There’s a slight curve to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The curve means that you can’t see what’s beyond the bridge until you are halfway across it.
This weekend, I participated in a walk across the bridge, marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma. Because of the size of the crowd, it took at least an hour to slowly shuffle up that bridge, staring at the block letters spelling out the name of the KKK Grand Dragon it honors. When I finally crested the top, and was able to see past the curve, I was surprised by the sea of people swarming on the other side.
This weekend, the people on the other side were peaceful, wandering past vendor booths and a concert stage. But I realized that fifty years ago, when the original marchers began walking up that bridge, they had no way to know what was on the other side either… and still they kept marching.
Our morning started at Congregation Mishkan Israel, where hundreds had gathered to commemorate Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. There are only about ten Jews living in Selma today, yet almost every seat in the synagogue sanctuary was filled. People came from all over the country, including a group from North Carolina that had traveled all night by bus, and were hours away from an equally long trip home.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, was the star of the show. In 1965, after marching, he famously said he felt as though his feet were praying. His daughter, Professor Susannah Heschel, addressed the crowd in 2015. She offered some context for that famous quote: He may be lauded today as a Jewish hero, but he wasn’t at the time; most Jews responded to his involvement in the movement with confusion or even hostility.
Part of the reason we revere him today was because he stood largely alone at the time.
And that’s the thing. It’s so much easier to join a cause that’s already been won. There’s a reason the marchers of 2015 outnumbered those of 50 years ago by at least 30 to 1. While we were dealing with street vendors and porta-poties, they faced tear gas and billy-clubs. Real social change rarely comes with funnel cake. I got the impression those around me understood this fact. We were there to honor those who led the movement and celebrate their success, but we were also there to energize ourselves for the work that needs to be done.
David Goodman, brother of slain civil rights worker Andrew Goodman, reminded us that in some states it’s easier to vote with a gun permit than a college ID. In fact, almost all of the speakers at Mishkan Israel focused their remarks of the growing disenfranchisement movement in our country, and our duty to oppose it. It’s only in hindsight that poll taxes and literacy tests appear so blatantly evil. Plenty of people defended their use at the time just as plenty defend the elimination of early voting and same-day registration today. Fifty years from now, we will look back on the current wave of disenfranchisement and wonder what people were thinking.
Professor Susannah Heschel told the audience at Mishkan Israel: “Today we’re on a pilgrimage to remember, not simply to remember what we Jews contributed to the civil rights movement— no, we’re here to thank the Civil Rights movement for what it has given to us as Jews.” Her father was a religious leader who aimed to shock people out of complacency; to truly honor his legacy, we must still be willing to shock people out of complacency today. He spoke of praying feet, but he also warned that a consensus of conscience means nothing without “incessant action.”
This incessant action is still necessary. This is why we are marching in Selma still today. We must not only march, but also raise our voices against injustice still… even when we can’t quite see past the slight curve in the bridge we are marching across.
This piece was written jointly by Lonnie Kleinman and Lex Rofes.
An article about the soon-to-be-released film Selma recently appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward, a publication we both read regularly and respect immensely. The article, written by Leida Snow, is entitled “Selma Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights.” The assertion that Selma under-represents Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movie and “distorts” history is a claim with which we strongly disagree.
Full disclosure: We have not yet seen ‘Selma,’ which opens January 9. What we have seen is Ms. Snow’s article. Therefore, we are not responding to any alleged inaccuracies in the film– only the inaccuracies in Ms. Snow’s own piece.
Before articulating any philosophical disagreement, we believe it is important to first mention a few factual inaccuracies. We point out these inaccuracies not to demean the author, but because the historical events referenced are so crucial to our country’s history, and should be presented thoughtfully and accurately.
Snow refers to “thousands” of Freedom Riders “riding into Mississippi” in 1964. In fact, the Freedom Riders rode in 1961, and there were only 436 total riders. She also incorrectly implies that James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were freedom riders. The murder of those three civil rights workers was a tragedy that, as Snow states, provoked national outrage, but they were not involved with the Freedom Rides. We believe that, when stating “Freedom Riders,” Ms. Snow means to refer to the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which was indeed characterized by “well over a thousand volunteers, mostly white,” risking their lives to come to Mississippi.
Factual inaccuracies aside, the broader message of her piece is deeply troubling. As the title suggests, Ms. Snow believes that the film’s failure to include Jews undermines its credibility. She states that by “excluding” Jews, the movie misses a “great teaching moment.”
We see things differently.
As Jews, we are certainly inspired by Jewish veterans of the Civil Rights movement. That said, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the story of Selma specifically, was not “our” story. The story of Selma was about fighting to achieve justice for African-Americans, living in an unjust society.
To be sure, this movie could have mentioned Jews. It could have featured inspirational Freedom Summer veterans, as Snow asserts—and just as easily, while we may not like to admit it, it could have featured Jews like Sol Tepper, who wrote dozens of articles for the Selma Times Journal advocating for segregation and was quite hostile towards Civil Rights advocates. Good or bad, Jews could have been included more—but that’s not the focus of this film. This omission is not a “distortion.”
Selma’s producers include several people of color. Its director, Ava DuVernay, was the first ever black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe—a great milestone in film history. It is all too common for the stories of African-Americans to be told by people who are not African-American, and we all have the right to tell our own stories.
Let’s think about what Snow’s criticism would look like if directed at a movie written by Jews about Jewish oppression.
There are many movies about the Holocaust, and some of them speak only to the experiences of Jews, without including righteous Gentiles (may their memories be for a blessing). These movies have not “distorted” history. They have chosen to focus specifically on the lives of Jews who were the subject of incredible discrimination and hatred, and that editorial decision is a reasonable one. Just as we would expect Catholics to watch a Holocaust film without criticizing the editorial choice not to includecourageous acts by Catholics, we should be able to watch a film about others’ struggles without demanding that we share the spotlight.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that a core aspect of being a Jew is “the ability to experience the suffering of others.” As many of us head to theaters to watch Selma, let’s seek to hone that skill. Let’s seek to better understand the story of African-Americans – their history, their struggles, and their suffering. Doing so might not teach us much about any particular Jews. But it could teach us something about what it means to be Jewish.
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Early on in the academic year (and the Jewish New Year!), I thought it would be a poignant time to remind you of why we engage in religious education.
I know what some of you are thinking: “The Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, of course!”
Sorry, talmidim (students), but the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is just one step along life’s long journey of knowing and growing. Nonetheless, sometimes it is this step that not only confirms the road already taken but affirms the one still left to travel.
That was certainly the case for the recent Bar Mitzvah of Elijah Schulman. The ceremony took place last month, August 2013, at the nearly 150-year old congregation of Mishkan Israel in Selma, Alabama. Selma is where Abraham Joshua Heschel artfully articulated the indelible words: “While marching in Selma with Dr. King, my feet were praying.”
Elijah did not grow up praying in Selma, but his great-great grandparents, Max and Hattie Erdreich, did. Elijah and his family now live in Bethesda, Maryland. He chose Selma for his celebration because becoming a Bar Mitzvah is a confirmation of continuing along a path established by those who came before you, and an affirmation to help shape the path for those who will come after you.
When the day arrived, I was with Elijah and his family in the social hall of the temple before the service. I asked if he was ready to sign his Bar Mitzvah certificate, pledging his life-long commitment to study, prayer, and acts of loving kindness. As Elijah’s pen took aim, his father, Andrew, interjected before it could hit its mark.
“What if he doesn’t agree? What if he won’t sign? Will he not be considered a Bar Mitzvah?”
I’d never been asked that question before, as – prior to this moment – the signing the Bar or Bat Mitzvah certificate had seemed merely functionary, a formality of the overall moment. So, I sat there… quiet… thinking. And, then, I answered:
“Sorry. No. I will not consider him a Bar Mitzvah, even with his Hebrew training. Because, being Jewish is more than knowing how to read Hebrew and lead a congregation in prayer. It takes a commitment to fill those words with meaning through our actions. So, if he chooses to not sign, he’ll still lead the service. He’s earned that right. But to truly be considered a son of the commandments, one has to be committed to living the words, not just reciting them.”
After a deep breath, as if inhaling the very weight of those words, Elijah signed. I don’t think there was ever a moment of hesitation; after all, in addition to preparing for the actual ceremony celebrating his Bar Mitzvah milestone, Elijah has already been fulfilling his commitment to the Jewish people through his actions.
The Mayor of Selma, George Patrick Evans, read a city resolution to Elijah during the service: “Elijah Schulman has already raised over $6,000 towards the preservation of this Selma Temple, and brought nationwide awareness of our great city… On behalf of Selma’s citizens, I present you with the Key to the City. May you always feel you’ve got a home here.”
That, my beloved talmidim, is the real reason you engage in religious education: not solely to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, but to ensure a sense of belonging and responsibility to your Jewish community. For, in the near future, the keys of this home will quite literally be in your hands. The simple prayer of those who came before you is that you are willing to steer our congregations, our communities, and our world towards better and brighter things. We have great confidence you can and will do just that.
May God bless your educational journey!
Rabbi Marshal Klaven
PS – If you would like to continue to help Elijah and the Mishkan Israel congregation in the restoration efforts of their historic building, you can email Mishkan Israel’s President, Ronnie Leet.