September 7, 2012 | Parashat Ki Tavo
Rabbi Stephanie Kolin & Rabbi Ari Lorge
Some weeks ago, I was talking with a dear friend, Reverend Michael-Ray Matthews. Reverend Matthews is an African American pastor who has been a great partner and teacher to me and to the Reform Movement. And Michael lets me ask big scary questions – it’s part of why I love talking with him. So I asked him – Michael, given this moment in our country when there is serious public conversation about enduring racial injustice and inequality in America today, what do you think the Black community needs from the Jewish people right now? White Jews, in particular, but Jews in general – what would support look like for you right now?
He paused for only a second. He said – go on outside with us. Have some conversations and hear some stories. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say or where to stand or what to do with your hands, but let yourself be shaped by that experience. And then let’s come inside together and let’s talk about it.
When we at Central Synagogue saw that the Reform movement would join the NAACP on a march from Selma to DC, 860 miles carrying a Torah that will make the entire trip – to raise a voice for equal voting rights, for equal access to good education, for a reform of the criminal justice system, and to say that we are in this together – we were moved by the opportunity. Rabbi Lorge and I along with the inspiring, and hilarious Alan Herman, Jeremy Fielding, and Freeman Shore, had the great honor of representing our congregation, as part of 200 Reform rabbis and countless congregants that have joined this march to our nation’s capital. Our leg was 21 miles.
Rabbi Lorge and I would love to share just a small handful of the moments and the experiences that shaped our team on this journey.
We arrived at 6:30 in the morning bleary eyed and unsure what the day would hold. Our first greeting came from a woman named Keisha who is marching every day of the journey. She took one look at us and asked if we were the new rabbis and if we had received the Torah? She then recorded a message for social media that began, “It is day 14 of the Journey for Justice and we are passing Torah to rabbis and members from Central Synagogue.” Torah, rabbis, synagogue, these were not foreign concepts to her. She knew exactly why we were there as Jews and why Torah was marching with us. We were deeply moved by how our collective Reform Jewish presence on this march had impacted the American Americans with whom we were marching. Many of them carried Torah themselves, holding it with love, care and pride. In fact, as Rabbi Kolin led with Cornell Brooks, the president of the NAACP, at the front he asked if he could carry it for a time. Rabbi Kolin and I kept thinking of that famous picture of Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, and in between them Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath carrying Torah. Those are the memories of our past that spurred us to act, but here we were, making new memories. This time it was not just the rabbis carrying the scroll.
During the march, we met a 21 year old college student, John, from Houston. When he was 15, he was stopped by the police for riding his bike on the wrong side of the road. Instead of giving him a warning or even a ticket, the police officer roughly searched his body, scaring him and humiliating him. He said his father couldn’t help him so he had no recourse. His father, he told us, is a two time felon, home now, but hardened, and not helped, by prison – John understood that that was what prison was built to do, and because of it, he lost his father. So lots of things are working against John and his future. But when he graduates from college next year, he wants to study business, make a lot of money, and then re-invest it back into the African American community, a responsibility he takes very seriously. We asked him what he wants for his own kids one day. He said he was marching because he wanted to have four beautiful and smart kids and as he thought back to his own experiences as a boy, he couldn’t bear the thought of them thinking that they were less than, or living with fear, because of the color of their skin. Throughout the day we were moved by stories of hope and of a belief that change is possible if we work for it. It inspired us to want to walk with people like John as we think about the future of our country.
As Cornell Brooks carried Torah in his arms with Rabbi Kolin we marched past a counter-protestor who showed up to wave a confederate flag and spew words of hate at our group. Seeing him we began one of our chants. A leader from the crowd shouted, “Show me what hope looks like,” and we called back as a single group, “this is what hope looks like.” Then “Show me what diversity looks like.” “This is what diversity looks like.” Finally, “Show me what America looks like. This is what America looks like.” This moment impacted all of us. “This is what America looks like” we could chant since we were people of many races, faiths, places in America, marching together. But what if we hadn’t come? Who would have represented the Jews? Who would have carried Torah? This is what America looks like, we could chant, only because we chose to show up.
The Torah we carried that day has continued its journey to our nation’s capital. And while we carried it with us, it would be equally true to say it is what carried us throughout the march. This week we read words that may be familiar to you, “My father was a fugitive Aramean…” the story continues that we went to Egypt and became a great nation. The Egyptians oppressed us. We cried to Adonai, and God freed us. These words were originally recited by Israelites who came to the Temple before giving of their first fruits. Today we recite it as the beginning of the Passover Seder. We re-tell stories in rituals like these because they shape and form our identity. We were strangers in Egypt, we were mistreated, we found freedom. Each of us, by virtue of making that story our own knows what it is like to be on the margins, to be vulnerable, to toil for redemption. It is not a mere story stuck in time, it is meant to shape us, inform and transform us. We cannot just read it; our story calls us to answer respond to the challenges woven in its words. To go outside carrying our story, to let that shape us, and to be shaped by other’s stories in return. The clergy team and the lay leaders who marched with us look forward to sharing more of our experiences with you and thinking with you about how these issues touch your life too.