06 February 2023
“Darkness does not drive out darkness, only light can do that.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
This past week, I embarked on a mission with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and other community Rabbis and Leaders, to Alabama. Over five days, we visited museums and monuments, discussed historical documents and, most importantly, spoke to some truly incredible people, that I will share succinctly with you here. Instead of trying to explain every day and every interaction, I want to share the stories of two of the individuals we met and why I felt it was important for me to attend this communal trip.
On Wednesday afternoon, we visited Selma, Alabama, walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and toured the city with Selma native, Terry Chestnut, who shared stories about his father, JL Chestnut. The elder Mr. Chestnut was the first black attorney in Selma and defended Dr. King and others who marched for the Voting Rights Act. Terry is not only proud of his fathers work, he sees his calling as extending the memory of Mr. Chestnut by sharing his legacy with others. My grandfather, Ed Bensussen, was a first generation American, served in the armed forces during WWII, went to law school on the GI bill, and opened the first Sephardic-run law firm with his friends. He practiced general law, business disputes, contracts, etc. He also took on some civil rights cases, including helping a group of Japanese-American men form their own chapter of the Lions Club, a charter that was denied because of their race. While I always carry my grandfather’s legacy, I felt connected to Terry in this calling and telling the stories of our family who worked within our system to make the world a better place for all.
Earlier that same day, we visited the Harris House, and learned about the legacy of Vera Harris. She and her husband opened their home for Freedom Riders, Civil Rights Leaders and professional groups of all kinds who weren’t allowed to rent a meeting room at the local hotel because of Jim Crow laws. Vera fed and gave refuge to so many people over the years, their home was like a clubhouse. She reminded me not only of the generosity and warmth of our Gesher community, but also of our matriarch Sarah, who opened the four walls of her tent to greet all those in need of a place to rejuvenate for the long journey ahead.
It’s difficult to sum up all that I learned from each of the people we met this past week. I come away awed by the sense of faith and calling we heard intertwined throughout their stories and the goodness they still see in the world and in people. I’ve always been struck by the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement not only for their accomplishments, but because of the love they expressed for all humanity. In Judaism, we believe that all people were created B’Tzelem Elokim (in the image of God), and that we are all imbued with a spark of divinity. I return home, even more dedicated to this notion and in treating all people with this idea in mind.
Head of School
Gesher Jewish Day School