Friday, March 13, 2015

Bloody Sunday Fifty Years Later: The Movement is Alive

Many  of us who were in Selma last Sunday remember Bloody Sunday – we were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day, or we grew up in Alabama, or we watched the news with our families in homes across the nation.  We grieved then, and we made up our minds never to be silent about injustice.  We still grieve today, and we have not changed our minds.

At Temple Mishkan Israel in Selma, many of the like-minded gathered on Sunday for a special commemoration organized by Rabbi Fred Guttman of Temple Emanuel, Greensboro, North Carolina. The program celebrated the common commitment of Jews and African-Americans to champion social justice and human rights. Our shared history as peoples who have been the victims of hate brought us together with a keen awareness of what is at stake. Jewish groups from Birmingham, Montgomery, and Greensboro, NC traveled to Selma for the event.

Music set the stage as we warmed up our voices to familiar Civil Rights songs led by guitarist Doug Mishkin.  The diverse congregation became an impromptu choir that increased in volume and enthusiasm as the morning went on.

In his opening remarks, Rabbi Guttman asked if any were present who had marched on Bloody Sunday.  An elderly Black woman rose in our midst.  She stood proudly, her eyes shining, her gold hat like a crown as we honored her with a standing ovation – the first of the day.

Rabbi Guttman went on to ask people under the age of 20 to stand.  Scattered throughout the room, young people stood, looking both shy and resolute as they accepted the mantle of being the next generation of feet on the ground in the social justice movement.

Two Black women from North Carolina, powerful singers, led us in a rhythmic, melodic South African song in preparation for the messages to come.

Rev. Dr. William Barber II, head of the North Carolina NAACP, spoke in his thundering and resonant voice about current threats against voting rights and brought the gravitas and spirit of the African-American church into our midst.

David Goodman, Director of the Andrew Goodman Foundation, recalled his brother Andrew, one of the three Civil Rights workers who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964.

Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul & Mary, was a surprise guest.  In his gentle and forthright manner, he talked about the experience of being a musician during the Civil Rights marches, when he and other artists were not just entertaining the troops, but were embedded in the action.  He led us in a slow, sweet and moving rendition of “Blowin’ In the Wind.”

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), is the first Director of RAC who was born after 1965.  His talk made it apparent that he is an example of a new generation of fervent, articulate Jewish leaders in the movement.

Dr. Susannah Heschel, Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, is the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.  She spoke about her father and the social justice work she continues.

Dr. Clarence Jones, political advisor, counsel and draft speechwriter for Dr. King, was another surprise guest.  He had heard about the gathering at Temple Mishkan Israel and came with a message for us.  “If the surviving lions do not tell their story,” he said, “then the hunters get all the credit.” Dr. Jones gave a firsthand account of the Selma experience, pointing out that President Lyndon B. Johnson played a positive role in the advancement of Civil Rights and emphasizing the commitment and leadership of the Jewish community. 

Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Rabbi Randall Konigsburg of Temple Beth-El, Birmingham, Rabbi Elliot Stevens of Temple Beth-Or, Montgomery, and Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion also participated in the program.

After the program, we shared a meal and walked the few blocks down Broad Street to join the crowds of people crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was named for a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon, but which today clearly stands for victory over the pernicious hatred of the KKK.

Temple Mishkan Israel, built in 1899, is an imposing red brick building whose beautiful interior is sadly in disrepair, as the building is no longer used for Sabbath services in a city where there are just ten Jews.  Nevertheless, when approached by Rabbi Guttman about hosting a 50th anniversary commemoration event, the little Jewish community in Selma mobilized and rose to the occasion with the help of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama.  The Temple welcomed a full house, with busloads of guests from Birmingham and North Carolina, and the sanctuary resonated with music, remembrance, and exhortation.  

As a reminder of the involvement of the Jewish people in the Civil Rights struggle and our ongoing commitment to social justice and human rights, Temple Mishkan Israel was a fitting and inspiring venue for a gathering that reaffirmed our dream of Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Grab Your Coat and Get Your Hat, Birmingham

It’s cold outside, and your children are not wearing coats and hats.  Neither are you.  Every winter, I see you in parking lots, in parks, on the street, hugging your t-shirted torsos with bare blue arms so chilled I can see every hair as you hurry to get out of the cold.  I see your children shivering, with red ears and drippy noses. Their ragged coughs and sniffles are all the evidence I need to deliver my verdict:  unacceptable.

Dressing warmly in cold weather is one of God’s little “best practices” for staying healthy. Sure, it takes a little longer to get ready to go out, and it means you have to keep up with jackets and hats, scarves and gloves, but people all over the world do it, and so can you.  Alabama winters are the envy of the rest of this snow-beleaguered country, but it’s still cold here in February, in case you haven’t noticed or are in denial.

Send your kids to school dressed warmly, with layers they can shed indoors and put back on when they go out to the playground.  Every time you get out of your car on a cold day, make sure everyone has their jackets on, preferably zipped up.  No more running across a parking lot coat-less because you “won’t be outside for very long.” Set the example and your kids will follow.

And make sure your kids wear hats.  Cover their ears.  Protect your children by dressing them warmly.  You’ll save money on doctor visits; you’ll miss fewer work days because you have to stay home with a sick child. 

It’s winter, friends, so put away your flip flops and tank tops.  Put on a sweater.  Get some knit caps and mittens for the little ones.  Button up, zip up, stay warm, and have a healthy winter! 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Driving in the Collective Unconscious

To my Birmingham friends:

The more Birmingham gets under my skin, the more I feel compelled to write to you and tell you what I’m thinking.  I love this city.

This afternoon, driving home to south Shelby County in the foggy rain, I once again found myself on the road at rush hour with some really good drivers.  On the city streets and on I65, drivers slowed down, kept their distance and accommodated one another as we all navigated our way safely though the mizzle to our destinations. 

That kind of driving is an exercise in awareness – a mindfulness – with everyone conscious, to some degree, of other every car in sight, and driving for the good of all. I always experience this in Birmingham, and I have to say, “Well done!”  Sure, there are always some cowboys on the road who seem to be in a hurry to get hurt and can ruin it for everybody, but overall I give Birmingham drivers a B+, and on wet roads, an A-.

Class dismissed.

Friday, November 30, 2012

VERBIAGE is on hiatus, but feel free to browse stories from 2010-2011.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Words in a Wagon

In the final weeks before his death in 2005, my father drifted in and out of a morphine-induced haze which, given his extravagant imagination and wit, made most of the time I spent with him during those last days poignantly entertaining.

He awoke from one of his dreams one day and said, “I had a wagon and it was full of words, like blocks. The wagon was full and overflowing, and every block had a word on it. And I pulled the thing everywhere I went. I was pulling my words in a wagon, for God’s sake! And people were saying, Rabinowitz, what do you think you’re doing? Haven’t you ever heard of a dictionary?”

My father loved words – really, he treasured them. And he shlepped that wagon enthusiastically. What a writer and conversationalist he was! He built gravity-defying edifices with words – flights of pure fancy that charmed and instructed. Anyone who ever had a conversation with my father or received a letter from him knows what I’m talking about. (You know who you are.)

I realized when he died and I understand now: my father’s legacy to me was the wagon of words. The job and privilege of pulling that wagon has fallen to me. And now I make my living choosing words out of the vast repository that has accumulated through the years, fashioning them into phrases and sentences and paragraphs, and then releasing them to take wing and fly into the world where they might, God willing, bring a smile and do some good.

Thanks, Dad.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution

Their demands were unclear. They started gathering before noon, several hundred at the start, in the park across from the plaza of the Capitol building in Denver, Colorado. They carried rough, hand-lettered signs and backpacks. I watched them from a podium on the west portico of the Capitol where I was setting up an event for my client: Colorado Call to Prayer Day.

From my vantage point, I saw a growing, restless, vocal crowd whose intentions were unknown to me. From their vantage point, they saw 200 white chairs gleaming in the sun on the plaza facing the Capitol building, a platform with flags, a podium, and an arrangement of chairs for speakers. Maybe they could make out a woman in black standing at the podium, alone on the platform, watching them. Who knows?

I do know that as I listened to them, the rhetoric ranged from reasoned to incendiary, and that this was discernible from the tone alone, without being able to hear all the words. I sensed that the crowd contained a trouble-making element. They were the loud, strident ones with anger escalating in their voices.

The state troopers who provided security for Colorado Call to Prayer Day formed a loose cordon along the semi-circular perimeter of the Capitol plaza. They stood, watchful and formidable, as my team of volunteers continued to set up for the 2:00 pm event. The state trooper liaison who kept me briefed was a short, compact woman with no-nonsense efficiency written all over her. I asked her what sort of problems she anticipated if the crowd advanced to the Capitol. This particular demonstration group, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street dubbed ‘Occupy Denver’, had been gathering, camping out and getting arrested in the park below the Capitol for several days.

“They’re very noisy,” she replied. A nuisance, I thought, but not a deal-breaker. She went on, “The thing is that they throw feces. That’s what they carry in those backpacks.” I recoiled at the thought. I wondered if that kind of hostility represented the mood and agenda of the whole crowd – I hoped not.

I mused that it only takes a handful of people throwing feces to turn a whole city against a crowd of demonstrators, many of whom might be, in fact, good citizens who are troubled about the state of our nation and are looking for answers, or maybe down-on-their luck families unable to find work and looking for a break, or maybe just Americans so frustrated with our nation’s condition that they’re mad as hell, not going to take it anymore, and looking for an outlet.

A few minutes later, the troopers got word from their undercover intelligence that the demonstrators were about to storm the Capitol. Immediately a team of riot police in full black combat gear appeared and set up a command post just inside the Capitol building. We moved all of the student volunteers inside. A small group of men and women stayed on the plaza to pray. I watched and waited from the portico, wondering what could be going through the minds of the demonstrators. Surely they must realize that they would be walking into a very, very bad situation. And without having told the world exactly what their demands were, what could they possibly hope to gain?

“We’re moving! We’re moving!” came the cry from the leader of the demonstration, clear as a bell across the plaza. The riot police moved swiftly to their places on the portico, as strong and forbidding as larger-than-life action figures, their bulky black uniforms stark and ominous against the white marble of the Capitol. I prayed and waited. Then the word came, “They’re moving to the 16th Street Mall.” The demonstrators had decided to move away from the Capitol, to the long, urban pedestrian shopping mall that bisects all of downtown Denver. “Good move,” I thought, guessing that they were going to wait on the Mall until 2:00, when they would come back to the park and try to disrupt Colorado Call to Prayer Day. We were a convenient target.

We finished setting up. Volunteers moved to their posts. It was show-time. Elected leaders and citizens gathered and took their places on the platform and in the audience.

The crowd of demonstrators moved en masse from the Mall to the park below the Capitol and began to advance, their numbers greatly increased. They didn’t look like they were coming in peace. State Troopers formed a tight shoulder-to-shoulder cordon around the perimeter of the plaza.

The program commenced. Elected leaders – Colorado State Senators and Representatives – announced the formation of the Colorado Legislative Prayer Caucus, a bi-partisan group of legislators who have committed to pray together and seek God’s will as a body. These humble and sincere men and women spoke with intelligence and clarity, expressing their desire to be used by God to make a difference for the good of their state and our nation.

The demonstrators held their ground and made plenty of noise, but the ceremony went forward without a hitch. I began to notice people from the crowd below-- ones and twos, families – approaching the steps leading up to the plaza. Some of them still held signs; most had backpacks. The troopers kept them outside the perimeter, but they sat and listened.

A friend who accompanied my husband to the Capitol event walked down to the crowd to see what was happening. He told me later that he saw an older man circulating through the crowd with a sign that said something like, “Come pray with us at the Capitol.” For people who were looking for answers, he offered an answer that drew some away from the restless mass of demonstrators to a gathering with clear direction and promise.

“If my people who are called by my Name will humble themselves and pray,

and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven

and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

2 Chronicles 7:14

Imagine if every one of us put God first in our lives and trusted Him. Imagine if we all acknowledged and worshipped God as our Creator and our Lord. Imagine if we all put aside our agendas -- personal and political – and sought His will alone. Imagine….

You can say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.