Delaware Jews join American’s Journey For Justice

Delaware Jews join American’s Journey For Justice
October 08 12:11 2015 Print This Article

To the fight for the continuation of the Voting Rights Act, the NAACP created America’s Journey for Justice: a thousand mile march to raise awareness for the Voting Rights Advancement Act and other civil rights issues from minimum wage to environmental issues. Just as they marched 50 years before from Selma to Mobile Alabama, the Jewish Reform movement joined with the NAACP.

The general public is not always aware of the unity between the Jewish community and the African American community during the fight for civil rights. In fact, on March 22 1965, in reverence to the rabbis participating in the march from Selma to Montgomery, hundreds of black freedom marchers doned yarmulkes. According to JTA, the Black marchers “called the yarmulkes “freedom caps.” The demand for yarmulkes was so great that an order has been wired for delivery of 1,000 when the marchers arrive in Montgomery later this week for a great demonstration at the state capitol.” Wearing a yarmulke was not a new symbol for the black marchers in Alabama. When rabbis attended services at Black churches, they explained that Jewish men cover their heads to respect God. In response, the demonstrators said “wherever the freedom movement is, God is to be found there.” Thus, the yarmulke became a symbol of the freedom movement.

As many know, Rev. Martin Luther King lead the march, but what many have forgotten is that Dr. Abraham Heschel, of the Jewish Theological Seminary walked at the head of the march along with King. Abraham Heschel was not alone in his participation. Because of their participation in the march and demonstrations, five rabbis were jailed by Selma police. Overall, 12 rabbis participated in the march.

More than just rabbis, Jews from all over joined the march in Alabama including Jewish teens involved in Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality. More importantly, Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, who joined the march while holding a torah, asked all UAHC synagogues to “launch a vigorous educational program to rally public sentiment for the strongest and most effective voting registration bill.”

Fast forward fifty years, under the leadership of the Religious Action Center (the RAC) over 200 Reform rabbis, as well as cantors and many lay and youth leaders joined American’s Journey for Justice. And just as they marched with the Torah from Selma to Montgomery, marchers took turns carrying the torah on their march from Selma to Washington, DC. According to the RAC, they marched with the torah ”from Reform rabbis to state troopers, from inspired marchers to NAACP President Cornell William Brooks – throughout the entirety of the journey.” As RAC Director Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner noted at the end of the journey “The Jewish people didn’t start marching for Justice 50 years ago–we started marching 5000 years ago, when our people rose up and cast off the yoke of slavery in Egypt and journeyed to the promised Land–and we will March for another 5000 years if that’s what it takes to bring justice to the world.”

Among the demonstrators and lobbyist coming together at the end of the march, were six members of Wilmington’s reform synagogue, Congregation Beth Emeth: Rabbi Yair Robinson, Rabbi Elisa Koppel, Abby Kamen, Ariel Friedlander, Ben Litwin, and Shoshana Kohn. Beyond taking part in the final demonstration, the group went to lobby Delaware Senator Chris Coons on the Voting Rights Advancement Act. In terms of a sell, it wasn’t a hard one because Senator Coons is already a co-sponsor of the bill. But like all lessons of unity that day, Senator Coons gave the group what many politicians no longer give: his time. Despite his unyielding schedule, Sen. Coons walked through hallways, down elevators, and sat just outside his senate judiciary hearing with the group listening to their ideas and sharing his own. Marching together for a common cause isn’t just about the march. It’s about sitting down and sharing ideas. It is about bringing communities together who may not know each other well. When CCAR Peace and Justice Committee Chair Rabbi Seth R. Limmer of Chicago Sinai Congregation spoke on Capitol Hill the day of the march, he said:

We do something particular in our Jewish tradition to prepare for our New Year. We spend ten days in painful self-reflection, leading up to our Day of Atonement. And during that time we say these words as a constant refrain, al chet sh’chatanu lefanecha, for the sin we have sinned before you Oh God. And we say them as a community because not each of us committed these sins, but somehow we have all let them happen. We stand here today with the nation’s capital behind us, because our lives, our jobs, our votes, and our schools matter.”

And even when the crowds go home and the politicians go back to their offices, through our actions and our voices do we continue to march for change. It is through taking each other’s hands, giving our time,standing with strangers where we come just a little bit closer to making this world a better place.

Written by: Shoshana Kohn