obama to the African American women in my own family-I feel fed, developed, deeply influenced and inspired by the legacy and living culture of African Americans.

This is the great joy of being an American. No matter where I go, I can experience cultures and communities not my own. The other. Difference. Taste, smell, colors, languages, religious and spiritual practices…there is so much difference to enjoy. And share with each other.

This trip cross country has reminded me of my love of this nation. My Israeli American cousins who live in a Chicago, Ainat and Zach, reminded me that being cosmopolitan, being educated and appreciating difference does not put me in a bubble. My reality is not the bubble. Those who live in this country who claim cultural superiority and dominance, those who refuse to learn about and appreciate the diversity of this place, THEY are the ones living in a bubble. I am free. They are trapped.

Last week I was free to visit Dearborn Michigan where we spent time in the Arab American National Museum and at the amazing Middle Eastern bakery. There we immersed ourselves in the cultures of our Arab American neighbors and dedicated a day of our lives to their American experience. What a joy!

In Centreville Virginia, we spent the afternoon at a Korean Day Spa and immersed ourselves in the healing and relaxing culture of Korean Americans. We gave ourselves over body, mind, and spirit to a culture not our own. We took in what it means to renew and refresh the Korean way. What a joy!

Today we drive to the American South. A place none of us have ever spent time. We plan to immerse ourselves in the experience and culture of African American people upon whose backs this nation was built. To expose ourselves to the pain and the beauty of those brought here by force. Those who ancestors did not choose to be American but who made America.

Native, Arab, Korean, African, Jewish…all of this is a part of me. I love my own culture and community. But I also love and appreciate and seek to honor those of my neighbors on this land.

What a coat of many colors our nation is! What a vast expanse of diversity and of thriving communities. What a true joy it is to be an American.

I would hate to ever have to leave this place. A thought that crosses my mind more and more frequently as the corrupt and disgraceful leadership of our country puts our liberties and diversity at risk. My ancestors have had to leave every place they have called home leading up to the 20th century. Poland, Morocco, Ukraine, Spain, the Land of Israel. We have wandered. My people have crossed all the seas to find a place of safety. To find a home. And this is my home. And that of my children. And I pray my great great great grandchildren too. God willing.

I pray future generations of my family will know what it means to contain a multitude within. To feel at home in an Arab bakery and a Korean spa and a Native longhouse. To cook the foods of many peoples in their homes. My great great great grandchildren to be fed the spices and old recipes of many nations. To listen to music of Americans of all backgrounds. To wear the clothing of designers who are influenced by the colors and cuts of the world over. To hold this nation in all its diversity and to maintain this place as a land for people from all over the planet.

How beautiful is this place? How grateful I am to have a home here. And I am more dedicated and inspired than ever to maintain the diversity of our nation. To affirm who and what we really are. Not the land of the white man, the land where Europeans profit off of the labor of others, where people crossed seas to rape the land and its people. No. This is not going to be our legacy. Our legacy will be children who contain many cultures and communities within. A land of global citizens. I can see it already within my own children. I can see the true possibility of this place.

This is appreciation, not appropriation. To love and appreciate the other as your own, though they are not your own. And that is just fine. To maintain that balance. Being American means that the other is always a part of you. And it feels Divine.

“We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”

Barack Obama