Letter from the President: Civil Rights Trip to Montgomery

This letter was written earlier in the week. Our brothers and sisters in Israel are in our thoughts and prayers.

April 8, 2024

Dear Friends,

I am writing from the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery Alabama. Thirty six of our members are here being guided by Abbe Marcus, Sharon and Jeff Silver and of course Rabbi Arnowitz. Yesterday we visited the EJI Legacy Museum and Sculpture park and we experienced a version of what slavery in America means that is much harder to digest than the one I was taught.

But right now, I am frozen. I am rooted to one spot.

I am staring at an emotionally wrenching sculpture by Takeisha Jefferson. At first, it appears to be a simple brown bump. Some in our group see the belly of a pregnant African American woman. I see something totally different. This is a sculpture of a woman’s head. I can clearly see her wearing her headwrap and her hair hanging down around the sides of her face – but all the features that would make her identifiable have been erased. There is no mouth, there are no ears, no nose, and no lips. And especially, there are no eyes.

The piece is titled “COMMODITY.”

Faceless, person-less, simply a means of profit. I now get it.

This trip is difficult. I am overwhelmed by the challenges that Black Americans have gone through and in admiration that they were able to make so much progress largely through non-violent means. The Rosa Parks, bus boycott and freedom riders stories are made of pride, incredible courage, determination and community.

I am still paralyzed.

We are about to celebrate Passover, our annual retelling of our people’s liberation from bondage. We crossed the red sea one time, and then we were free. But not totally.

Twelve million African Americans crossed the sea – two million died on the voyage. The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) was a crossing, Indentured farming, Jim Crow laws, Voting restrictions, Segregation were all additional crossings. Neither Blacks nor Jews have erased hatred. How many red seas do a people need to cross to truly be free?

On Monday we will visit Selma, meet Joanne Bland and learn about her experience on Bloody Sunday. We will meet with what is left of the Jewish community there. On Tuesday, we will travel to Birmingham (also known as Bombingham) and feel the story of the 16th Street Baptist Church and visit the Civil Rights Museum – and learn more about strength as a community in the face of horrific prejudice.

We learn about these struggles. And we know the journey is not nearly over because the times we face today seem so similar to what was happening then.

As I stand here in a daze, I realize what Takeisha Jefferson has just taught me through her sculpture is that as individuals we can be faceless, commoditized and sub-human. But together, as a community, we find our strength. We can create change and expand acceptance. We can push back against the tide. We can begin to right the wrongs of the past.

There was a big part of me that did not want to go on this trip. I had a terribly emotional reaction when I visited Auschwitz years ago and I was afraid of reliving that experience. There is no doubt that our people’s stories are intertwined. I am now, ever so grateful I went and thankful for our community. A community that would dedicate four days to learn about other’s struggles while our own strains are intensifying. That gives me hope and empowers me to go forward.

Thank you to Abbe, Sharon, Jeff and Rabbi for making the trip possible and to all of you for everything you do for WJC.



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