At the request of their teachers, last Friday morning I took a group of second graders on a tour through Jewish history. In one hour we traveled together all the way from Abraham and God’s promise to him that his descendants would be more numerous that the stars in the sky to the March on Selma Alabama where Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr Martin Luther King. We took that tour in a space right above and behind you, the Hendler timeline. Created a little more than 13 years ago, it is a unique congregational resource and one of the most exciting projects that I have been involved in at the Congregation.
Creating a time line of Jewish history meant we had to at least attempt to ask and answer difficult questions about history: Where is God reflected in Jewish history? How do the festivals find expression in the timeline of Jewish history when they transcend time and space? How do we represent the modern period when we still don’t know which will have been the most significant events of our era? How do we assist the visitor in seeing themselves within the arc of Jewish and world history, especially if like our second graders, they were born after the timeline ended?
My goal in touring with them was to help 8 year olds see themselves as part of the Jewish past and see themselves as part of the Jewish future. Really an ongoing goal in all of our schools and all of our educational endeavors.
We started with Abraham and God’s promise to him because that’s what the second grade learns in Humash – in their Bible study. They saw themselves in their ancestor and in the stars themselves, each one of those stars a descendant of Abraham as they are, fulfilling God’s promise.
When we reached the end of the timeline one of their teachers shared her story of being part of Jewish history as she was in Jerusalem in 1948 when the new state was declared. I asked the students if they recognized anyone else in the photos of the modern period of Jewish history. They did not yet recognize Golda Meir, or Menachem Begin or even Jimmy Carter, but one little girl raised her hand and said, “I see Martin Luther King.” I was delighted that an 8 year old would recognize Dr. King and even more delighted that neither she nor any of her classmates asked why he was included in the timeline with other photos of important events in Jewish history.
In that way the second graders had a leg up on those adults who asked last month why Chizuk Amuno was taking a Southern Jewish Civil Rights Journey. What, they asked, did the struggle for civil rights and equality for African Americans have to do with us? We replied much as we did to the second graders at the timeline – because we want to see what our part is in Jewish history and world history and what our part in the Jewish future and the world’s future might be.
18 people, fittingly chai, traveled from Atlanta Georgia, to Montgomery Alabama to Selma, to Birmingham and back to Atlanta to walk and pray in the footsteps of our ancestors. In the second chapter of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers Rabbi Eliezer says, “Let the dignity of other people be as precious to you as your own.” That was the Torah teaching we were endeavoring to uphold as we traveled in the South. One morning on the bus I asked the participants to open up to Birkot HaShachar, the morning blessings that we recited earlier today and read through them to find a blessing that reflected on one of our experiences. The adults found meaning in the first blessing about making distinctions between night and day, in our case making distinctions between people and right and wrong. In the blessing releasing the bound they found resonances to our visit to the Equal Justice Initiative where a team of lawyers works with death row inmates and where they have been successful in overturning faulty convictions. In the blessing thanking God for making us free they found poignant references to the vagaries of fate which allow some to be born white and privileged in the North East and others poor and enslaved. The blessing giving sight to the blind gave voice to a collective feeling of having our eyes opened to another time and another place.
The trip itself had been inspired by a journey on which the synagogue has found itself since the death of Freddie Gray and resulting uprising two years ago this April. “Found itself” doesn’t actually do it justice since it is a journey we have undertaken with great intentionality. The desire to be more a part of the whole Baltimore. To be present in relationship with our African American neighbors and to be part of the great march towards justice in our own beloved, beleaguered city.
For most, though not all of us, it was our first visit to Alabama. We were struck by the poverty, the emptiness, even in some big cities, the continued divide between white and black, the resentment and even hatred of Jews. As we drove through Selma towards the Edmund Pettus Bridge our guide showed us the old synagogue in town long since shut down. There were she said 6 Jews left in Selma Alabama, we had quadrupled the Jewish population. But we walked in the footsteps of other Jews, some from this congregation who had come to participate in the march from Selma to Montgomery and pray with their feet. As many of you had requested, we brought you with us in spirit and walked over the bridge together.
When we reached the far side of the bridge there were several monuments which had been erected to honor the marchers, special women in the civil rights movement and another created out of boulders. 12 stacked stones engraved with verses from the book of Joshua which describe Joshua’s command to the Israelite people to tell the story of their journey. “When your children shall ask you in time to come saying, what mean these twelve stones? Then you shall tell them how you made it over.” (Joshua 4:21-22)
We read it as a command to return home and to tell our children and our community’s children about the struggle for civil rights and our own journey in seeing ourselves in world history. Which brings us back to the timeline upstairs.
Twice during our second grade tour through Jewish history I veered off path to quite literally open doors to something other than their Jewish past. At two places on the long arc of Jewish history, the narrative is punctuated by doors to small rooms which I was sure none of the students had been in before. The bride’s room and the groom’s room. I brought the children into these rooms and as they looked around with wide eyes I explained that this was the point on the timeline where instead of imagining themselves in the Jewish past, I wanted them to imagine themselves in the Jewish future. That one day they would grow up and perhaps get married, they would come back to the timeline of Jewish history in beautiful clothes, surrounded by their family and friends and their loved ones and they would be a part of the Jewish future at Chizuk Amuno and in the world.