I davened in a church once. I don’t mean prayed during church services; I mean I actually davened there, with a group of fifty Jews, each with a siddur, in hand, reciting the fixed liturgy of the afternoon Mincha service. This wasn’t a church that housed a synagogue on Saturdays; this wasn’t a church that a synagogue rented space from; this church was solely a church. It may have seemed off or strange to an outsider looking in, but it made sense to us. My last summer serving as a group leader on the USY on Wheels cross-country teen tour, together with fifty teenagers, the group was passing through Birmingham, Alabama. We stopped in at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of the horrific bombing on September 15, 1963. This center for civil rights rallies during the spring of that year was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, killing Denise McNair, age 11, Carole Robertson, age 14, Cynthia Wesley, age 14, and Mae Collins, age 14, as well as seriously injuring another 22 children, all there for Sunday School class. Why were they victims? Because of the color of their skin. In fact, the governor of Alabama at the time, George Wallace, said that the only way to stop integration was to have much needed “first class funerals.” This group of teenagers, this group of USYers, couldn’t believe it. They originally entered the building with apathy, more interested in flirting with their friends than in why they were there. Yet, when they heard the story of this tragedy, many were brought to tears. The group insisted that we could not leave this space without saying Mourner’s Kaddish, acknowledging the innocent lives lost half a century ago due to racism, hatred, and bigotry. So we remained there and davened, concluding our service with the Kaddish.
This example of a Jewish group rising up, want to do something – anything – is just another example of the Jewish community’s involvement and connection to the Civil Rights Movement. Like 55 years ago, when the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, otherwise known as the Peachtree Street Temple, a large Reform synagogue in Atlanta was bombed with fifty sticks of dynamite tearing the walls of the building. Why? Because the synagogue’s rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, was an outspoken advocate of civil rights and integration and a friend of Martin Luther King Jr.
Of course, let us not forget about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel, who came from a Hasidic family in Warsaw, Poland, and quickly became captivated with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an African-American, who grew up in a Southern-Baptist home in America, because of his use of Torah, using the scripture of the Hebrew Bible and specifically, the books of the Prophets, to advance the cause of civil rights in this country. The famous image of Heschel and King, praying with their feet, still resonates with us to this day, walking arm and arm, marching for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, carrying a Sefer Torah along the way as a reminder that our scriptural core, that the words of our tradition, that God’s word, reminds us to pursue justice, to fight for equality, to love thy neighbor as thyself.
Maybe the Jewish community is forever tied to the civil rights movement because of the remarkable gift that the Jewish people have given the world. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches that the world has the Jewish people to thank for the gift of hope. We see the importance of this gift as we just read in Parashat Bo. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage of Pharaoh and the Egyptians and cried out for help. After 400 years of slavery, the Israelites still had hope. When Moses was turned away from Pharaoh’s doorstep time and time again, we did not lose hope. When, following plague after plague, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, we did not lose hope. And when the Israelites gathered their belongings in preparation for a mass Exodus, following God’s instructions, we were believing, hoping, that a change would come. Then, finally, a hope fulfilled in Exodus Chapter 12, verse 51: “Vayehi b’etzem Hayom Hazeh Hotzi Adonai et Bnai Yisrael Me’Eretz Miztrayim al Tzivotam” “That Very Day the Lord freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.”
That hope was what carried Martin Luther King Jr. through the challenges he faced, through his uphill climb during the Civil Rights movement. That hope is what leads all of us to believe that despite whatever darkness resides in the world, it will get better. That hope is what led Reverend King to teach: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” So, the Jewish community continues to fight for justice, for equality, for civil rights.
The RAC, the Jewish community’s Religious Action Center, which lobbies to make real legislative changes in Washington, defines Civil Rights as “the non-political rights of citizenry. In the United States those rights are guaranteed by, among other means, the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution. More broadly, however, civil rights refer to all those rights that allow a citizen to fully participate in civic society.” They add that “the struggle for civil rights is a struggle to achieve equality of opportunity for all, regardless of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.” We understand that struggle. We read of that struggle in our Torah, for we were once strangers in a strange land, fighting for freedom, fighting for equality. That is why this fight is also our fight – and this fight is far from over. That is why the Jewish community must continue to be involved in the fight for justice.
I was actually quite surprised to find out that the Jacksonville Jewish Center has never participated in Jacksonville’s Martin Luther King Day Parade that encourages contemplation, introspection, reflection, and celebration – celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy as well as committing to carrying on his legacy. In fact, I was shocked to learn that no synagogue, Jewish school, agency, organization, or institution has ever marched in Jacksonville’s annual Parade. That is about to change as the Jacksonville Jewish Center will be marching together Monday morning in the MLK Day Parade. This is because we honor Dr. King’s legacy and acknowledge that we, as Jews, have a responsibility to celebrate civil rights, and to not stand idly by while still far too many in our world, in our country, in our own backyard are discriminated against. We will participate in this parade because we will be praying with our feet like Heschel and King, and we will be standing up for others, like we find in Parashat Bo.
In Parashat Bo, we are introduced to Pesach, to the Pascal sacrifice, and to the famous account of putting the blood of the sacrificial lamb on our lintels and on our doorposts.
In Exodus 12:13 read: “V’haya Hadam lachem l’ot, al Habatim asher atem sham, v’ra’iti et hadam, u’fasachti alechem” “And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.”
Pesach, Passover, refers to the Malach HaMavet, the Angel of Death, passing over the homes that had blood sprinkled upon the doorposts. I learned from my father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the teachings of his teacher, the late Dr. Chanan Brichto, who was professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew Union College. He taught that we mistranslate the Hebrew word Pasach. Rather than meaning flying over or passing over, it actually means “Standing in the Doorway”, or “Standing in Front of.” The image he describes is one in which God sees the blood on the doorpost and stands in the doorway preventing the angel of death from causing harm. I would suggest that we take the imagery that Dr. Chanan Brichto describes one step further. If we are made in God’s Divine image, B’Tzelem Elohim, and are described in the Torah as God’s Malachim, God’s messengers and angels, then the image of Pesach is not the angel of death passing over our homes and it is not of God standing in our doorways. Rather it is that we are standing in each other’s doorways, protecting each other from hardship, from harm, and from heartache.
The image of Passover that was celebrated during the civil rights movement is an image that is about more than just the gift of hope. It is an image that is about standing up and protecting each other, it is about standing in harm’s way to ensure the God-given rights of another. This was a difficult task during the civil rights movement – a task that lead to violence, domestic acts of terror, and murder for the African-American community as well as those in the Jewish community that stood up and stood in the doorway for this moral cause. As long as there are still those among us that in the year 2013 are discriminated against and treated as unequal, then this is also a task that is far from over. So let us continue to celebrate King’s legacy and do his holy work. It is not an easy task, not a simple task, but an essential task. To paraphrase Pirkei Avot, even if King was unable to truly complete the task – to rid this world of hatred and bigotry – and even if we too may be unable to complete the task, we are still are obligated to stand up.
So I invite you stand up in the smallest and simplest of ways by joining me and members of the Jacksonville Jewish Center on Monday morning and marching in the Martin Luther King Day Parade, celebrating justice, equality, and freedom – celebrating how far we have come, and understanding how far we have to go. Martin Luther King was famous for among other things, teaching that “the ultimate measure of an individual is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” So continue to stand in the doorway protecting all of our brothers and sisters from discrimination. Stand with them. Stand with us.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky