This month I made a big move. After a year spent in Jerusalem, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi to serve as the first ISJL Community Engagement Fellow. It’s a two year commitment, and a big adventure. The timing of my move also coincides with the anniversary of a pretty momentous event in Mississippi’s history: this year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
In reading more about the courageous volunteers that traveled to Mississippi that summer, I am struck by the similarities I’ve felt traveling to Mississippi this year. I grew up in Arizona, and moved to Portland for college. A week ago, I drove from Arizona to Mississippi. It was the first time I set foot on Southern soil. I knew relatively little about the history of the South, and even less about the culture. I am grappling to understand the complexities of race and class relations and issues in Jackson. As a young, white, middle-class Jewish woman, I felt strange taking a community engagement position in a community that was not my own. Throughout my life, I’ve felt a passion to address inequalities in my own communities. I kept asking myself “why move to Mississippi to continue this work?”
I fear that in community engagement work, good intentions can easily be misconstrued as a foreigner entering a community, and helping, because he or she knows what’s best for that community. I know that I don’t know what’s best for people I will be in contact with in the future, and want to be vocal about that. I’m not coming to save the day, privilege in tow. I’m here to become part of a team, to listen, and to learn.
Fifty years ago, over 1,000 Northern volunteers traveled to Mississippi. The majority of them were young and white (and a significant amount were Jewish). There are a lot of difficult, and amazing, things wrapped up in this fact- a large amount of young, white Northerners coming to the South to help register and empower African Americans. People coming to serve a community that was not theirs. Even with the best intentions, I fear that in such a situation sometimes we have expectations and assumptions regarding the people we are serving. Sometimes the world that we want to help doesn’t greet us the way we expect. When we do work that we are passionate about, it’s amazing to be validated by those whom we help. But sometimes it isn’t easy to give that validation, and the hardest part is asking why.
I am in no way trying to lessen the incredible thing that these brave young men and women did. Quite the contrary, the memory of these volunteers inspires me moving forward with my job. I am humbled by the Jewish history and heritage of service.
As a stranger coming to this place, I am reminded of the mitzvah to love the stranger, to welcome the stranger into our midst. I don’t want to do that—not in this instance. I am the stranger, right now, but I don’t want the community I live and work in to be a strange one. I don’t want to view the work that young men and women did 50 years ago as welcoming the stranger into their world. My goal is to serve this community as an insider, to find commonalities, to love it as my own.
I want to give gratitude to the volunteers that traveled South 50 years ago. When serving, I think it’s important to reflect upon what we bring with us, the good and the not so good. I am grateful that their memory pushes me to do so.
This is my first week as the historian for the ISJL. I’ve been so warmly welcomed here—and am already finding connections between my last phase of life, and this one.
I recently completed my PhD at New York University. My focus was on church-state issues in American history, so I had to read a lot of case law. When the opportunity arose to write Jewish history for the ISJL, I jumped on it. Public history has a particular appeal to me because I feel that studying history is not just about studying the past, but also about understanding trends within current society and searching for ways to make positive change.
I was especially pleased to be given an assignment researching a rabbi by the name of Judah Wechsler for the Meridian/Lauderdale County Tourism Association. The association is interested in documenting the Jewish contribution to the Civil Rights movement in Meridian given the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom summer. Through my research, I discovered that Rabbi Wechsler became heavily involved in the issue of African American education as early as the late 19th century.
Like many small towns across the Reconstructionist South, Meridian, Mississippi, had limited free education offerings for African American children. Prior to 1871, an African American school was housed in the local Methodist church, but one of its teachers, Mr. Warren Tyler, was killed during a riot there in 1871. The other teacher, Mr. Price, was forced to leave town. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Henry McElroy and Rabbi Judah Wechsler, the school survived until 1875. Wechsler and others campaigned for a bond issue to construct the first brick public school building for African Americans.
Rabbi Wechsler actually donated $1,000 (close to $25,000 by today’s standard) of his own personal money toward the expense of the school. When the bond issue passed, Meridian’s black community asked that the new school be named in the rabbi’s honor. The Wechsler School still stands today, and is registered as a historic landmark by the National Register of Historical Places.
During the Civil Rights era, there were several instances of Southern and Northern Jews fighting for equal educational rights in Meridian and beyond. For instance, while I was in New York finishing my dissertation, I had the good fortune to get to know Mark Levy. During the summer of 1964, Mark served as a coordinator of the Meridian, MS, Freedom School.
Freedom schools were alternative free schools for African Americans set up by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to mitigate a segregated school system with little resources directed towards African American schools. Many African American children in small towns received little to no education. These schools aimed to empower African Americans in Mississippi to become active citizens and agents of social change. The progressive, experiential curriculum emphasized student-centered teaching and learning by doing.
I spoke with Mark for over three hours. He has devoted his whole life to social justice measures. His passion for tikkun olam is downright contagious. Though I met him first in New York, Mark will be here in Mississippi for the fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom summer. This exciting event runs from June 25-29, at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Organizers expect 3,000 activists, elected officials, students, scholars, and veterans of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer to commemorate the achievements of Freedom Summer. This event isn’t just about the past, but will serve as a launching pad for social action focused on four closely-related social issues impacting minorities in Mississippi and beyond: Education, Workers Rights, Healthcare, and Voting Rights within Mississippi and the nation.
(As a further connection, Rabbi Wechsler shares a last name with my dissertation chair, Dr. Harold Wechsler of NYU, who is quite learned and also extremely warm-hearted. I could not trace a blood relationship between the two men, but they share a generous spirit. Just one more way history and community connects to our own stories!)
If you, too, are interested in connecting with living history and making the world better, the ISJL is helping coordinate complimentary special programs focusing on past and potential Jewish contributions to social justice. The event promises to be an enriching and exciting experience and all of us at ISJL encourage you to come. More details are here. I hope to see you in Mississippi!
Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, but raised in rural Arkansas. She lived many lives in many places, and died peacefully in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In its memorial to her published this morning, the New York Times hailed Angelou as a “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South.” She was so much: a Southerner, a traveler, a poet, a dancer, an activist, a leader, a reader, a teacher, a champion. She used her words as a tool to inspire change.
Many of her quotes talk about how we approach service, and how we think about those “in need” in a more human, nuanced way. I chose this quote to think about today:
“My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.”
May Maya’s memory be a blessing.
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