Many years ago I was speaking with a friend about his experience at the Million Man March, a call for African-American men of every socio-economic level to come to Washington DC and accept responsibility for their lives. He told me that the most powerful thing about the event for him was being surrounded by so many people who not only looked like him, but shared similar values. It’s something that he did not experience all that often. Here in Tarrytown, he felt he was often looked at askance simply because he was black. I told him that I sometimes had a similar feeling when walking in public wearing my kippah. He replied “Yes, but the difference is that you can remove your kippah whenever you want and blend in. I can’t remove being black.”
I have never forgotten that conversation. One of the many things that has allowed Jews to do so well in America is that we look like the majority. We can blend in. The events of the past year – the deaths of unarmed black men, and in particular, the shootings inside the Charleston church – remind me that 50 years after Selma, having black skin can still be a liability in America.
In 1965, protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery to highlight racial injustice. Among the marchers were many Jews, including Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then head of the Reform Jewish movement, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. As you see in the photo, they marched carrying a Torah in order to emphasize the biblical call for justice and to remind us that all humans are created in the image of God.
By the end of 1965 the Voting Rights Act, written in the offices of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, had been signed into law. And yet 50 years later, voting rights are once again under attack, access to education is uneven, and African-American parents have to teach their law-abiding children how to speak to the police to keep from being shot. I, on the other hand, do not need to have that talk with my kids, because I can remove my kippah whenever I want.
But I still want to express my anger at the continuing racism, and I still want to clearly show my support – as so many Jews did during the Civil Rights Movement – for the values of justice and equality which are central to Jewish tradition.
And that’s why I’m going to Cheraw.
This summer the NAACP has organized America’s Journey for Justice, a 40-day march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC, in order to draw attention to how much still needs to be done to combat racism in America. The Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Reform Jewish Movement are partners in this effort. I am proud to say that I will be one of over 100 rabbis participating in the march. I will be carrying the Torah along the route from Cheraw, SC to Raleigh, NC on Wednesday, September 2. And I plan to attend the Voting Rights Rally in Raleigh on Sept. 3.
And I’d like you to join me!
My sons are coming with me. A few congregants have already committed to participating with us. The plan is to fly out on the afternoon of Sept. 1, march on Sept. 2, attend the rally and then fly home on Sept. 3. If your plans for the last week of the summer are flexible, I encourage you to join us. If you can’t march that week, you can pick another date to go.
Here are some FAQs about participating in the march. If you decide to go, you should sign up here. And of course, please let me know you’re coming! To do that, or just to ask questions, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a call.
I was a little too young for the marches in 1965. I’m saddened that another march is needed, but I’m honored to be able to participate. I hope that all who march will feel, as Rabbi Heschel said, that “I was praying with my legs.”
Peace and Blessings,
Rabbi David Holtz