This morning, my friend and co-worker Nonnie asked me if I had seen the Oscars. I told her I had watched some of it.
“Did you see the speech by Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave?” She asked. “At the end of the speech, he talked about modern day slaves!”
Steve McQueen’s words, which I looked up this morning, included this statement: “Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live… I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”
21 million people who still suffer slavery today. It’s impossible to comprehend the weight of that number. The pain. The lack of human dignity. The violations.
Nonnie was grateful that the issue of human slavery took center stage during this hugely televised event, even if for just one minute. In fact, just the week before, she heard a report about the astronomical number of people living in servitude today, and how not enough is being done.
“What can we do?” She had asked me.
Here in Mississippi, we are abuzz with talk about the upcoming 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. There is an effort underway to commemorate Freedom Summer and energize people around the four issues the volunteers worked on during Freedom Summer: Voting rights, Education, Health Care and Workers’ Rights. All important issues.
But what about slavery itself? What can we do?
This is one idea came from one of our fellow members of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable: The Jewish Council For Public Affairs (JCPA) is having its Annual Plenum in Atlanta, Georgia, March 8-11 2014. They will be voting on whether to adopt resolutions proposed by various agencies. One of the resolutions that is up for debate and discussion is the Resolution on Combating Human Trafficking. Many communities in our region have delegates representing them at this conference through their local Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRC) and Community Relations Committees (CRC).
Let’s let our local representatives know that we want modern day slavery to be a priority of our community and that we want to commit our time and resources to advocating for policies and strategies that will help eliminate this inhumane practice.
Let’s talk about this issue not as something past, but as something real and present today, as we prepare to sit around seder tables next month.
Let’s be a part of ending slavery.
Please share your ideas of what our readers can do to help eliminate modern day slavery in the comments below!
Earlier this week, in Oxford, Mississippi, two unidentified perpetrators placed a noose around the neck of the James Meredith statue at the University of Mississippi. There was also an old Georgia state flag (which incorporated the confederate flag) draped around his shoulders.
James Meredith was the first African American student at the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss”
as it is still most commonly called. The campus has had several negative incidents of intolerance in the past few years – riots and racial slurs after President Obama’s re-election, heckling and homophobic remarks during a performance of The Laramie Project.
As a current undergraduate student at another college here in Mississippi, the first question that came to my mind when first hearing of this incident was: Where do we go from here?
I know this is not representative of that entire campus and community, but the fact remains that it happened (as did the heckling at the play, as did the racial slurs after the presidential election). It’s not enough to just not he perpetrators; we cannot just be bystanders. I grew up in the South and am certainly not a stranger to racial tension, but this is something much, much more deeply rooted and severe. It is something from which we cannot look away. I can’t escape it even if I wanted to – purely out of coincidence, I am going to Oxford this weekend to visit an old friend, now a student up there at Ole Miss, who happens to be African-American.
While I still look forward to the company of my friend, I will also feel a certain sense of dread sitting on the bus that will steadily edge closer to Oxford. In a way, this bus will be a time machine, taking me back to a Southern past I had assumed I would never experience firsthand.
Which brings me to my next question: As a white person with many close black friends, what is my own responsibility in improving race relations in our country?
In many ways living in the Deep South mirrors the experiences I had studying conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. In Belfast a peace agreement was signed in 1998, officially putting an end to The Troubles. The key word here is officially. While the violence dramatically decreased, much of the cross community tensions remained and were still present when I traveled there in 2013. However, because there is infrastructure for cross-community dialogue in Belfast this sentiment has been changed in some of these most hard lined members of the conflict.
Perhaps we in the US can take a lesson from the Northern Irish in thinking about our own civil rights movement. Although the campaigning days of Dr. Martin Luther King are gone, agreements have been signed, and laws have been made, we still desperately need cross-community dialogue.
This is, in part, why the work we do in the community engagement department is so important. Engaging the community in dialogue and discussing these horrible incidents of racism when they occur is one of the most important steps toward a better future. It helps this white Southern college student be part of answering that first question: Where do we go from here?
It’s something I’ll be thinking about while riding that bus, just as others did in the past, and I’m glad to continue working with a team to encounter difficult truths and come up with shared solutions.
Along with the rest of the world, particularly, the interconnected collective family known as “the Jewish community,” our hearts broke when we heard that the 8-year-old boy known as Superman Sam had died.
Our prayers are with his family.
Our anger at cancer is shared with all.
And some of the concrete actions we can take, even from down here in the Deep South, will be personal and direct.
Two rabbis connected to the ISJL – Rabbi Matt Dreffin, our current Assistant Director of Education, and Rabbi Debra Kassoff, our first-ever itinerant rabbi, will be participating in 36Rabbis Shave for the Brave.
As the 36Rabbis Shave for the Brave fundraising website describes, Rabbis Phyllis Sommer and Rebecca Schorr had a crazy idea: what if 36 Reform rabbis would shave their heads to bring attention to the fact that only 4% of United States federal funding for cancer research is earmarked for all childhood cancers as well as raise $180,000 for this essential research? Two weeks after this conversation, Phyllis and her husband, Michael, learned that their son, Sam, had relapsed with AML (acute myelogenous leukemia) and that there are no other treatment options for him. And just this past Shabbat, as my Rabbis Without Borders colleague told us, Sam left this world.
36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave. That’s who we are. Thirty-six slightly-meshugene, but very devoted rabbis who are yearning to do something. We can’t save Sammy; perhaps, though, we can save others like him. And spare other parents like Phyllis and Michael from the pain of telling their child that there is nothing that the doctors can do to save his life.
Rabbi Kassoff has already shared an initial post on her participation; both Rabbi Dreffin and Rabbi Kassoff’s journey to raise awareness, raise money for children’s cancer research, and share hope by shaving their heads will be chronicled here. We applaud all of the #36Rabbis taking this on, and encourage you to support them.
L’shalom – to peace, and to the end of childhood cancer and all cancers. Amen.
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