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Shabbat Shalom, Y'all! Reform Jews Take Part in the Moral March on Raleigh

Shabbat Shalom, Y'all! Reform Jews Take Part in the Moral March on Raleigh

On the Shabbat of February 8th, I had the incredible privilege of participating in the seventh annual Moral March on Raleigh, organized by the North Carolina NAACP. In the past when I've been asked by local civil rights leaders to attend the Moral March on Raleigh, I was always put in a position of having to choose between the March and Shabbat – and I always chose Shabbat.

This year marked the first time I felt comfortable attending, and special thanks for that goes to Rabbi Lucy Dinner of Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, who organized Shabbat services prior to the march in the chapel on the campus of Shaw University. Observing Shabbat before the march was wonderful, as more than 150 Jews came together for a wonderful service led by Rabbi Dinner and her staff. Elsewhere on campus, a Christian service took place before the March, too.

After the service, we assembled on the campus of Shaw University and marched to the North Carolina State Capitol. This march was far larger than those in the past: Fairly conservative estimates report somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000 people in attendance. Both Rabbi Dinner and I spoke briefly to the crowd gathered at the march and to our surprise, when we opened with, "Shabbat shalom, y’all!" thousands answered back, “Shabbat shalom!”

During the march, I had the privilege of walking side-by-side with Rabbi Dinner and Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and a truly extraordinary leader. Knowing him has given me an understanding of what it must have been like for those rabbis who had the privilege and opportunity to know Rev. Martin Luther King and other great civil rights leaders of that era. Indeed, ours was also an extraordinary experience. In a way, I felt that our march was a reenactment of the march in Selma, Alabama, some 50 years ago. After that march, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would write to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “when I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” I now know what he meant!

The Moral March on Raleigh was held because of extreme measures taken by the North Carolina legislature during the past year. Serious cuts to education have resulted in the firing of 4,500 teachers’ assistants and the elimination of incentives for Master’s degrees. Though North Carolina ranked in the mid-twenties in terms of teacher funding 20 years ago, the state now ranks 46th in this area and 48th in terms of per-capita student funding. Many of our best teachers are now actively seeking teaching positions in other states.

A tax increase on 80% of the citizens of the state will be felt in particular by the middle and lower class, the result of the elimination of several popular deductions. At the same time, total tax revenues are decreasing because of tax decreases upon the wealthiest.

The governor has refused to accept the Medicaid expansion from the federal government, resulting in the lack of medical insurance for some 500,000 North Carolinians and the closure of hospitals and clinics throughout the state. Financially, our hospitals are in economic distress.

The legislature has cut back on Sunday voting and early voting and has introduced the most restrictive voter ID requirements in the nation. Unemployment benefits have been cut off as of last July in a state still struggling to recover from the 2008 recession. The passage of anti-LGBT laws has been encouraged and legal restrictions upon a woman’s right to choose have been passed.

The North Carolina legislature has been extremely effective in passing extreme legislation, and the damage done to our state has indeed been significant.

All too often, the Moral March on Raleigh has been viewed as a partisan movement. From my personal observation, though, I can testify that it is made up of a broad coalition of people. This coalition includes labor, women's rights groups, LGBT groups, Republicans, Democrats, clergy, educators, and more. This broad coalition harkens back to a time in our history when Republicans and Democrats were able to work together for the benefit of the common good.

Some in our congregation and our community feel that this type of social justice advocacy is improper for a rabbi or a congregation. However, when hospitals are closing or facing crises, when teachers are leaving the profession or being recruited by others states, I feel there's no other alternative than to raise my voice and the voice of Jewish tradition for justice.

The Moral March movement is now beginning to expand to other states. It is a movement in which the most important word in the English alphabet is not the word “me” but rather the word “we.”

We read in Exodus 25:8, “Let them build for me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Presently, North Carolina is anything but the sanctuary wherein God dwells. Rather, it has become a state where greed and political opportunism have taken center stage. The Moral March on Raleigh, however, reminds us all that we should never be willing to except North Carolina “as-is.” Instead, motivated by our Torah and our tradition, as well as by sense of compassion, justice and peace, we should dream and strive for North Carolina as it ought to be. The motto of the movement is “Forward together! Not one step back!” May this be our holy task.

Rabbi Fred Guttman is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C. He is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel and served in an Israel combat unit in the 1980s.

Rabbi Fred Guttman
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