“Do you know a rabbi by the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel?”
The question was asked of me by Jean Jackson, a life-long resident of Selma, Alabama.
I was setting up in Selma that hot August Saturday preparing to officiate a Bar Mitzvah, and was a little caught off guard by the inquiry. I replied:
“I didn’t know him personally. But, who doesn’t know his enduring words from this very town, where he marched with Dr. King? In recollecting on that moment, he said his ‘feet were praying.’”
“Well,” Ms. Jackson responded, “when they weren’t praying, they were resting at my home. I hosted him for the night and the next morning I saw one of the most amazing sights these eyes of mine have ever seen.”
I grabbed my colleague Rabbi Matt Dreffin who was on the road with me for that trip, and together we listened to her enthralling tale:
The Rabbi came into my living room, where the Russian Orthodox Priest (also staying at our home) was sitting. They nodded to one another in reverent silence. Then the Rabbi put his prayer book on my mantle and recited his morning prayers. All the while, the Priest listened intently, prayerfully. When the Rabbi finished, he closed his book and took a seat. Then, the Priest stood up, went to the mantle laid out his religious items and opened his prayer book. He too recited his morning prayers, while the Rabbi sat there, intently, prayerfully, taking it all in.
Picturing this historic scene, we were mesmerized by her words. When she went silent for a moment, the real world returned, along with the warm, stiff Southern air in the synagogue building that had no air conditioning.
Then, Ms. Jackson added: “So, don’t tell me religions cant’s get along!”
I assured her I wouldn’t dare. After all, Heschel’s host had just reminded me of the powerful changes that happen when strong interfaith guests, hosts, and partners in progress come together in places like Selma, Alabama.
I’ve been thinking a lot about race lately. Many others have, too, in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal – but I’ve also heard plenty of people saying it’s “not about race,” suggesting that the death of Trayvon Martin, and Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict, comes down to guns, laws, confusing jury instructions, prosecution not making their case, and so on.
But let’s be honest – it’s a lot about race.
I am a white woman, born in 1964 in Jackson, MS. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, attended private schools for most of my education, and worshipped at the local synagogue where, at that time, all the members were white.
I didn’t question my insular upbringing or privilege; my parents owned a restaurant, and worked long, hard hours to provide for us. But lately, I have considered this: if I had been born into an African American family, same year, same city - what would my childhood have been like? And framed by those experiences, what would my adult life look like now?
How can I possibly know? Do I even live in the same United States as Charles M. Blow, a columnist and parent of black sons, who wrote in the New York Times recently: “As a parent… I am left with the question ‘Now, what do I tell my boys?’ We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly. So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?”
Reading that, I think I don’t live in the same United States. I get to live in a society where I don’t have to tell my kids how to walk home safely, because of how they look to others. I don’t have to fear immediate judgments being made about me, or my children, based on the color of our skin. Because I am white. Yes, I am in the minority because I am Jewish, but unless I’m wearing a Star of David, no one sees my Jewishness when I walk down the street. So how can I relate?
I recalled a movie I had seen some twenty-odd years ago. I couldn’t recall the title at first, but then I found it, and the lines I was trying to remember (thank you, Google). The movie’s title is Soul Man. It came out in 1986, with C. Thomas Howell in the role of Mark, a white student who poses as an African American to receive a full scholarship to Harvard. James Earl Jones played the role of Mark’s professor and when the deception finally was revealed, Mark and Professor Banks engaged in the following dialogue:
Professor Banks: You’ve learned something I can’t teach them. You’ve learned what it feels like to be black.
Mark: No sir.
Professor Banks: Beg your pardon?
Mark: I don’t really know what it feels like sir. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same sir.
Professor Banks: You’ve learned a great deal more than I thought.
That awareness is key: it’s not the same.
We need to acknowledge this, and we all need to learn more. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued the following statement after the Zimmerman verdict: “There are serious, unresolved issues of race in our country, and this trial underscored the need to explore these issues more fully. Hopefully, the debate concerning the justice of the verdict in the Zimmerman case will inspire a continued much-needed discussion about the lingering impact of racism in society.”
There is hope – now, and in decades past. In a glimmer of light this week, NPR featured this story of photographer Joseph Crachiola and a photograph he took 40 years ago in Detroit, of two white children and three black children, clearly friends, in a neighborhood known then (and now) as “racially divided.” The photo I’m sharing again here, in this blog. A photo of friendship. A reminder that we can find connections, and bridge the divide. We are not born divided.
But none of us can do it alone. We need to talk to each other.
Jackson 2000 is an organization here in Mississippi dedicated to bringing the community together in the Jackson metropolitan area by promoting racial harmony through dialogue and understanding, facilitates “Dialogue Circles”– groups of people who commit to a 6 week series of facilitated meetings to meaningfully engage on issues related to race and community. No one is naïve enough to think that 6 weeks of conversation will solve all the problems/issues/inequities that exist, but these conversations, and just as importantly, these connections, help us all move forward, together.
And maybe someday, we will all live in the same country, where all of our children are safe.
When we brought our baby son home from the hospital nearly 27 years ago, we imagined many things for his future.
The Army wasn’t one of them.
The Jewish Chaplains Council estimates that there are currently around 10,000 active duty men and women known to be Jewish. My son, Sergeant Harrel Carlton Kimball, is one of those active duty Jewish soldiers.
I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise – from a very young age, he insisted on running outside every time he heard a “hoptercopter” in the sky! We got really lucky after basic training; he was assigned to his individual training at a base that had a retired Rabbi serving as a Chaplain. It gave him an opportunity to connect to something familiar and normal during this big transition in his life. Then he was assigned to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, for his home base. He attended synagogue for a couple of Shabbat services and the high holy days in Nashville, Tennessee, about 45 minutes away, and the congregation was very happy to accommodate him!
And then came his first deployment in 2010 to Afghanistan. How does a Jewish mother bless her child before an event like this? The only thing I could think to do was the priestly blessing over him. Much to my surprise, he did not stop me, or even seem embarrassed when others passed us by at the airport. It was a moment I will never forget.
While in Afghanistan, he celebrated the High Holy Days privately, without any service attendance; Chanukah, too, came and went during this deployment, but it was a sheer delight! His buddies rallied around him as he opened his gifts, played dreidel and lit his tiny Menorah.
Since that first deployment to Afghanistan, he spent a year-long deployment in Honduras, and is now considering one more tour in Afghanistan if he reenlists for another year (he is nearing the completion of his six year enlistment). The most common question I get from others is how I cope with the worry. My faith helps. I do not believe my son or I are any more important to God than anyone else, but my faith gives me strength to deal with life.
My hometown rabbi, Rabbi Edward Cohn of Temple Sinai in New Orleans, gave a sermon once that really stuck with me. It was titled “The Jungle is Neutral.” “The jungle” could be the universe, a war zone, mother nature, a bad cell inside a body, a stray bullet, a car accident; his sermon’s thesis was that these things do not happen to bad people as a punishment, they just happen. This is my faith, this is my Judaism, and this is my strength.
Of course, I pray for my son’s safety and the safety of all of our troops. I pray because my connection in prayer with God gives me strength, and because my son knows that I pray, and that gives him guidance and strength.
As an “army mom,” three things have helped immensely:
- Avoiding constant worry.There is no advantage to constant worry. It only hurts the worrier and doesn’t help the child (in this case, a full-grown soldier) you’re worrying about.
- Remembering that anything can happen anywhere. Who is to say that on any given day someone is safer here or there? I wonder how many moms used to worry about their child’s job in a New York high rise. We just don’t know what the future holds.
My son, Sergeant Kimball, plans to finish his military career in early 2014 or early 2015, and then finish college and pursue a civilian career. I tease him that he must then give me GIRLY GIRL grandchildren that I can take to ballet and to get mani/pedis and buy lots of sweet pink things for, after all this army-boy stuff! I tease him that this is my reward for keeping a stiff upper lip, but the truth is, he has been my sweet reward all along. I couldn’t be prouder of him.
Do you know any Jewish soldiers? How do their families navigate deployments and military life?