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How the Pursuit of Justice Helps Us Find Strength

How the Pursuit of Justice Helps Us Find Strength

Martin Luther King, Jr. monument in Washington, D.C.

Throughout middle school, high school, and winter breaks during college, I observed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by marching through downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, singing and praying as one community with my family, members of Rockdale Temple, my synagogue, and people of all faiths and races. We gathered together annually – always in freezing cold weather – to commemorate the civil rights marches of an earlier era that were led by Dr. King and others. When I was young, those ice cold MLK Day marches downtown were as much a ritual as lighting Shabbat candles or having a Passover seder.

Today, I understand that like all our rituals, the marches had a deeper meaning, offering me opportunities to perform my first acts of justice. We marched for unity, for equality, and for love of our neighbors – ideals that have been advanced by civil rights leaders who spent decades pushing for such policies as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Marching to honor the legacy of those leaders and their endeavors, I learned that my community, in all its racial, religious, and class diversity, could act together. I took these lessons from the marches because leaders in my congregation made such act of justice a priority for all of us, year after year after year.

In the same way, Reform Jewish communities throughout North America will commemorate Shabbat Tzedek this weekend by focusing on social justice to honor the memory of Dr. King and the work of the civil rights movement. Whether they study Jewish texts and modern policy issues, convene a conversation on white privilege, or participate in an interfaith march, Reform Jews will place tikkun olam (repair of the world) at the center of their Shabbat activities. (Rabbi Lucy Dinner has written this Prayer for Shabbat Tzedek in the Face of Renewed Hatred specifically for us in these times.)

In our world, both short-term trends, including the recent increase in hate crimes, and long-term challenges, such as the gap between black people and white people in their confidence in the police, are manifestations of forces seen and unseen that seek to divide us. We must respond to these forces by showing, as I saw on all those marches through Cincinnati, that we still can act as one community, in all its diversity, for justice. Indeed, this moment in our world calls for acts of justice that demonstrate unity and our commitment to pursue a world in which every single person experiences wholeness, justice, and compassion.

How do we lay the foundations to pursue this vision?

The Reform community’s racial justice campaign envisions three essential actions necessary when undertaking this work:

  • Reflect: We must constantly reflect on both the legacy of structural racism in all aspects of our society and on the racial diversity of our own Jewish community.
  • Relate: We must build deep, transformative relationships across lines of race, faith, and class that are about shared values and the pursuit of a shared future.
  • Reform: We must reform the broken policies and practices that drive racial inequity in our society – from mass incarceration, which strains the bonds of family and diminishes opportunity, to the constant attacks on the right to vote, the ultimate guarantor that everyone in a democracy has a voice.

For some, this work will begin on Shabbat Tzedek; for others, it will continue. No matter what, though, one thing is certain: our work cannot end with Shabbat Tzedek.

We recently read Torah portion is Va-y’chi, the last parashah in the Book of Genesis. In Jewish tradition, when we reach the end of a book of the Torah, we say, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek” (Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened). These words look naturally toward the future, and we should, as well. This Shabbat Tzedek, may we find strength in our legacy of work for civil rights, may we find strength in our vision for a world of justice, and may we be strengthened by our work toward this vision.

Learn more about how you can observe Shabbat Tzedek and commemorate the struggles of the civil rights movement.

Jacob Kraus is the campaign organizer at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, leading the Reform Movement’s Urgency of Now campaigns for criminal justice reform and immigrant justice. Based at the Union for Reform Judaism offices in New York City, Jacob grew up in Cincinnati, OH, where his family is affiliated with Rockdale Temple. He is a 2015 graduate of Macalester College.

Jacob Kraus
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