Praying with their feet

Addressing the crowd during the Sept. 16 advocacy rally, from left, are Rabbi Jonah  Pesner, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Hilary Shelton,  NAACP Washington Bureau leader; and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.). Photo by Melissa Apter
Addressing the crowd during the Sept. 16 advocacy rally, from left, are Rabbi Jonah
Pesner, head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Hilary Shelton,
NAACP Washington Bureau leader; and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.).
Photo by Melissa Apter

Rabbis and reverends, black and white, stood together on the bimah of Washington Hebrew Congregation and raised their voices in a triumphant rendition of the civil rights protest song, “We Shall Overcome.”

The clergy were celebrating, along with hundreds of attendees, the completion of America’s Journey for Justice, a 1,000 mile march from Selma, Ala., to Washington. It began Aug. 1 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and ended Sept. 15 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Hundreds of rabbis joined the march, spearheaded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “praying with their feet,” under the banner of “Our lives, our votes, our jobs, our schools matter.”

Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, called attention to the faith leaders who joined in the 46-day journey, and in particular to the 200 rabbis who heeded the “Macedonian call” to march.

Brooks, noting the weight of the Torah, said, “Whether it was carried by someone of the Reform tradition or the Conservative tradition, Baptist or Methodist, Pentecostal or Evangelical, whether it was carried by agnostic or an atheist, by a regular synagogue attender or someone who attends infrequently — some of our church folk understand that — we found that whether it was carried by a man 6 feet 8 inches tall or by a child 4 feet tall, what we found is that no one was able to carry the Torah the entire distance, what we discovered is that it took the hands of many to carry God’s word 1,002 miles.”

The Torah scroll that journeyed from Selma to Washington was on loan from Chicago Sinai Congregation, whose senior rabbi, Seth Limmer first proposed the Torah make the journey and was on hand for the beginning and conclusion of the march. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis were coalition members from the start and helped coordinate the 200 rabbis and countless Jewish lay leaders and youth group members who joined along the way.

When they arrived in Washington, Brooks said the weight of God’s word reminded him of a passage from the Bible: “God gave these words to Joshua: Be strong and of good courage.”

At the Lincoln Memorial the afternoon of Sept. 15, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the RAC, held the Torah and offered final words to the marchers on the spot where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke decades ago.

“As a country, it is past time to ensure that all people are treated with dignity and afforded equal opportunities,” Pesner said in a statement. “We have been honored and humbled to be part of this journey. May the year ahead and those beyond be filled with righteousness and justice.”

That evening, Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig, senior rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation, welcomed the marchers into his sanctuary for an interfaith prayer service.

Through songs, readings and speeches, the clergy, sitting two rows deep on the bimah, recounted their journey and the work ahead of them. Brooks and Lustig paid homage to Middle Passage, a 68 year-old disabled veteran, who died on the journey. Another marcher picked up his American flag and made sure it reached Washington.

Following the service, advocates made their way to the front of the sanctuary for a legislative teach-in with Hilary Shelton, director to the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy. He spoke of the specific pieces of legislation the advocates — many of whom were still wearing their yellow Journey for Justice shirts or blue shirts with the word “shalom” scrawled across the back — lobbied for on Sept. 16.

The NAACP and its coalition members called on Congress to support the Raise the Wage Act, End Racial Profiling Act and the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015.

Limmer, joined by his young daughter, offered his thoughts at the Sept. 16 morning rally in the Upper Senate Park in Washington. Afterward, advocates broke off for their lobbying sessions.

Speaking before the hundreds of clergy, union leaders, environmentalists, LGBTQ rights activists and NAACP members, Limmer described the 10 Days of Awe and the Jewish tradition of sharing the burden of repentance and then launched into a rendition of “Al Chet,” the confession of sins that is part of the Yom Kippur service, that he customized for the occasion.

“For the sin of letting the powerful Voting Rights Act of 1965 fall back, for letting voting rights be stripped, for letting disenfranchisement happen,” said Limmer. “For letting the working class become the lower class, for making work not equal to dignity, al chet shechatanu lefanecha …”

Democratic members of Congress, including Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Mark Warner (Va.), Jeff Merkeley (Ore.) and Reps. John Conyers (Mich.) and Bobby Scott (Va.) took to the microphone in support of restoring the Voting Rights Act and called on their Republican counterparts to do the same.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and partner to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, donned a rainbow-patterned kippah and gave an impassioned speech to the awaiting crowd.

“This fight will not end unless every ally is a part of it,” Weingarten said. “So we need anyone who is religious to work with their sisters and brothers — it’s a good time, the pope is coming, it’s a Muslim New Year, it’s the Jewish New Year — to talk to their sisters and brothers in the pulpit, to say: ‘If you believe in justice you must fix the Voting Rights Act.’”

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