Some 17 rabbis from New Jersey have joined the NAACP’s Journey for Justice, an 860-mile march from Selma, Ala., to Washington, DC, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act and setting the agenda for civil rights moving forward.
A Torah scroll donated by Temple Sinai in Chicago has accompanied the march for the entire route.
Over 150 rabbis signed up to participate on legs of the march, which began Aug. 1 and will conclude in Washington with a rally on Sept. 16. Participants walk approximately 20 miles each day.
The NJ contingent of rabbis included Philip Bazeley of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, Marc Kline of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, David Levy of Temple Shalom in Succasunna, Greg Litcofsky of Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston, and Laurence Malinger of Temple Shalom in Aberdeen.
Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains signed up but illness prevented his participation.
The rabbis, all affiliated with the Reform movement, responded to a call from the Religious Action Center, the movement’s policy arm, and other Reform affiliates. The RAC is the only religious organization among the NAACP’s partners for the march.
Most of the local rabbis signed on as soon as they heard about it. “I didn’t think twice. I just said yes,” said Levy, who marched on Aug. 21. “It’s just a central part of the Jewish psyche. We are partners with God in repairing the world, and when the call comes, we are supposed to say yes.”
But he also had a personal reason to march. His father, as a refugee escaping the Holocaust, was helped by random people on his own journey to freedom. “He wouldn’t be alive today if those people had not decided to take a chance and reach out to help him. The only way we can repay them is to pay it forward,” Levy said.
Some have spent their lives in civil rights activities. Kline lived in the South until moving to New Jersey last year. He practiced civil rights law in an Arkansas firm where he was the only white attorney, and headed a civil rights commission in Florence, SC, and took part in demonstrations in 2000 calling for Confederate battle flags to be taken down. “I’m no athlete,” said Kline. “To agree to walk 20 miles in the Georgia sun — it was a leap of faith,” he said of his participation in the march on Aug. 17.
Malinger was moved to walk, on Aug. 18, by his memory of “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” drinking fountains in central Florida in the late 1960s.
Bazeley made a conscious decision to march on Shabbat, Aug. 22. “There is another way to connect to faith and God, not just through the prayer book,” he said.
He worries that the Jewish community has grown too “comfortable.”
“We are less engaged in civil rights marches and activities, he said. “We are comfortable letting larger organizations do social justice organizing for us. We can no longer be comfortable with the knowledge that we did march. We can’t use it as an excuse for complacency but rather as a reminder that we need to continue doing it.”
Several of the rabbis, including Bazeley and Litcofsky, marched to dispel the notion that “all of this was resolved in the ’60s,” as Litcofsky put it.
“Part of marching is to remind congregants and ourselves that these issues have not been resolved,” said Bazeley.
The NAACP has adopted the tagline “Our lives, our votes, our jobs, our schools” for the march, whose agenda is advocating education reform, criminal justice reform, voting rights restoration, and economic equality.
“To simply look at this as a 50th anniversary march is to miss the point,” said Levy. “The point is to mobilize people on behalf of an agenda of advocacy. After a year of Ferguson and Baltimore and the Voting Rights Act being cut to shreds in many places, we went walking to communicate something.”
On some days, rabbis marched with 30 people. On others, there were 50. In general, they described being escorted by state troopers, walking two by two on the side of highways, major thoroughfares, and rural roads. Along the route, truckers honked in support, people waved from their porches — and a few showed disdain, sometimes quietly, others vocally.
“We were singing, chanting, laughing, and joyful,” Bazeley said. “There were kids and adults, two-year-olds in strollers, five year-olds, and 70-year-olds with canes. It was a diverse group from all over the country.”
Malinger said marchers were calling out “Scripture if you will” and others would shout a biblical verse. “We enjoyed each other’s company,” he said.
Most found support among passersby. “Folks we’d see along the way were curious, would ask what we’re doing, and would say, ‘Right on, God bless.’”
Litcofsky, marching Aug. 20, realized the fields they were about to enter were once plantations. “We were marching with the Torah scroll with the NAACP right through them,” he said.
Levy walked with his 22-year-old son, Josh. “People were running up to us to take pictures and cheering us on with tears in their eyes. An African-American woman with two kids in the car drove past us, pulled into a parking lot, and was standing on the side of the road to cheer us on. When [NAACP president] Cornell Brooks said, ‘Come march with us,’ she pulled her kids over the barrier rail and walked with us for a bit. It was a powerful moment of saying to her kids, ‘This is what justice looks like.’”
Several days after marching, Kline, still sore and tired, told NJJN, “I’m still trying to process everything that happened.” He said, “It was a huge statement that Jewish clergy were there; that we were honoring a tradition that started in nightmarish violence and now we can pursue it in peace and dignity is huge — that there is still ugliness and racial violence, but that there has been progress.” He added, “State troopers were with us, high-fiving and knuckle-bumping, as opposed to turning water hoses and dogs on us.”
All of the rabbis are now asking where they go from here. Bazeley said, “The march is the first step to more engagement, more grassroots effort to effect change.”
Many will preach about their experiences during the High Holy Days.
Litcofsky said, “As a Jewish community, we can and should have a role to play in relationship with those doing this good work.”