Standing with the marginalized, remembering the stranger and recognizing our human interdependence goes to the heart of religion. I was struck last summer, as a participant in an interfaith clergy gathering in Chicago (organized by the Industrial Areas Foundation), when my brother, Pastor Les Shannon, of St. Paul’s Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn shared his simple truth, “You have no idea what it means to be a black man in America.” Those words have been ringing in my ears, weighing on my heart ever since. Of course, as a white man, I’ll never know the experience. Yet, my Jewish tradition agitates me to recognize that we are all created in the image of God, and we are inextricably bound as brothers and sisters. Jews know what it is to be the “other.”
This is why I have made a commitment to participate in the NAACP America’s Journey for Justice – a 40-day, 860-mile march that began in Selma, Alabama, on Aug. 1 and will finish on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 16. The march will focus on justice issues that disproportionately impact the African-American community, and peoples of color; issues like mass incarceration, and the erosion of voting rights and public education funding. Most importantly, we’ll be listening to other people’s stories, learning how we can break down the walls that divide us.
The Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center has partnered with the NAACP America’s Journey for Justice in a significant way. Over 150 rabbis, along with members of our respective congregations, have made the commitment to march for one of the 40 days. Why such an immediate response so close to the High Holy Days? Because it’s who we are as Jews. As the German poet, Heinrich Heine put it, “Since the days of Moses, justice speaks with a Hebrew accent.” I would go back to our first patriarch, Abraham, to argue that Judaism and justice are inseparable. It was Abraham, after all, who had the chutzpah to challenge God, with the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah hanging in the balance, saying, “Should not the Judge of all the Earth do justly?”
Yet, we’re not satisfied to merely speak of justice. In the words of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who walked arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we intend to “pray with our feet.” The Phoenix contingent will be Rabbis Ilana Mills, Bonnie Koppell, Jeremy Schneider and me, along with staff and members of our respective congregations, Leslie Scheck, Rae Rader, Bonnie Levitt, Wendy Heller Chovnik, Gary Birnbaum, Kevin and Jen Groman (a solid minyan!). We will meet fellow marchers from across the country for our day of marching on Aug. 24 in Augusta, Georgia.
Some may ask, “Rabbi, come on, with all the threats to the Jewish people around the world and the controversy over the Iran agreement, is this really the time to be concerned with interfaith issues of racial and economic justice?” My answer is, respectfully, that caring for the Jewish community and Israel are not mutually exclusive from caring for the welfare of others. Quite the contrary, we need one another. Our well-being and the world’s cannot rest on indifference to the happiness of the other or on a refusal to care about other peoples’ tsuris.
A Torah scroll from historic Chicago Sinai Congregation is being carried over the 40 days of the march, over each of the 860 miles. As my friend and colleague from St. Paul, Minnesota, Rabbi Adam Spilker, who marched with the Torah two weeks ago, wrote, “Mirroring the 40 days Moses stood on Sinai receiving the message of Torah, we [Jews] will march 40 days bringing the values, teachings and relevance of Torah to the streets of America.” It will be an honor, with the beautiful diversity that is these United States of America, to carry Torah and her living words out into the streets.
Rabbi John Linder is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel.