One approach to race: change the system

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

An obligation to make the world a better place

3 Oak Park Temple members march in the Journey for Justice

 

            When Rabbi Max Weiss, Gary Wood and Sue Blaine—all members of the Oak Park Temple—heard about the NAACP sponsored 860 mile long march from Selma to Washington D.C. called a Journey for Justice, all three felt compelled to participate.

            They boarded a plane to Atlanta last week Tuesday and with 30 others walked about 16 miles the next day from the outskirts of Atlanta to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in the city center.  The NAACP website says that the Journey "will mobilize activists and advance a focused national policy agenda that protects the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education."

 

            Blaine, a past president of Oak Park Temple, talked about her motivation for joining the Journey.  "I think it's important to stand up and be counted," she said.  "I briefly taught in a high needs minority high school and saw first hand inequities within both the educational system and the society the students lived in."

 

            Weiss, who said that the group carried a Torah scroll throughout their leg of the Journey and included three rabbis and, articulated his motivation in religious terms.  "The primary method of experiencing God for Jews," he explained, "is the obligations that are demanded of us, and at the heart of those obligations is the idea that we are required to make the world a better place in which to live for all people."

Wood put it this way: "Carrying the Torah and having others carrying the Torah along the march was very powerful because the Torah is a living and breathing document that commands us to fight injustice.  I felt like I was connecting to ancestors who had done many marches before this one for human rights and social justice.  I felt the Torah is our touchstone to our humanity and legacy."

Even though none of the three entertained grandiose illusions about the effect their one day walk would have on race relations in this country, they nevertheless felt that it was important that they show up and be counted  "Eliminating the disparities," said Blaine, "will require major societal changes which are not likely to occur quickly.  We may not be able to fully fix all of the problems the Journey for Justice has identified, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try."

Weiss said, "There's a text from the Mishna that inspires me. 'It's not our responsibility to complete the task, but we are also not free to desist from doing it.' I'm taking a very small part in a larger movement.  My inability to do everything doesn't excuse me from doing something.  It's just a sense of doing the right thing."

That said, the three were impressed by the reactions of the people who happened to see them.  "It would have been very difficult not to notice us," said Weiss, "because there were dozens of police officers with us, squad car sirens and lights on, blocking intersections and leading us. When we entered the city limits of Atlanta, there was a helicopter overhead.  They were very conscious of security.  Most of the time we were walking in the road and the police would stop traffic in one lane while we passed, so it made a presence.

"The vast majority of people along the way were clapping and honking their horns and waving when they passed us.  White people driving by in their cars were honking horns and waving, giving us a thumbs up and saying 'you go.'  The police officers who were accompanying us--some were white some were black--everyone was treating each other with mutual respect."

Blaine mentioned that several of the bystanders actually joined them for awhile on the march.  "One college student," she remembered, "who was waiting for a bus joined us saying 'this is history.'  A mother who was home schooling her children and was on her way to the library for an 'educational experience,' decided marching with us would be a teachable moment, providing a much more meaningful lesson for her pre-teen children than what she had planned for the day."

Blaine worried that the march, which was very peaceful, wasn't getting the kind of publicity from the media as were dramatic occurrences of violence like in Ferguson.  Indeed, most people in surveyed in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park weren't even aware that the march was going on.  At the same time she was hopeful that the Journey "would increase awareness of the need to eliminate disparities in the country."

Whether or not their participation in the march changed the world, all three said that being part of it had an impact on them as individuals.  Wood was touched by the support and encouragement he received from friends, family and temple members, and, he added, "It allowed me to reconnecting to my youth in the 60's when I was involved in the civil rights movement."

Weiss was greatly impressed by Cornell Brooks, the president and CEO of the NAACP, who himself is walking most of the 860 miles of the Journey.  "He's a remarkable leader," said the rabbi. "He leads by being there, holding the flag and encouraging people.  I would consider him a role model for leadership."

When asked if what they experienced in Atlanta will have any impact on this part of the world, Weiss said, "I think the challenge now is translating the experiences from the march into the community of Oak Park and River Forest, working for justice in the wider Chicago area."

            Wood said, "Oak Park was built on a commitment to racial diversity, not just with words but in deeds and action.   We need to be hyper vigilant to make sure that our systems in our civil society--be it work, schools, and public bodies--are also just and fair in deeds and actions."

Sidebar possibilities

From the NAACP website    NAACP

Led by NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks, America's Journey for Justice – a historic 860-mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC – will mobilize activists and advance a focused national policy agenda that protects the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education. America's Journey for Justice will unite partners from the social justice, youth activism, civil rights, democracy reform, religious, not-for-profit, labor, corporate, and environmental communities to call for justice for all Americans under the unifying theme "Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Jobs, Our Schools Matter."

From August 1 to September 16, America's Journey for Justice–an historic 860-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D.C.–will mobilize activists and advance a focused national advocacy agenda that protects the right of every American to a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education.

Follow the journey on social media using #JusticeSummer. 

Issue Focus by State:

Alabama - Economic Inequality

Georgia - Education Reform

South Carolina - Criminal Justice Reform

North Carolina - Voting Rights

Virginia - Youth Rally

Washington, D.C. - Full advocacy agenda

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

(JTA) — More than 150 Reform Jewish rabbis are marching with the NAACP from the Deep South to the U.S. capital to promote social justice The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis are participating in the NAACP's Journey for Justice, an 860-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D.C.

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