Freedom Summer’s Power Still Captivates, Inspires in New Exhibition at Mishkan Shalom


Through the power of historical photographs, Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Roxborough hosts a new exhibit, “From the Old Jim Crow to the New.”

The images of men and women being trampled on Selma, Ala.’s “Bloody Sunday,” burning buses in Tennessee and civil rights activists being shot with water cannons are forever etched into the minds of those who have seen them.
It is precisely that power, that ability to move people through a photograph, that led Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Roxborough to host a new exhibit, “From the Old Jim Crow to the New.”
The show couldn’t have found a more appropriate venue in the area. One section of Mishkan’s charter states it is dedicated to ending racial injustice and mass incarceration in this country.
On Dec. 13, the exhibit, consisting of more than 40 images and an accompanying narrative developed by Larry Bush, editor of Jewish Currents magazine, debuted. The exhibit was initially developed in 2014 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.
The photographs showcase the work of the civil rights movement — and the Jewish imperative to work for racial equity and justice.
Freedom Summer was a campaign launched in June 1964 to attempt to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi, which had historically excluded most blacks from voting.
Bush told the Exponent that fully one-third of the people who came south during that summer were Jewish. Back then Jews didn’t identify themselves as activists.
“A lot of people didn’t embody or feel self-conscious about being Jewish,” Bush said. “Younger Jews didn’t put their bodies on the line. It’s part of the whole American Jewish contribution to social progress. Jewish education has not been about social action. Today, Jewish identity is based on Judaism and Israel.”
Throughout the afternoon, audience members and panelists discussed civil rights issues they experienced. The panelists included Timothy Hayes, a Black Panther and Selma Bloody Sunday march participant; Simone Zelitch, author of Waveland; and Mishkan members Ellen Tichenor, the founder of Freedom School, Yosaif August, a legal rights activist and Rabbi Shawn Zevit.
Hayes, who grew up in Atlanta in the second-largest housing project in the country at the time, told the audience, “Atlanta was so huge, you could go a week without seeing a white person.”
One of his first jobs was working for Jews at a store where he mopped and cleaned for $3 a week.
Inspired by the Freedom Riders in 1961, Hayes — still in elementary school at the time — sought them out. He would sneak out of his mother’s church on Sundays to attend meetings of the Atlanta Student Movement.
In January 1965, while on a trip to New York for the National Science Fair, he met Malcolm X, whom he had heard speak several times in Atlanta. In March 1965, Hayes marched across the bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday. He was tear-gassed, beaten and stomped by a horse before getting away.
“When we crossed that bridge, they said, ‘You’re not going anywhere. Stop, cease and desist.’ ”
He told the Exponent he still remembers people falling and when they got up, he and the other men ran and ran.
Even after 50 years, Hayes still experiences post-traumatic stress disorder from time to time. He noted there are certain things he can talk about — like Bloody Sunday or when the police cracked his forehead open — and other things he can’t.
“I still freeze up when I see a policeman,” he said.
Another person who can attest firsthand to racial injustice is Talia Hoke, an African-American who recently converted to Judaism and joined Mishkan Shalom.
After graduating from high school in 1997, she ventured out west to Oregon for college and saw the Ku Klux Klan quite often, which frightened her.
“It was really an eye-opening experience,” Hoke recalled. But, when she moved to Boston in 2002 and protested against mass incarceration, she and others were attacked by police.
Barry Dornfeld of Conshohocken said he was impressed with the stories told by the panelists. He said one of the reasons he joined the synagogue is because of the activism and social action work Mishkan does like this exhibit.
“It’s very much wired into Mishkan’s mission,” Dornfeld said.
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