Reflections from Rabbi Sarah Tasman: Rabbinic and Communal Leaders Mission to Alabama

It is early in the morning when I can finally sit down in the cool dawn light to collect my thoughts after returning from spending the past five days in Alabama as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Rabbinic and Communal Leaders Mission to the South. 

One of the first things we did as a group after arriving in Alabama was an intention setting ritual for the trip. I had asked everyone to bring a small stone from home as a symbol of all the things we carried with us – the questions, the thoughts, the expectations and hopes we had for this experience. Each person shared an intention for the week. The stone I brought from home seemed to have a missing section, and I felt that was symbolic of the missing pieces of the story that I was hoping to fill in over the course the week: the history of the civil rights movement and its legacy, the southern Jewish community and their involvement the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and slavery and institutional racism in America. The missing pieces would begin to be filled in through seeing the places, hearing the family stories, smelling the smells, shaking hands, and walking over hallowed ground throughout Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. We carried the stones with us all week as a symbol of all that we would carry with us through and beyond this journey. 

Over the course of our five days, we were able to meet with some of the most remarkable people I have ever met. Generous and loving individuals, who opened their homes to us to share stories about their parents and grandparents who had been leaders in the civil rights movement, or the first black physician or lawyers, or judges and individuals who continue to teach, preach, love and fight for justice today. We visited the Dexter Avenue Church parsonage, the home of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr., where he and his family lived. We were given a tour from Mrs. Avis Dunbar-Smith, who had spent time at the parsonage as a young girl with her grandmother and shared with us her memories. Mrs. Valda Harris, PhD, shared memories of when MLK Jr., a young John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and other leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were holed up to discuss and plan the Freedom Rides at her family’s home, which served as a safe and private place for civil rights leaders and organizers to meet throughout the movement.  

In Selma, we met with Ronnie Leet, one of only three local congregants of Congregation Mishkan Israel, who keep the synagogue going as living testament to Selma’s Jewish history and for Jewish groups visiting Selma to have a place to gather when visiting. Our group explored the nuances and complexities of the southern Jewish community’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Though we knew the stories of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’ marching with Dr. King in Selma, and the 200 Jews who came down to Alabama to join the Freedom Rides, many of us heard for the first time about the fear, precarity, and hesitancy of local Jews who owned half of the businesses in Selma to take part in the marches, boycotts, and other aspects of the movement. Some of us bristled at learning about rabbis who refused to disrupt the balance of life in the South and discouraged their colleagues from participating in the civil rights movement. We struggled with seeing the current day urban economic blight in Selma, which felt run down and depressed. It was an unfortunate contrast to the to the deep and sacred historical significance it had as the place of the events during the Selma to Montgomery Marches in 1965 where thousands walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were beaten during Bloody Sunday, which ultimately help lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. 

Our final day in Montgomery brought us back to the present day, as we met with Representative Chris England and Clerk Evonne Jackson at the Alabama House of Representatives to talk about current issues, the impact and legacy of the Civil Rights movement, and the Alabama School Board’s ban on ‘divisive’ topics in K-12 schools. The ban ultimately silences the history and black narratives of slavery, lynching, racism, as well as protects the descendants of the Confederacy, white slave owners, and perpetrators of racial terror.  

Throughout our trip, participants offered kavanot, words of intention, reflection, teaching, or prayer to give voice to our experiences. At our last stop of the trip, we solemnly walked in the rain witnessing the over 800 corten steel grave markers of lynching victims reminiscent of hanging coffins at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. As Rachel Gildiner, CEO of Federation partner Gather, Inc., offered closing remarks, we recalled both the first and last images we saw of water: on our first day arriving at the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum, the vision of a raging and resistant sea which carried the slave ships from Africa and the last images of the wall flowing steadily with water for the thousands of unknown victims of racial terror. 

I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to have been on this journey, both as a participant and as a member of Federation, who organized and led this experience. Thank you to our educators, Yoni Kadden and Kevin Levin; to Noa Havivi for her stellar project management of every aspect of the trip; to Elisa Deener-Agus and Gil Preuss for their partnership and support of our rabbinic and Jewish communal leaders; to all of the speakers, our tour guides; our bus driver Rusty Taylor; to everyone who prepared our meals; to all of the staff, and; to the volunteers of the sites we visited and to the participants on this trip.  

To take this trip with our spiritual and communal leaders was humbling and inspiring. This trip was the first of many steps in a long journey, which continues here in our own community. We know we have more work to do together, and I look forward to seeing the impact of this experience and our continued learning and action as a community.  

Note: There is so much more I am sitting with after the trip. So many more individuals we met with learned from, so many others we learned about but didn’t get to meet, and so many more people whose names we do not even know. May each of them be a blessing.