Just one week after I committed to joining more than 150 other Reform rabbis in carrying a Torah during America’s Journey for Justice – but exactly 50 years after Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a bus in this city – here I am in Montgomery, Alabama. I’m here with Jane Horwitz and Ed Hoffman, two members of Beth David who were somehow able to rearrange their schedules to join me on this journey.
My flight to Montgomery was on a small plane, the kind only big enough for one flight attendant, and when she introduced herself over the PA system, she said, “Welcome aboard your flight! My name is Torah.”
Coincidence? That’s one way of describing it.
I had to know more about her name, so after the plane had landed, I told her a little bit about the Jewish meaning of Torah, and why I was coming to Alabama. She corrected me on the spelling – it’s actually Tora – and she told me that it’s her nickname. It made me think of a teaching by the early Chassidic master, the Maggid of Mezrich, who used to tell his students: Don’t just talk about the Torah. Be Torah.
That’s a pretty good way of describing why it is that I came all this way for such a short trip. First, because if our congregation is going to teach our children that the Torah demands that we pursue Tzedek, justice, and that all human beings are created equally b’tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God, then I better be willing to jump on a plane every once in a while to practice what I preach. And second, because I have plenty to learn about other people’s experiences with injustice in our society, and how we can overcome it together – and this march seemed like a great opportunity to learn from other people who are busy being Torah as part of that struggle.
Our first glimpse of what it might mean to be Torah at this march took place at a rally on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. Since the march will last for 40 days, ending in Washington, DC, the crowd is much smaller here in Alabama than it will be by the end. But it was still inspiring to see the diverse crowd of people who came out today. Alabama churchgoers, New York union workers, college student activists, grandparents who lived through the civil rights struggles of 50 years ago, and their grandchildren in tow, some wearing tshirts with pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that recalled the last march from Selma to Montgomery.
The rally was focused on issues of economic justice, and speakers raised issues ranging from the need for a living wage for tipped workers to the frustration of workers with “full time aspirations” stuck in part-time jobs and of recent college grads living with their parents because of unemployment and student loan debt. There were five Refom rabbis at the rally, one of whom, Rabbi Mark Miller, gave the closing benediction. The rabbis who marched today passed the Torah to the three of us marching tomorrow. We got a special shout-out for having sent so many rabbis from all around the country. Jews, one of the speakers explained, are the original members of the Abrahamic tradition – “the original Baptists, the original Methodists.” I guess that’s how we know we’re in the Deep South!
After the rally, Jane, Ed and I met up with the handful of other Reform Jews and rabbis who were in town this evening (from New Jersey, Michigan, and Louisiana) for dinner (who knew there was such good sushi in Alabama?), and then we made our way to a Catholic church that is serving as the home base for marchers in Montgomery. Tomorrow night, when our feet are likely to be aching, we’ll sleep at a hotel, but for tonight we joined other marchers and NAACP staff on cots in the gym.
The accommodations were basic, but the camaraderie in the room was warm, even for us as newcomers who hadn’t yet met any others. We got to talk a little bit with NAACP staff, including the national president, Cornell Williams Brooks, and a young woman who is originally from Wynnefield, the same neighborhood in Philadelphia where Beth David was originally located.
But now, it’s time for bed. A long day of marching in the hot sun awaits us tomorrow!