Do you know Mr. Moses? Mr. Bob Moses?
I’ve always associated Bob Moses’s name with civil rights and, specifically, his well-known initiative the “Algebra Project.” The Algebra Project, according to its mission statement, “uses mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education for every child in America.”
The more I learn about Mr. Moses, the more impressed I become. Bob Moses was the man the press considered “the mastermind” behind Freedom Summer. He worked with Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Summer to bring over 1,000 college students from out of state to teach in Freedom Schools and register voters.
To many, his last name—Moses—seemed more than appropriate.
And so, as Passover continues, I thought I’d encourage people to learn the story of another Moses: Bob Moses. While he did not split the Red Sea, he led a mission to redeem people who had been prevented from exercising their right to vote and receiving a high quality education. Learning more about Freedom Summer, I have a greater understanding of this modern day Moses. This African American Spiritual has made it into many Haggadot and, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, it seems fit to recognize the heroism of Mr. (Bob) Moses:
When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.
Go down( BOB) Moses,
Way down in Mississippi-land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.
50 years later, Bob Moses continues to do incredible work. He, along with many Freedom Summer volunteers will be in Mississippi from June 25 through June 29 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this watershed event. The ISJL looks forward to welcoming people to Mississippi to participate in the commemoration, and particularly looks forward to welcoming today’s Jewish activists who can participate in a special summit to learn about the Jewish legacy of Freedom Summer and focus on Jewish social justice activism today. Learn more here!
The story of Passover, and the Exodus from Egypt, involves the oppressor (Pharaoh and the Egyptians) and the oppressed and enslaved (the Jews). At seders around the world, Pharaoh is the symbol from figures ranging from literal modern day slave-owners and dictators to metaphorical oppressors, such as depression and cancer. The common thread: they are destructive, and all too prevalent.
However, when people ask me what I am doing for Passover, I answer with a one-liner that only serves to stun the person I’m talking with (and always makes me feel like I just said that flowers are hideous or something): To me, Passover is the day when I celebrate the freedom I have to not observe Passover.
As someone who was raised ultra-orthodox, it is not a freedom I take for granted.
However, it leads me to wonder why I have a hard time celebrating freedom from tyranny, slavery and other similar forces. This year, I realized what is missing for me. It is an understanding that we are in a world where my freedom may be linked to another’s oppression—particularly when it comes to the freedoms associated with Jewish life.
Passover epitomizes this for me. We hear about the experiences of Jews who had to overcome adversity in order to celebrate Passover. The idea that Jews around the world can observe Passover freely is a story of triumph and a cause for celebration. But, what is missing for me is an exploration of how the freedom to celebrate Passover can be oppressive to others. It can be oppressive because it is not a choice and is, in fact, a sort of “Egypt” for some who are seeking to survive or escape their ultra-orthodox communities of origin.
I have similar feelings about other Jewish practices like the mikvah (ritual bath). There is a growing trend of Jewish communities building beautiful spa-like mikvahs for women who want to partake in the set of laws that are known as Taharas Hamishpacha (family purity). The experience of going to a mikvah changed the status of a woman who had her period from being impure to pure. I’m glad women today have found a way to create a magical experience of going to the mikvah. Mikvah goers oftentimes enjoy the experience of being pampered, relaxing and tuning into their bodies. (I, too, enjoy going to a spa.) But, it troubles me when I see a disconnect between that beautiful experience and the experience of my high school peers, some of whom dreaded the experience of going to the mikvah, but didn’t have the freedom to skip a month, or opt-out altogether.
Freedom does not just mean the freedom to do things; it means the freedom to not do them, or to do them in our own way.
My hope this Passover is that we recognize that freedom is precious and worthy of celebration and safe-guarding. We must be sure that our freedom does not enable the freedom of others to be trampled. May we all appreciate the freedoms that we do have, and continue advocating for others’ freedom as well.
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As you may be aware, during this past year a young boy year fought a brave battle with cancer, and lost. His name was Samuel Sommer, affectionately known as “Superman Sam,” and his Mom, Rabbi Phillis Sommer, decided to document the family’s experience through a blog as they fought their way through life. He became an internet sensation, being sent on trips, dealing with hospital visits, and facing the potential end of his life. First the blog was created, but it caught fire and not only were social media sites, but actual news sites were covering his story.
I first became aware of this when people began to change their profile picture to the icon of Superman. A comic book aficianado, I immediately took notice. Then, my staff brought something to my attention that I hadn’t yet seen. St. Baldrick’s, an organization that raises money for children’s cancer research, was having an event… for Rabbis. It is called 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, and I signed up. At an annual convention for Rabbis, at least 36 rabbis will be shaving their head to raise money for these kids as well as to show support for their brave fight.
The shave will take place at the CCAR Convention in Chicago on April 1. Following the shave, I’ll share some more of my thoughts on the experience, here on the Southern & Jewish blog. For now, you can visit http://bit.ly/36rabbis to make a donation to St. Baldrick’s in memory of Samuel Sommer, and support Rabbi Kassoff, my other rabbinic colleagues, and me, as we prepare to go bald for children and a brighter, healthier future.
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