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.

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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.

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.

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.