27 years ago when I was an Assistant Rabbi with Rabbi Barry H. Greene, he shared with me a lesson that each and every year he would offer as “summer homework” to the all Religious School students at the end of the school year. It is a lesson that was passed down to him from a previous generation of Rabbis and which continues through my generation of Rabbis.
The lesson is as follows, “Over the summer, I would like you to do a bit of Jewish homework: Take a long walk, make a new friend, read a good book and do a mitzvah.” Simple advice that is meant to fill the summer with the Jewish values of appreciating God’s creation, building community, continuous learning and making a difference.
Last Friday as I walked the 18 miles from Ft. Gordon, GA to the outskirts of Aiken, SC, often carrying an 18 pound Torah in hand (the double chai symbolism was not lost on any of us), this lesson came back to me in a renewed manner. In one day, by taking part in the NAACP’s Journey for Justice as a representative of the Religious Action Center and Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, I had done my summer homework in a most powerful way.
Read a good book: In preparation for the march, I had picked up a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”, a powerful letter from a father to his son in the aftermath of the deaths of Eric Gardener and Trayvon Martin. It is a powerful meditation on what it means to inhabit a black body in America today. In it he explores our country’s racial history and forces us to face up to the damage it has done to so many black lives.
In words that are often uncomfortable to read, he challenges us to change this history and free our country from the burdens and dangers it imposes on so many. His words led me to approach our journey with a clearer vision of what it might mean.
Make a New Friend: My 22 year old son Josh and I arrived at Paine College in Augusta, GA the night before our walk to take responsibility for the Torah that is being carried at the head of the march all 40 days, from Selma AL to Washington DC, as a vital symbol of both it’s eternal call for justice and our Reform community’s commitment to the goals of the Journey. The embrace we received was overwhelming. I can’t put into words what it means to all involved that each and every day two or more Reform Rabbis, from across the country, are joining in on this walk.
And in that warm embrace I and my son Josh made some incredible new friends. We connected with Middle Passage, a 68 year old disabled veteran whose name is a tribute to his ancestors who came on the slave trade and who is walking almost every mile of the trek carrying an American Flag at the head of the march.
We met Keshia Thomas, a human rights activist whose photo of a moment of courage and compassion as an 18 year old high school student was seen around the world and appeared in one of Josh’s text books. Keshia befriended us and watched out for us throughout the day of walking and has taken on a personal responsibility for helping to care for our precious Torah scroll.
And we got to spend time over a meal with Rev. Dr. Cornell William Brooks, the President of the NAACP and one of my new social justice heroes. His commitment to the causes that inspired the Journey for Justice is profound and his words are most powerful. But what moved me most was his gentle, caring demeanor. Walking at the head of the line, Cornell was constantly working to get the word out through the media and to further the work of the NAACP. But at the same time, everything could be put aside to go over and talk to a young mother and her two children watching from the side of the road and invite them to walk with him, if only for a block. In genuinely caring as much about talking to the individuals along the road and walking behind him as he does about talking to MSNBC and CNN, he is the picture of the best kind of leader.
Take a Long Walk: America’s Journey for Justice is, at its most simple, a very long walk from Selma to Washington. Each day the group has covered 18 – 20 miles on humid southern days with the heat index often rising well above 100 degrees. It is a physically taxing experience.
But that very exertion adds to the spiritual inspiration each of us felt as we walked. I saw this as I looked over at my son who spent almost the entire march walking behind Rev. Dr. Brooks (and even had the honor of filming Cornell’s dedication of that day’s march). No matter how hot the day got or how much his feet hurt, there was a wide smile on his face. It was the smile of someone who knew that each step he was taking had meaning. Many have referenced Heschel’s famous words that at Selma he was praying with his feet and I have never understood those words better than after this walk.
Do a MItzvah: I was asked by a reporter after the walk “What was the point? Why does a march in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the voting rights act matter?” My response was that to see this march simply as a commemoration is to misunderstand it completely.
America’s Journey for Justice is not a look back to where we have been, but a journey forward into a better future for our country. Each step taken is a cry for criminal justice reform, each mile walked is a call for education reform, every sore limb aches for an end to the plague of economic inequality and every day closer to Washington is a day dedicated to restoring voting rights that continue to be denied to many.
Our Journey matters because it is highlighting issues that left unsolved will continue to destroy lives and ultimately our country. Our Journey matters because it has renewed and reinvigorated the historic ties between our Reform Movement and the NAACP. Our Journey matters because those we have walked with have become friends and family and we have again begun to feel our neighbors pain as our own. And, our Journey matters because it has inspired so many of us to go home and get our hands dirty by continuing the work that will make its goals a reality.
Josh and I are planning to be in Washington, DC as the march comes to its conclusion on the day after Rosh Hashanah. Though we will celebrating the end of America’s Journey for Justice and the completion of a vital piece of “summer homework”, I know that what we will really be celebrating is beginning of a renewed commitment to its goals and ideals.