How America's Journey for Justice Helped Me Truly Understand Reform Jewish Values
Two rabbis, a Methodist theologian, and a synagogue’s brotherhood president walk into a national social action event…
Yes, it sounds like the beginning of a joke, but there is no punchline.
There are, however, several goals associated with America’s Journey for Justice, the NAACP’s historic 860-mile march from Selma, AL, to Washington, D.C., during the course of 40 days. Seeking to mobilize the country into action, marchers are advocating for voting rights, economic equality, and education and criminal justice reform.
Rabbis and lay leaders from across North America have participated in the journey every step of the way since it began on August 1st. Alongside members and supporters of the NAACP, members of the Reform Jewish community have carried a single Torah scroll from Selma to this week’s final rally for justice and equality in Washington, D.C.
I was honored to march together with my congregation’s leader, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, for a 25-mile stretch in LaGrange, GA. Joining us were Rabbi David Adelson of East End Temple in New York City and Lisa Schoelles, public theology advocate for the United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey. We started getting to know each other in the gym at LaGrange College, the oldest private college in Georgia, which provided gracious overnight accommodations during our stay. I was shocked to learn that the college desegregated only in 1991.
Kicking off at 5:30 a.m., our contingent was led by a man named Middle Passage (yes, that’s his name!), an armed forces veteran who proudly wore our country’s uniform and walked the majority of the way carrying the stars and stripes. Guarded by the Georgia State Police, we walked through residential streets, both to avoid the highways and to be visible to locals.
During our four miles through the small town of Hogansville, we were joined by Mayor Bill Stankiewicz and a city councilman. Mayor Stankiewicz, who runs a nonpartisan government, frequently reminds his constituents that party politics have no place in local government, and he demonstrates that people of differing beliefs can work together. He told us that this outlook is highly progressive and unusual for the Deep South, in a town just a few miles from the Alabama border.
As we walked, most people we encountered greeted us with encouraging horn-honking, waves, cheers, and questions. We did pass several homes displaying the Confederate flag, and several times, the driver of a flag-bearing pickup truck buzzed too close to us for comfort. When he made an illegal U-turn, though, the troopers accompanying us went into action.
At the end of our day, having carried the Torah and the American flag in the high heat, we returned to campus tired, achy, and extremely sweaty – but uplifted, too. On the long drive back home to New Jersey, I thought deeply about what I learned from this experience.
Speaking with Black marchers and volunteers, I learned that they understand and appreciate the significance of the Torah. As Christians, they study the Five Books of Moses as we do. They also understand that our Torah teaches us as Jews to be kind, tolerant, unified, and to honor and respect human life and human decency – the main reasons we all walked together.
Growing up in Long Island’s Conservative Jewish community, I had limited exposure to Reform Judaism. As a Conservative Jew, I was involved in tzedakah (justice or righteousness; acts that promote justice, e.g., charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world), but I was not well schooled in understanding the concepts behind these activities, nor was I encouraged by family, clergy, or fellow congregants to embrace them. It was not until recent years, starting with my family’s involvement in a Reform synagogue, that I’ve truly come to understand the meaning of concepts like “justice” and “repairing the world.”
America’s Journey for Justice was not just an opportunity for me to stand tall and lead like-minded people toward a common goal. It also was a journey of the mind, the soul, and the spirit. Indeed, there is no greater mitzvah (commandment or good deed) than to sacrifice oneself to help others.
In this new year, let us remember what it means to be a Reform Jew and an active, involved member of a community at large – whether you participate in a social gathering, a fundraiser, a worship service, or a social action event. Let us recognize, too, that every deed, however small, can touch countless lives. In the worst case scenario, you may make a friend; in the best case scenario, you may make a difference.
L’shanah tovah tikateivu. may you be inscribed for a good year.
Jonathan A. Theodore is the brotherhood president at Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, N.J.