During the recent Jewish High Holidays, the rabbi of our congregation gave two sermons. One was about the rabbi’s participation in the recent march called America’s Journey for Justice. There were over 3,000 participants. This was a 1,000 mile journey from Selma, Alabama to Washington D.C. organized by the NAACP. Among the co-sponsors was the Reform Movement of American Jews. Per the rabbi, the march was to “advance a focused national advocacy agenda that protects the right of every American: to a fair criminal justice system; to uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box; to sustainable jobs with a living wage; and to equitable public education.” This sounds to me like blacks and others coming together peacefully, with a clear agenda (no sound bites), to work towards the dismantling of what many consider to be institutional racism. No accusations, no judgements, no brutish behavior. Just clear-headed determination to make the world a better place through justice for all.
The NAACP warmly welcomed the Jewish movement’s participation in this important event. This harkens back to the 1960s march from Selma to Montgomery, in which so many Jews participated, including many leaders of the community, including the leader of the Reform Movement, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, who marched while carrying a Torah scroll. Also, according to the rabbi, the text of the Voting Rights Act which President Johnson signed in 1965, was drafted around the conference table in the Washington D.C. office of the Reform Jewish Movement’s Religious Action Center.
The rabbi’s actions, the participation of the Jewish community in this latest civil rights event, the Jewish history of working for justice, and the fact that the rabbi thought it appropriate to preach this cause on our Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, all came together to make me very proud of my religion. I wondered if I would ever hear of charitable words emanating from the Mosque of The Nation of Islam, from where Judaism is so villified and disparaged. How much farther we would be towards breaking down racial barriars if the haters and accusers delivered positive messages instead.
Today, many younger people might be surprised by how closely blacks and Jews worked together in the early days of the civil rights movement. This was before Mr. Farrakhan, who infamously referred to Judaism as a gutter religion, Jesse Jackson and his Hymietown remark, the Black Lives Matter movement alignment with the BDS movement against Israel, and others began to damage the long tradition of friendship between the two communities. Although, that did not stop blacks and Jews from continuing to work on many of the same just causes through various organizations – just not together as closely. And that’s a shame. I hope the two communities will continue to come together in their fight for justice.
The second sermon was different but closely related to the notion of the Jewish obligation to help anyone in need – even if those in need work for your destruction. The rabbi reminded us that it is our responsibility to help any and all refugees, and he spoke specifically of the flood of humanity escaping Syria. While Syrians, similar to other middle-easterm Moslems, have the lowest possible opinion of Jews, and Syria has tried for 70 years to eradicate Israel, these painful realities are not to keep us from our obligation to help them. They are deserate refugees, just as Jews have so often been, and it is no less than a commandment from God to offer any stranger or refugee assistance. Israel has secretly treated over 1,000 Syrian civilians in its hosptials. Israelis have secretly been placing unmarked bags of food on the border with Syria since the start of the Syrian uprising. I say “secretly” because it would be dangerous for the hungry and wounded Syrians if their friends and compatriots knew they accepted help from Jews. Rather than turn their backs on the Syrians, the Israelis go about doing what they know to be the right thing in secret. They don’t do it for recognition, which they certainly will never get. They do it because it is the right thing to do.
I don’t yet have a wrap-it-all-up kind of summary. But I think there is a lesson here for anyone who is discouraged or hesitant to do the right thing. Do it! And to anyone in need of help, reach out to the hand that offers it without judgement or rebuke. You’ll be doing both of you a favor.