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In the Deep South

04/25/2023 03:16:25 PM


Laura Katz, Tony Broh, Meryl Epstein, Cindy Shulak-Rome, Trish Nuzzola, Abby Cohen, and Dan Rome

In March, seven White CDT members traveled to Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham and Atlanta as part of Reconstructing Judaism's (RJ) "Reckoning Together: A Reconstructionist Pilgrimage Towards Racial Justice." Bringing together 200 Jews from around the US including a cohort of 15 Jews of Color, this Pilgrimage was an outgrowth of the movement’s 2021 formal commitment to "join and lead Jewish efforts to dismantle systemic racism and advance racial diversity, equity and inclusion within the Reconstructionist movement." In October 2022, a group of Jews of Color made the same Pilgrimage with the express intent of allowing participants the space to experience and share feelings about being Black and Jewish. They shared their experiences through RJ's website and in a pre-trip program and then served as part of the trip’s leadership. On the first night of our journey, we engaged in thoughtful text study, reflecting on the distinction between a "sightseeing" vacation and a sacred pilgrimage of mind, body, and spirit.

At the Equal Justice Institute's Legacy Museum in Montgomery, we viewed the comprehensive history of the impact of slavery in the U.S.. Entering the first hall, we stood before a larger-than-life video screen of the raging ocean waters. The first exhibit tells of the roots of slavery, from the capturing and kidnapping of Africans to the horrific conditions on the trans-Atlantic journey, including the 2 million people killed at sea due to illness and inhumane conditions on the ships. Despite a prior knowledge of this history, seeing this image of the water, coupled with the narration, touched us deep inside in a new way. The museum vividly depicted countless stories of enslavement, the Jim Crow era, the terrorism of lynchings used to enforce racial hierarchy and modern day mass incarceration.
The visceral journey continued at the neighboring National Memorial for Peace and Justice (also referred to as the Lynching Memorial). While we had seen photos, nothing prepared us for this gut-wrenching memorial, acknowledging the more than 4,400 African Americans who were lynched from the end of the Civil War through the 1950's. Inspired by Germany's Holocaust Museum and South Africa's Apartheid Museum, the Memorial includes 800 large steel monuments, representing the 800 US counties where lynchings occurred. Each monument lists the names and dates of those murdered; replicas of each monument, resembling caskets or gravestones, lay in a neighboring section, waiting to be eventually "claimed" — brought back by those counties as memorials. Visiting the Memorial alongside BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) added another perspective; while viewing the monuments, a fellow traveler whispered with tears in her eyes how many of her family's names she saw listed in different counties and states. Witnessing the multitude of names, counties, and dates brought home the enormity and prevalence of the racial terror underlying our country. Also in Montgomery, we visited a small museum and learned about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycotts through text, audio, and creative simulations.

Traveling to Selma, Alabama (a community of 17,000, roughly 85% African American), we viewed the palpable impact of systemic racism. While economically depressed, the community still thrives with pride by recalling the days when its courageous citizens sparked the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. We met with JoAnne Bland who described her vivid memories of "Bloody Sunday" as an 11-year-old, which humanized that horrific day beyond the images and narratives already familiar to most of us. The Brown Chapel AME church where JoAnne Bland spoke and the drugstore where Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot 58 years ago while protecting his grandfather from being killed, are among the few operating buildings on Broad Street in downtown Selma. The deteriorating buildings include the 120-year-old Temple Mishkan Israel, now with only four members, the youngest of whom is 65 years old. Crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge in silence with 200 fellow Jews boosted the feeling of "pilgrimage," bringing together the current racial justice work of both the RJ movement and CDT. 
In Birmingham, the organizers convened a panel of BIPOC participants who shared their experiences of being "othered" in the Jewish community, including by White trip participants. We heard, in real time, how the legacy of structural racism continues to surface in our daily interactions. We listened deeply, uncomfortably hearing their pain. We noted that the thread of conversation among White participants afterwards included the observation that what had prompted this panel was thought to be a seemingly innocent question. 

On the final day, our group attended services at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church which in the words of Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock continues to bear "spiritual witness" from Reconstructionism through the Civil Rights Movement to today. How serendipitous that they were also celebrating the 137th Anniversary of Ebenezer and were joined by Rabbi Peter Berg and the congregation of The Temple, the oldest temple in Atlanta. The joyous singing, many instruments, and joining of the Baptist and Jewish choirs was gorgeous, uplifting, and emotional. We began our journeys home, committed to continued learning, grateful to all who shared their wisdom and experiences.

Mon, June 24 2024 18 Sivan 5784