In addition to being the Director of Rabbinic Services at the ISJL, I’m a proud member of the Jewish Welfare Board’s (JWB) Rabbinic Council, an organization established in 1917 to support the spiritual needs of Jews in the United States armed services.
I recently received word that three pallets of Jewish prayer books were damaged in military efforts, and are now unusable. The military was in desperate need to find Jewish burial plots in the South that could provide a proper resting place for these words of God and the long-held traditions of our people. This would be a great and rare opportunity for a congregation to be of unique service to our nation, a way – if you will – to say ‘thank you’ for our freedom to worship as we choose.
Regrettably, earlier efforts to secure those plots in large metropolis were a bust. Those in charge of coordinating this holy endeavor never received a response from the large congregations to whom they had reached out and called.
Thus, they called me: “Please, can you be of any help? We don’t understand how these large communities could be so silent in the face of this request.”
Yes, we could help.
Land space, particularly in large communities and congregations where there is the realistic hope of continued growth, is more limited. Reasonably, one can assume that much of that limited space is already claimed. But in many of our smaller southern congregations, where the populations are more likely to be on the decline, there is some land to spare.
Therefore, I made a suggestion: “Allow me to reach out to our smaller southern congregations. I believe they’ll respond more promptly. Not simply because they may have space available, but because they know well the meaning of ‘sacrifice.’ It’s what allows these small congregations to defy the odds and continue to sustain and strengthen Jewish identities and values in their area so richly.”
And respond they did.
Within a day, there were offerings from smaller congregations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. These were thanksgiving offers to this nation. These offers were also a tribute to all of the American Jews who have valiantly served this nation in uniform since its earliest days. And of course, the response showed respect for the prayer books themselves; as one congregation shared: “It’s only proper that these words should rest here with us, as – for us – they lead the way here!”
The damaged prayer books now have a resting place in the South, and the words within continue to enrich our lives. God bless our communities, God bless our soldiers, and God bless America.
The Civil Rights Movement is one of the most compelling chapters of American history. State and federal governments were right to set aside a holiday to celebrate its achievements – and without a doubt, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the movement’s most eloquent and charismatic spokesman. His tragic death made him a martyr to the cause of justice. And yet, every Martin Luther King Day, I find myself resisting this exclusive focus on Dr. King, who has come to represent the sum total of the movement for most Americans.
This idea struck me most recently when I was attending a presentation by a group of students from McComb, Mississippi, who were taking part in a special locally-focused civil rights course. The two high school students noted that while they had heard of Martin Luther King, they had no idea of the civil rights history of their own town. Prior to the class, they had never heard of Herbert Lee, a leader of the McComb black community and fighter for civil rights, who was murdered by a state legislator in 1961. As part of the course, these students have interviewed several community members who played a role in the local movement.
These students have done tremendous work uncovering the civil rights history of their own community. This exciting McComb Legacy Project shows that all of our communities have an important civil rights history that needs to be preserved and understood. Our heroes are not just carved into monuments in Washington. They still walk the streets of our communities.
The most important lesson of the movement is how regular people came together to change this country. The best book about the Mississippi movement, Local People, by John Dittmer, sums up this idea in its very title. I fear that by focusing exclusively on the life and achievements of one great leader, we lose sight of the idea that we all have the power to change the world.
It’s true. We do have the collective power to change the world. It happened right here, during the Civil Rights Movement.
So today, challenge yourself to learn something about other great leaders like Bob Moses, Ella Baker, Aaron Henry, Fred Shuttlesworth, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many more. Even better, look into the civil rights history of your own community (be it north, south, east, or west). I am sure you will uncover local heroes who helped ensure the continuation of Dr. King’s dream.
Do you have family or community members who fought for civil rights? How will you honor this legacy?