A Road Trip Into History For My Southern Jewish Students

We all know this adage to be true: History repeats itself. Unless, of course, we can learn from it and try to make informed decisions about the future, placing partnership and progress over fear and separation.

Recently, my Sunday School students got to experience this important lesson, up close and personal. Our synagogue, Beth Israel Congregation, in Jackson, Mississippi, joined with three other southern congregations to go on a Jewish Social Justice-themed trip to Birmingham, Alabama. This trip took us to 16th Street Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Museum, and Vulcan Park and Museum.

On this trip, we heard first-hand accounts of times in our recent history, in the region where we live, when people succumbed to fear. My students got to hear about the violent extent they are will to go to prevent perceived threats. They heard about 4 little girls lost their lives because a member of the KKK bombed their church one Sunday, because he was afraid of how the black community gaining rights and “taking over” what he saw as “his” country. Black men, women, and children were hosed down and beaten because those with power over them feared what would happen if the black community were to obtain the same rights as white citizens.

There are plenty of Jewish connections to the civil rights movement, we told our students. There were lots of Jewish volunteers fighting alongside the black community for civil rights — which also meant that synagogues, rabbis’ homes, and Jewish social justice workers were attacked: bombed, threatened, and murdered because of the same intolerant fears.

Listening to Riva's story.
Listening to Riva’s story

One of the reasons the Jewish community played as much of a role as we did in the civil rights movement is because we know what it is like to be targeted, and to be abused and murdered because of others’ hateful fear. As a 12-year-old girl, Riva Hirsch, was a victim of Nazi terror in her home country of Romania. Now a grown woman living in Alabama, Ms. Hirsch came and spoke to the students on our trip, and the story she told shook us all to our core. It’s said that during moments of silence you can hear a pin hit the floor. That Sunday morning, you could hear the tears hit the floor.

What was remarkable about the story of her experience during World War II is that it was a reflection of the best and worst of mankind. She suffered incomprehensible pain– but she ultimately survived, because a few brave individuals who rejected their society’s fear and kept her hidden with them for two years at the end of the war. Even in the darkest shadows of looming fear there are rays of light.

Here we are in 2016 and yet we still deal with fear every day. Basic rights are not only being questioned but also there are real battles being fought daily with significant stakes. I reminded my students that we must all continue to heed the words of Hillel: “If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self what am I? And if not now, when?”

I was reminded myself on this road trip through civil rights history: Our children are watching us, listening to us, and are framing their view of the world around us. Let us give them something to be proud of 40 years from now when they look back at us, like we look back and Martin Luther King Jr., Oskar Schindler, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. Let us appeal to our better angels, not our worse demons. Let us teach them about history, so they will not be the ones to repeat it.

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