Shavuot & Social Justice

As we are approach the end of the Counting of the Omer, the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot, I’m reflecting back on an important conversation that took place at my Passover seder. I was fortunate to spend Passover this year in Israel, and I attended a seder in Jerusalem. The one thing I wasn’t expecting at this seder was a mention of the state in which I currently reside — Mississippi.

This year, the Jewish world once again turned their eyes to Mississippi and the South, due to the 50th anniversaries of monumental events like the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 Selma Bridge crossing, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Bend the Arc released a Passover supplement commemorating 50 years since the Selma bridge crossing, and one of the leaders at my seder brought this supplement to discuss.

The group was excited to talk about the rich history of Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement. As they spoke of all the Jews who served in the movement over the years, and posed broader questions of what in Judaism compels us to get involved in these struggles for justice, I found myself thinking back upon the 50th-anniversary commemorations in Selma, Alabama this past March. My roommate and I made the trip to Selma, where we heard President Obama speak, and joined an estimated 70,000 pilgrims on the voyage across the Edmund Pettus bridge. Rabbi Jeremy Simons wrote about his experience that day; and at that Passover table, my mind returned to that march.

One moment that stuck in my mind from that day happened at Congregation Mishkan Israel in Selma, before the march itself. Professor Susannah Heschel spoke to a crowd gathered at the synagogue, challenging us to re-frame our narrative of the moment. She said the gathering is not about what Jews have contributed to the movement; rather, we should ask ourselves what the movement gave to the Jewish people.

It’s not just the opportunity it gave us to take a stand and march alongside our neighbors. At a time when the words of the Torah were looked down upon, and even read in an anti-Semitic manner, the civil rights movement uplifted the voices of the Hebrew prophets, and looked to the Old Testament as a manual for change and justice. In that sense, the movement offered Jews reconciliation and breathed strength into our central text.

Lonnie with Ira Grupper
Lonnie with Ira Grupper

With her words in mind, I challenged the folks seated at my seder table to re-frame their discussion. Yes, it’s important to recognize the amazing things brave men and women in the past have done, some of whom have been Jewish. But the movement is not about us, as Jews, and that’s okay. Having a connection to the movement is good, but can we challenge ourselves to think anew about that connection?

Ira Grupper, a lifetime labor activist, veteran of the civil rights movement, and committed Jew told me recently that “the civil rights movement enhanced my consciousness as a Jew.” That statement does not make the movement about him—but instead sheds light on how the movement shaped him.

As we near the end of the Counting of the Omer, we spiritually prepare ourselves to commemorate the receiving of the Torah. This great gift is a central text which serves as a guidebook for life, and unifies Jews across space and time. Preparing for the holiday, this is a question on the forefront of my mind. For me, working to address prejudices around poverty and race enhances my consciousness as a Jew.

What work, movement, or moments enhance your consciousness as a Jew?

This Shavuot, consider sharing these insights as you celebrate the revelation of Torah. Chag sameach!

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