“I marched toward empathy. I marched toward freedom. I marched toward Shabbat Zachor.”
On March 8, I brought the Torah to life. I stood at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., waiting to embark on a symbolic reenactment of the bridge crossing which began the legendary Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights in March 1965. Little did I know that I didn’t just march to commemorate. I marched toward empathy. I marched toward freedom. I marched toward Shabbat Zachor.
Shabbat Zachor is the Shabbat of Remembrance. Odd, isn’t it? Shabbat Zachor arrives just before Purim, the holiday designed to make us forget the atrocities Haman attempted to inflict upon us. It would be so easy to get swept up in the festivities of Purim and to look forward rather than back. But on Shabbat Zachor, we return to Earth — and to the reality of what it means to be Jewish, to be ever vigilant, ever on the move.
And oh, on the move I was this past week! From Montgomery to Selma to Birmingham to Atlanta. I accompanied Penn’s Alliance for Understanding, a group organized and sponsored by Penn Hillel, the Greenfield Intercultural Center and the African American Resource Center, on a Civil Rights tour of the Deep South. I honestly can’t tell you what I was expecting
going in to this adventure, aside from the acquisition of additional knowledge surrounding Civil Rights events and leaders. What I left with, however, was a sense of purpose, deeper friendships, wisdom, experience — and the true understanding of my role as a storyteller.
There is one story I like quite a bit, and I find its message fitting. The story reads as follows: “In the Jewish mystical tradition, one great rabbi taught his disciples to memorize and contemplate the teachings and place the prayers and holy words on their heart. One day, a student asked the rabbi why he always used the phrase ‘on your heart’ and not ‘in your heart.’ The master replied, ‘Only time and grace can put the essence of these stories in your heart. Here, we recite and learn them and put them on our hearts, hoping that some day, when our heart breaks, they will fall in.’ ”
Textbooks can only do so much. Textbooks won’t break my heart enough to let the words fall in. What broke my heart was meeting Anthony Hinton, a man falsely imprisoned on death row for 30 years of his life for a crime he did not commit. What broke my heart was listening as Ms. Joanne Bland retold the story of how she lost her mother because white hospitals refused to give her the blood she needed for a transfusion after learning the black hospitals did not have her blood type. What broke my heart was sitting at a lunch counter simulation of the Greensboro sit-ins, where protestors withstood threats, curses, insults, physical assaults and arrests while fighting for justice. What broke my heart most of all, however, was coming to the startling realization that most of Alabama’s youth do not know the details of their own history. They live within walking distance of foot soldiers and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee alumni and allies and freedom riders, and yet they are unaware of their presence.
I now truly understand the burden I carry as storyteller. It is the responsibility of my entire generation to remember. Even in the midst of joy and celebration, we must remember the sacrifices that were made for our freedom to celebrate. Yet as we remember, we must always move forward. We are now entering the book of Leviticus. As we end each book of the Torah, we proclaim the following words: “Chazak chazak v’nitchazek”: “Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened.” May we have the strength to open our hearts and to remember our history, and may we be strengthened by the vision of a better tomorrow.
Victoria Kalbacher is a member of the Class of 2019 at the University of Pennsylvania.