We arrived in Selma, Alabama to stand and march on holy ground. The first day of the NAACP’s “Journey for Justice” – which will march from August 1 beginning in Selma, Alabama through more than 40 days to rally in Washington, DC on Sept. 16 – my colleagues from the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Seth Limmer, Rabbi Bruce Lustig, Rabbi Beth Singer and Rabbi Jason Rodich and I stood on holy ground. And then we marched onward in the blazing heat (106 degrees at times) along the scorching asphalt of Highway 80.
With a sacred Torah scroll brought from Chicago Sinai, we – like our colleagues 50 years ago – took one step after another to restore the Voting Rights Act, for jobs and educations, and to renew and reinvigorate the historic alliance between the Reform Jewish Community and the African American community.
We began in prayer standing before the Amelia Boynton House with leaders of the NAACP, State Senators, US Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and representatives of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). I was asked to lead a prayer as well. It came from my heart.
We stood in front of the dilapidated house where Amelia Boynton lived and strategized. She organized the 1965 march to Montgomery and her home served as a meeting place and office in Selma for civil rights activists. It was Amelia Boynton who was beaten unconscious on Bloody Sunday and the picture of her on the ground went viral in 1965.
One would have thought such an important place as this house would be a national museum. One would have thought it would be a national treasure, preserved by our government. But it is falling apart. The front and back yard are overgrown with weeds. It is boarded up with graffiti and broken windows and the roof is caving in. It cried out to me as a metaphor that even though there have been advancements for African-Americans in our country, there is still so much in shambles as innocent children and adults are murdered and harassed by police, poverty is still rampant, educational equality is lacking in many neighborhoods, and voter suppression still alive and well.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis made racial justice a priority long ago, when we first resolved to combat race-based discrimination in education back in 1938. And as we prayed together on Shabbat Nachamu, I knew more than ever before that our work as Rabbis must dive deeply again into this work for justice and equality for our brothers and sisters, for all of our children, and for our country. It is truly our job as rabbis to bring comfort to those who are discomforted and bring discomfort to those who see no problems.
The march began with a rally at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where I spoke again on behalf of the CCAR, as did our colleague Seth Limmer who cradled the Torah in his arms. Together we represented along with our colleagues the Reform community’s commitment to this holy work. And then we began, step by step, two by two, over the bridge just as Heschel and King had done 50 years ago. I could feel the tears welling up as the Torah was passed to me. I took hold of it just on the other side of the bridge where the batons and cattle prods were used against the marchers on that Bloody Sunday.
And still the work is not finished. Equality is far away for so many, as the rundown buildings and houses on the highway surrounded us on Shabbat Nachamu in our bright yellow NAACP T-Shirts.
I know from my own work as an LGBTQ activist, allies are critical to changing the world. Many of you have been my allies. And for that I am grateful. And many of us in the American Jewish community have continued since the earliest days of the civil rights movement to be involved with our African American friends and family in the struggle for equality. But it can no longer remain just a pulpit exchange on MLK weekend as important as it is. We have to join in the march. More than 150 of my colleagues are marching cradling the Torah like I was able to.
If you haven’t thought about going – there is still time to march for a day. If you can’t, consider, helping sponsor meals for the Marchers. Let us do the real work side by side in each of our cities and towns and in our nation.
I know I stood on holy ground in Selma and Montgomery this weekend. It is time for all of us to stand together with our African American family and friends to restore the Voting Rights Act, and to truly bring justice and equality to our country once and for all.
Rabbi Denise L. Eger is President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami