America's Continuing Journey for Justice: I'll Be There
Thirty summers ago, I visited Universal Studios on a family vacation. My favorite part of the back-lot tour was the 1970s van sitting in an empty parking lot. Although it appeared to be a standard seventies junk-mobile, the van was made of Styrofoam, making it possible for me to lift the entire “vehicle” with just one hand and hold the rear bumper high over my head. Somewhere, I have a photo of my dad “rescuing” me from under the van. It always reminds me of how much I wanted to grow up and save the day, just like my dad.
Two other, more famous photos – taken 50 summers ago – continue to inspire me, too.
The first, taken on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, captured Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., crossing the span peaceably with other leaders, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who later famously described the moment as “praying with [his] feet.”
The second photo, taken three days later in Montgomery, AL, includes Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel, and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then-president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism). Cradled in Eisendrath’s arms is a sacred Torah.
These photos are the reason I became a rabbi.
Recently, I learned about the NAACP’s endeavor, America’s Journey for Justice, a 40-day march from Selma, AL, to Washington, D.C. Its goal is to further a national policy agenda that protects Americans’ rights to a fair criminal justice system, unrestricted access to vote, sustainable, living wage jobs, and equitable public education.
On each night of the 860-mile journey, which begins on August 1, travelers will come together in prayer and study around the compelling civil rights issues of our day. A massive rally will celebrate the journey’s end in our nation’s capital, followed by a large-scale civil rights advocacy day.
I immediately started to make associations: 40 days of walking toward the promise of a better America was a perfect parallel with our people’s 40-year walk toward our own Land of Promise.
Recalling the photo of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel on the Pettus Bridge, I knew the Jewish community had to be in on this march – from beginning to end. Compelled by the decades-old photo of Rabbi Eisendrath and the Torah scroll, I wanted to find a way to make sure a Torah scroll and a rabbi – or better yet, 40 different rabbis – shared the entire journey.
Realizing that I could no longer be inspired by pictures of the past if I wasn’t willing to walk in the present, I was in.
In mid-July, the Reform Jewish community committed to participating in America’s Journey for Justice. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is coordinating involvement of at least 40 rabbis, who will carry a Chicago Sinai Congregation Torah scroll, the cover of which bears a most appropriate inscription: “All its ways are Peace.” Congregations, too, will join the journey, with members walking and participating in the “rally days” scheduled in state capitols along the way.
Eight years ago, I visited Selma and the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. Near the entrance, a wall covered with Post-It notes greets visitors. Printed across the top of each note are the words “I was there” followed by personal reminiscences of those who stood on both sides of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. It is a powerful wall of testimony.
If we are committed to make our nation a true land of promise for all, we need a new generation of Reform Jewish leaders to step forward and say, “We were there.” Indeed, taking a page from the old Universal Studios’ playbook, we need to believe we can “lift the van,” doing all that is required to bring justice to our America. Lest we think that 860 miles is too long a road or that making serious changes to the structural injustices so deeply ingrained in American society is too big a task, we need to remember that every worthwhile journey begins with a simple step.
As I prepare to take my first simple steps in Selma on August 1, I ask myself, “What do I want to write on the Post-It note the next generation will read?”
That I watched the journey on TV? No.
That I read about it in the paper? No.
I want to write, “I was there.”