A Reconstructionist Pilgrimage Towards Racial Justice

In March, I had the good fortune to travel to the Deep South with 200 other Reconstructionist Jews from congregations around the country on a sobering yet uplifting journey that strengthened the commitment of many of us to racial justice in our nation. Reckoning Together: A Reconstructionist Pilgrimage Towards Racial Justice was organized and led by the leadership of the national Reconstructionist Movement, Reconstructing Judaism (RJ); the pilgrimage came shortly after the passage of a significant reparations resolution by the RJ Board of Governors this past January. 

Our travels took us to Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham, where we visited key sites that conveyed the magnitude of white supremacy from the onset of slavery through today, and demonstrated the depth of Black struggle against it, particularly during the civil rights era in the 1950s and 1960s. At the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, the searing exhibits featured major eras of white supremacy including slavery, white resistance to Reconstruction following the Civil War, lynching, the apartheid conditions of Jim Crow, and mass incarceration and the criminal justice system. Although every part of the museum was breathtaking and overwhelming, I found myself tearing up in front of a large oil painting of George Floyd, suddenly confronting the pain and problems in my own city, and feeling gratitude for the antiracism work we’ve undertaken at my Minneapolis synagogue, Mayim Rabim.

At the Montgomery-based National Memorial for Peace and Justice, more commonly known as the Lynching Memorial, we were confronted with 800 six-foot high rectangular steel plaques – suspended from the ceiling by steel ropes – engraved with the names of each county in every state that experienced a lynching. The names of the people – some 4,400 of them, virtually all African-American – who were lynched, along with the dates of the lynchings, were also engraved on the plaques. Instead of names, a number of souls were listed as “Unknown,” next to the dates of their murder. When we returned to the hotel at the conclusion of this day, during the service that followed the Friday night Shabbos dinner, Rabbi Sandra Lawson sang a haunting version of a Kaddish to Black Lives, accompanying herself on her guitar, while the packed room sat in hushed silence. 

During the months of preparation prior to the day of departure, the Reconstructing Judaism leadership labored to create a sacred space to hold all of us and our upcoming confrontation with the sordid history of white supremacy in our country and the s/heroic resistance to it. Their work with us had included several (Zoom) orientation meetings; two inspirational playlists of mostly Black and Jewish songs, chants, and hymns; and a video and presentation – Deconstructing Racism to Reconstruct Judaism – by rabbis, rabbinical students, and lay leaders of color–mostly African American–who are part of RJ. The written materials they developed also included 11 Pilgrimage Values, stating, “We strive to realize these core values in every initiative and interaction.” This one particularly struck me:

“Value #4: Chesed V’Achrayut (lovingkindness and responsibility): Compassionate Accountability…

We understand that antisemitism and intergenerational trauma have made it harder at times for Jews to be included in or effectively navigate these [racial justice] conversations, which is never discounted nor forgotten. That deserves profound attention and healing. At the same time, these cannot be used as an excuse to ignore that racism still needs to be eradicated nor overlook the racism that our community is complicit in perpetuating.” 

In a meeting room on the evening of our arrival in Atlanta, we spent time in small groups discussing the difference between a pilgrimage and a trip, as described by Rabbi Larry Hoffman: 

“The attitude of giving oneself over to the place one visits characterizes the pilgrim…Pilgrimage requires an attitude of reverence to the site one visits…For tourists, the world is made of “sights,” which exist mostly to be seen; for pilgrims, it consists of “sites,” with an acknowledgment of their sacrality…”

Also in that meeting room, we heard from the head of the Atlanta-based Jewish-owned civil rights tour company, Billy Planer, of Etgar 36, who gave us the lay of the land for the coming days. Born and raised in Atlanta, he pointed out that white Jewish pride in the role that Jews played in the civil rights movement is somewhat warranted, but not totally. He said, “There are four Jews today who live in Selma, Ala., while there were 300 at the height of the civil rights movement in 1965. Back then, they stood on both sides of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There were Jews fighting on behalf of civil rights and Jews fighting against it. Some synagogues supported the civil rights movement (for example, by allowing civil rights workers to meet in their buildings) and some didn’t.” He noted that approximately 25 percent of Jews in the South were slave owners, about the same proportion as non-Jewish whites who were slave owners. 

However, the final day of our journey affirmed the solidarity that had also existed between the African-American and Jewish communities in parts of the South. In a memorable Sunday morning service jointly led by U.S. Senator/Senior Pastor Raphael Warnock and Senior Rabbi Peter Berg of Atlanta’s storied synagogue, The Temple, we were gratified to hear about the decades-long solidarity between Ebenezer and The Temple. The 150-year-old Temple was bombed in 1958, partly because of its support for the civil rights movement. As we absorbed the sights and sounds of history all around us, we departed the church uplifted by the Choir’s stirring rendition of Black and Jewish hymns. 

As we now wrestle with the powerful themes of the Jewish high holy days, among them, the theme of teshuvah – turning away from negative attitudes and actions, and, in repentance, turning toward the positive and the good – what insights does the Pilgrimage provide us? For one thing, the values that guided our pilgrimage are excellent moral touchstones. 

Value # 4, Compassionate Accountability, asks us, particularly Ashkenazi Jews, to look at our dual identity – Jewish and white – in order to understand not only the antisemitism that has befallen our people for millennia but the privileges many of us and our families have accrued in U.S. society as white-skinned people. Taking stock of both our oppression and our privilege is a first step in becoming better allies with people of color in the struggle for racial and economic justice. This involves a willingness to learn about the history of racism in our country and the role that Jews have played, both in its perpetuation and in the struggle against it. 

In his framing of some of the history of Jews in the civil rights movement, Billy Planer implied a provocative question, which is the title of a well-known labor and civil rights song, “Which Side Are You On?” That could be a teshuvah-related question worthy of reflection. Warnock and Berg, in their joint historical recounting of allyship and in their prayers, affirmed the importance of ongoing solidarity between our communities. 

Teshuvah asks us to turn toward positive action in behalf of justice and righteousness. Our pilgrimage experiences grounded us in appalling historical events, but also provided a thread of continuity with policy changes that are crying out for implementation today. As a young child, Joanne Bland (Tour Director with Journeys of the Soul in Selma and lifelong civil rights activist) saw her mother die because of the horrific denial of medical care based on the color of her skin; today, we see the denial of Medicaid expansion that continues in ten states, effectively ensuring worse health outcomes and unnecessary deaths, particularly among people of color.  At the age of eleven, Ms. Bland joined part of the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights; today the attacks on voting rights remain fierce.  The Lynching Museum confronted us with the horror of unending murders of Black people after the Civil War and continuing for almost 100 years. But today, we in Minneapolis lived through the recent lynching of George Floyd, and are currently struggling with what kind of police reform we’re willing to strive for.

Our beautiful high holy days provide us with a time to reflect on our actions in the past year – both positive and negative – and to commit to turning toward the good. The recent Reconstructionist Pilgrimage Towards Racial Justice helps show the way. 

Sandy Gerber is a co-founder of the Antiracism Group at Mayim Rabim Congregation in Minneapolis, and a member of Reconstructing Judaism’s Tikkun Olam Commission.