Local rabbis make an emotional trek with a Torah as part of the “Journey to Justice.”
Beth Kalisch was returning from her honeymoon when she first got the news.
“It was mid-July and we’re in the airport, so I started going through my emails,” said the 34-year-old rabbi from Congregation Beth David in Gladwyne, who recently returned from Montgomery, Ala, where she participated in the NAACP’s “America’s Journey for Justice” march on Aug. 4. “I saw the Reform movement was organizing to make sure a Torah would be carried by at least one rabbi a day during the march.
“I sent an email out to my congregation and was surprised that two people were able to go with me. It was not a particularly convenient time to take three days off. I was just coming back from my honeymoon, and August is the busiest time of the year, preparing for the holidays and with religious school registration starting up and two new cantors coming in. But our congregation has a long history of social justice. I felt really proud that as rabbi at Beth David, I could be there when they couldn’t.”
Along the way, marching in 103-degree heat to the same state capitol building in Montgomery where Martin Luther King led his followers 50 years ago, she quickly realized it was worth all the hassle.
“It was very powerful,” said Kalisch, one of a number of local rabbis who have signed up for the 860-mile trek that will culminate in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 16. “It was amazing to see how present that sense of history is. I think Jews also have that sense of living very much with the past in a way people don’t understand — the way they tell stories of their grandparents coming to America or about the Holocaust. Even though that happened a while ago, it’s still so much a part of their lives.
“Being in Montgomery made me realize how much this is still a part of their experience.”
Shortly after Kalisch returned home, Reconstructionist rabbis Margot Stein and Myriam Klotz left for Atlanta, picking up their leg of the march on Aug. 9 in LaGrange, Ga. “Because of the outrage being felt with violence towards our neighbors as people of faith and conviction, we feel compelled to stand with our friends and join them in this march,” said Stein, a music and liturgy instructor at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, before departing. “A Torah scroll is making the entire trip. Every day it’s being handed off, rabbi-to-rabbi, so it becomes part of the conversation of Jewish values underlying this action.”
As important as that is for Klotz, who grew up in Atlanta before coming to Philadelphia and eventually winding up as director of the Spirituality Initiative at the Hebrew Union College in in New York, it’s also personal. “Having grown up in the South and observed the face of racial injustice in the air, it strikes a particular chord in me,” said Klotz, 51. “To address something which hasn’t seemed to change for the better.”
Two days later, having completed their walk and attended a teach-in session on the Voting Rights Act, both said it was a profound experience. “It was very meaningful to me to put my feet on the soil and look around,” said Klotz, who stayed with her family in Atlanta during the weekend. “I thought, ‘This could’ve been a plot of land where, 75 years ago, there was a lynching.’
“I thought, ‘I’m very privileged and lucky and blessed to be living in this moment of hope, marching with African-Americans working for change. It was empowering to me to make a positive statement and be a force for the reformation of institutional racism.”
For Stein, who kept cool in the humid 98-degree weather by placing ice packs on her neck while she marched with some participants who had made the entire trek from Selma, it was exhilarating. “Being with our colleagues — both Jewish and those from the NAACP — I found everyone’s mood was high spirited,” she explained. “They were incredibly well-organized, and we had police support the entire length of the journey.
“Most of the people on the street were waving at us and taking pictures and selfies. It was very meaningful to share the experience in very hot weather step-by-step, getting to know different people, learning a lot about them and their struggle and vision.”
The march will continue north from Georgia, the Carolinas, then Virginia, with rallies along the way in Atlanta, Greenville, S.C., Charlotte, N.C., and Richmond, Va. Each step of the way, rabbis will join the proceedings, carrying a Torah, which they’ll ultimately pass on to the one of their counterparts.
That will essentially make this the longest relay “race” in history, although rabbis aren’t the only ones carrying the “baton.” “I walked maybe six miles,” said Kalisch, who spent the previous night sleeping on a cot in a Montgomery church, before learning the oppressive heat would limit the length of her journey. “The day I was out there, some black state troopers were holding the Torah and then we passed it along. Everyone marching wanted a chance to hold it. To be able to talk with them and walk with them and be uplifted was inspiring. I think it was really meaningful for people there to see the rabbis. It made a strong statement about Jewish solidarity in the African-American community. It’s a good reminder how personal all politics are.”
Several other rabbis with Philadelphia ties will also be marching between now and the finish line. Among them are Sue Levi Elwell, director of the Pennsylvania Council of Reform Synagogues; George Stern, executive director of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network; and Peter Rigler of Temple Sholom in Broomall.
Philadelphia native Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov, of Temple Anshe Hesed in Erie, Pa, said the focus of her Aug. 18 march from Athens, Ga., is to emphasize that all citizens should have the same rights. Unfortunately, she realizes, that’s not the case.
“I very much like to embody Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, to ‘pray with my feet,’ ” she said of the man who marched alongside King back then in Selma. “I firmly believe we cannot sit idly by. It’s absolutely outrageous in 2015 we’re still dealing with such prejudice.
It’s clear there is a lack of equality. As Americans, we should all be entitled to truly the same rights.
Racism still exists — and not just in the South. It’s all over the country.”