Temple Beth Ami Takes Civil Rights Trip to Alabama

Beth Ami congregants on the civil rights trip. Courtesy of Temple Beth Ami.

A recent civil rights trip to Alabama enabled congregants from Temple Beth Ami to learn more about the history of the Jewish community’s involvement during the civil rights movement and to gain a better understanding of Black history.

The trip, which took place in the beginning of February, took congregational leaders and 50 congregants from the Rockville synagogue through Alabama to some of the most prominent sites from the civil rights movement, such as Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, and they spoke with people who were either part of that history or are curating it for future generations.

“A lot of our congregants expressed interest about wanting to learn more about understanding the Jewish relationship between the African American community, the history of civil rights in America, and so when we offered this trip, we filled the trip up immediately. We actually had a waiting list for the trip,” Beth Ami’s Rabbi Baht Weiss said.

Much of that interest arose from a rabbinical trip that Weiss went on during the previous year with several local rabbis where they visited all these locations. She detailed her experiences to the congregation during a sermon when she came back, and it drew many people in.

The idea of the trip was even more appealing for people because for most of the last decade, Beth Ami has taken its high school juniors and seniors on a similar trip, and Weiss mentioned that fact during her sermon, prompting thoughts about the potential learning experience the adults were missing out on.

“At the Oneg that night, a whole bunch of people came up to her and said, ‘Well, when do we get to go as adults?’ And so very quickly, we worked with the tour group that the rabbis used on their mission, and we worked with them to set up a congregational trip and that’s how we ended up going,” Debbie Ezrin, Beth Ami’s executive director, said.

The trip gave the congregants multiple educational experiences due to the wide range of prior knowledge and some personal connections they made with people along the way.
One such connection came from a meeting the group had in Birmingham, where they spoke with a 90-year-old bishop that had worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and after they spoke, Weiss asked if she might bless him.

He accepted and even though it wasn’t a prayer from his religion, he asked if she might bless his children as well. The whole experience was beautiful and connected the past, present and the African American struggle with modern Judaism, according to Beth Ami President Lauren Bogart.

Ezrin said the trip gave the participants some information that they didn’t know and reawakened that education in others while really contextualizing the time period of the civil rights movement and how bad racism was even back home in Maryland not too long ago.

“I think a lot of people were surprised. We think of it like we’re in the north, and this happened in the south. But Maryland straddles the Mason Dixon Line, and we saw in the Lynching Museum lynchings that happened here in Rockville, a lynching that happened in Poolesville, Maryland, and we realized that it wasn’t so far from here and it wasn’t so long ago,” Weiss said.

Ezrin added that one congregant said they learned that Jews were not as supportive or involved in the movement as is typically portrayed afterwards, and that this trip gave many of them a new perspective on history’s relevance to today’s society.

Weiss said that one of the congregants made a connection between the history they were hearing from people who suffered during the civil rights movement to the retelling of experiences from those who survived the Holocaust, and they marveled at the power of living testimony.

“We also realize the way that cities and institutions were built on the backs of slavery. So, it helps us to realize … how we’ve benefited from these injustices. So now we have a responsibility to right those wrongs,” Weiss said.

The trip was a culmination of several years’ worth of interest from the congregation on educating themselves more on diversity and what they said was the “new civil rights movement in America” in reference to the social unrest seen after the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ezrin said that during and after the pandemic the congregation held multiple events to learn about “the way we view ourselves and privilege and all these applicable questions,” but after some time they weren’t sure where to go next. The trip filled that void and gave them a roadmap of where to go next.

“I think the next steps are trying- to look for ways that we can create community and meet other people and start to have relationships that are more personal so that we can hear each other’s stories and meet people in our community that are different than us,” Ezrin said.

Beth Ami was not the only local synagogue to go on a recent civil rights trip, as B’nai Israel Congregation also traveled to Alabama, with a stop in Atlanta as well.

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