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Thursday, February 12, 2015

"Selma" and the Jews

On Monday, January 19, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I invited my 9th grade students to join me as we watched “Selma,” the recent movie directed by Oprah Winfrey. My 9th grade class curriculum focuses on the history of Reform Judaism, specifically focusing on growing up as a Jew in the South.  Prior to our trip to Selma, Alabama, in March, we will be spending some time at The Temple on Peachtree Street learning about and discussing the role the Atlanta Jewish community played in the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century.  Of course, with the release of “Selma,” I believed this to be a great introduction for my students. 

Having recently read “What Selma Means to the Jews” by Dr. Susannah Heschel, I was keenly aware of some of the criticism that has been given to “Selma.”  The criticism specified in Dr. Heschel’s Op-Ed seems to focus on a few key points.  In the first paragraph, Dr. Heschel writes, “Regrettably, the film represents the march as many see it today, only as an act of political protest.”  Yes, it is true – the film does focus on the politics of the Civil Rights Movement.  However, there is also a special focus on Dr. King’s invitation to clergy nationwide to join him in Selma.  The movie’s emphasis on this invitation is significant.  As a matter of fact, the brutal murder of one of these ministers happens to be one of the most difficult and tense scenes in the entire movie.  In my opinion, the most spiritually uplifting scene in the movie occurs when Dr. King knelt down to pray and then turned around and walked the other direction, back from where he came.

As a rabbi, I have always appreciated Dr. King’s comparison of the march from Selma to the Exodus of the Jews out of Egypt.  Dr. Heschel writes about this as well in her Op-Ed: “Not only were the Israelites leaving Egypt, the place of enslavement, but also the Egyptians, because there was a hope at Selma that white America was repudiating its racism.”  It is true that we still have a long way to go in this country in order to finish the “Exodus from Selma.”  However, the march was a great step and a foundational moment in our history.  This cannot be ignored, just as any first step in achieving the prophetic vision of total justice for all peoples.

The most significant criticism of “Selma” was that there was not more of a focus on the relationship between Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel had a very special relationship.  The very famous picture of Rabbi Heschel walking alongside Dr. King, Ralph Bunche, Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttleworth and Rev. C.T. Vivian is one of the most well known artifacts from the Civil Rights period.  While the picture represents a future filled with hope, one in which justice can be achieved, the focus of “Selma” was on the struggle of African Americans and the eventual outcome.

As a rabbi in the South, I understand completely the significance of the shared history of Blacks and Jews.  When I walked out of the movie theater, I was not upset or frustrated that there was not more of a focus on the Jewish community and their role.  I was not upset that a particular person or group was not included.  I was inspired, not only by the actors and the roles they played, but also by the message from 50 years ago that still applies today.

“…Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:21-24) 

Israel B’yadeinu – Israel in Our Hands

Israel – the homeland of the Jews, the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael, Ha-Aretz.  As a kid, I always envisioned what Israel would be like.  I saw the many posters in my synagogue, I watched the videos and read the stories.  When I first traveled to Israel in 1999, what I experienced on my first trip I could not have been prepared for.  There were modern buildings.  We had dinner in a mall.  Israel was just like America in so many ways.  As a tourist, I was in awe at the beauty and wonder of Israel.  Sixteen years later, I am still in awe at the wonder that is Israel, but I am also keenly aware of the challenges and questions facing Israelis every day.  

While I was living in Israel in 2007, I took a taxi with a few of my friends to go to the mall.  As was usually the case, the driver started to ask us about our visit to Israel.  When one of my friends, a female cantoral student, remarked she was studying to be a Chazanit, the driver stopped his cab, yelled that there was no such thing as a female Chazan, and then kicked us out of his cab.  This story is a clear example of some of the questions and challenges facing Israel, even today.

Rabbi Miri Gold earned the dual distinction of being the first female AND the first non-Orthodox rabbi to receive a paycheck from the State of Israel as a rabbi.  Anat Hoffman, often seen being arrested at the Western Wall for her leadership of Women of the Wall, just wants the right to pray, read Torah and wear a Tallis.  These are just two incredible women doing their parts to ensure gender equality in Israel.  Rabbi Gold, because she is not an Orthodox rabbi, is not granted the same status as her Orthodox colleagues.  The very character of the State of Israel is affected by these unequal policies.  By denying its non-Orthodox Jewish citizens equal treatment under the law, Israel violates its own Declaration of Independence, which guarantees freedom of religion.

As a rabbi, I stand 100% with Israel.  I love Israel – the people, the food, the culture.  However, as an American Jew, I understand also that there are opportunities for me (and all American Jews) to help shape the future of Israel.  Israel is not just the homeland for Israeli Jews; no, it is the homeland for all Jews.  As a Reform Rabbi, I support ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists of America.  ARZA speaks for all Jews, providing a valuable voice for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, Religious Equality among all Jews, and for the safety, security and stability of Israel, the Palestinians and the entire Middle East Region.

So, the question is – will you step up and do your part to help create an Israel that cherishes the same values we cherish??  Each of us has a critical voice, and a critical opportunity.  In October, 2015, the World Zionist Congress (WZC) will meet in Jerusalem to discuss, debate, and make decisions about critical issues; decisions that will continue to shape Israel today and into the future.  Israel was founded to be a pluralistic and democratic Jewish state.  By supporting ARZA in the WZC election, you will ensure that the dream of the founders of Israel will be realized.

How can you be involved?  Visit to learn more about the elections, and how your vote will matter.  Beginning January 13, 2015, and running through April 30, 2015, VOTE.  You can vote online or with a paper ballot.  The vote costs $10 for those over age 30 and $5 for those 30 and under.  The future of Israel is in your hands!