We could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by moral means – a rare modern privilege – which has been the glory of the non-violent struggle for civil rights. We came because we could not stand silently by our brother’s blood….We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.
Here in St. Augustine we have seen the depths of anger, resentment and fury; we have seen faces that expressed a deep implacable hatred. What disturbs us more deeply is the large number of decent citizens who have stood aside, unable to bring themselves to act, yet knowing in their hearts that this cause is right and that it must inevitably triumph.
Taking to heart these words from colleagues of another generation, more than fifty years later, on Tuesday, August 11, I woke up in LaGrange, Georgia, about an hour south of Atlanta. In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, I chose to participate in America's Journey for Justice, a 46-day, 1002 mile journey from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC coordinated by the NAACP. In total, more than 170 Reform rabbis from throughout the United States volunteered to join the march, each one taking turns in carrying a Torah scroll the entire way, a symbolic gesture representing our shared values.
For the perfect strangers with whom I spent the day marching, the gesture mattered, much as the gesture of the rabbis in 1964 had mattered. By the time I arrived, the marchers had been walking between 18 and 22 miles a day for more than a week, some days in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. Sleeping on cots in churches and local colleges, and living off of peanut butter and turkey sandwiches, the marchers showed their appreciation for rabbis who flew great distances to stand with them.
In their eyes, I wasn't merely a 36-year-old white Jew from New Jersey who can't claim to know prejudice, hatred, or racism. It didn't matter to them that I have no loved ones whom I personally know who have died as a result of racial violence, loved ones who have been prevented from voting, loved ones who have been denied access to schooling because quotas had been reached, or loved ones who had been given a lesser wage simply because of the color of their skin. It mattered only that I was there. It mattered only that Rabbi Borovitz and I, like our rabbinic colleagues, had chosen to join the march to pursue a common cause, to promote justice for everyone, and to participate in what was perceived as an ongoing act of liberation.
And yet I came home from the Journey for Justice having difficulty processing my reflections. Fifty years after the first civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, as we marched for justice, change and equality, news was filling our E-mails and Facebook feeds about more violence in Ferguson, Missouri on the anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown. Hate crimes, racial profiling, police misconduct, mass incarceration; it seems like it is the same news, but a different day, a different year, a different generation. In the wake of such unbelievably disheartening news, the march for justice left me with more questions than answers. Am I to think that taking a day to march through the suburbs of Atlanta really made a difference?
I may never know the answer to this question. But I know, that for the perfect strangers with whom I spent the day marching, our gesture and our presence mattered. It was my colleague, our long-time member Barbara Haber, who helped me to find the right words for the task that rests ahead of us. In my conversation with Barbara, I used the word "underwhelming," because I can't see what the end goal looks like or how we're going to get there. Some might say I felt "overwhelmed," at the enormity of the task that still remains, but I use "underwhelming," perhaps because I thought we could achieve more than we did in just one day.
Barbara chose a different word, preferring "incremental" to "underwhelming." Maybe America’s Journey for Justice was never about achieving every single part of our goal or realizing justice within the span of 46 days, but to chip away at the status quo, to raise awareness, to bring others along for this quest, and in so doing, to continue effecting recognizable and lasting chance. The destination of the Promised Land of equality, dignity and justice must always be in our sights. But the journey, as long and wearisome as it may be, is just as important.
I am reminded of a story about Rabbi Akiva, who was likened to Moses for the breadth of his knowledge. But during the first forty years of his life, Akiva had partaken in no formal Jewish schooling. He was an illiterate Jew. And he was resentful of those who had more knowledge than he did. Legend has it, that after despairing that he could ever comprehend the Torah, he saw water dripping onto a rock. Drop by drop the water had the effect of eroding the rock. If water could wear down a rock, Akiva thought, then he could become knowledgeable in Jewish tradition. If water could wear down a rock, then anything was possible.
Akiva’s learning was incremental and so too is the pathway to justice. It may feel underwhelming. It may feel that there is still such an unquantifiable amount of pain out there, but drop-by-drop as we work for justice, we can erode the fabric of the painful realities that so many in America still face.
Earlier this year, Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke eloquently at the Consultation on Conscience in Washington DC. Stevenson presented gut-wrenching statistics that 68 million people in the United States have criminal records. Our nation represents around 5% of the world's population, but we house nearly a quarter of the world's prison population. 1 in 3 black males are expected to serve a jail sentence at some point in their lives, and, according to Stevenson, voter disenfranchisement in the South is the worst it has been since before the Civil Rights Act.
But amidst these harrowing and true statistics, Stevenson still offered a message of hope. He argued:
If we are going to change the world, if we are going to create more mercy and opportunity and peace, we have to choose to do uncomfortable things. We won’t create justice and we don’t achieve equality and fairness if we only do the things that are comfortable and convenient. Hope resonates when people do uncomfortable things. When you get proximate, when you change narratives, when you make your hope lead you, when you do uncomfortable things, you will get broken. But it is through our brokenness that we understand our humanity.
One of the most uncomfortable stories on the march came from Keshia Thomas, who I sat next to on the bus en route to our starting location. After we dispensed with the formalities of becoming Facebook friends, Keshia shared her powerful story. In June 1996, a branch of the Ku Klux Klan announced plans to hold a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Several people in the area planned to protest against the Klan’s presence. Keshia was one of them. The protest proceeded until one protester announced, “there was a Klansman in the crowd.” The man was a middle-aged white male wearing a T-shirt with the Confederate flag and he had an SS tattoo. He began to run but was knocked down, kicked and beaten with placards. Thomas, age 18 at the time, shielded the man and shouted for the attackers to stop. The photograph shows Thomas on top of the man, protecting him. She said that she, “…knew what it was like to be hurt … The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.”
Kol Nidrei is a night of soul searching. We seek forgiveness, repentance, and atonement. We offer one final push that we will be sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come. We also seek forgiveness from the promises that we have made, and from promises that we will make, should we find ourselves unable to fulfill these obligations. It is comforting to know that such forgiveness is attainable, but that doesn't mean that we are given a free pass.
What I learned from the rabbis who were imprisoned in 1964, and what I learned from people like Keshia and other marchers, is that none of us are seeking a free pass either. What we seek is incremental and lasting change. We know in our hearts, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, "The world will not get better of its own accord. Nor will we make it a more human place by leaving it to others—politicians, columnists, protestors, campaigners—making them our agents to bring redemption on our behalf...Yes, if we do not do it, someone else may. But we will then have failed to understand why we are here and what we are summoned to do."
To what cause will we commit ourselves in the year to come and remain committed? To what cause will we grow proximate, will we change the narrative, will we hold out hope of a better tomorrow that we have worked for with our hands and our hearts to realize and achieve? To what cause will we dedicate ourselves learning more about our sacred tradition, and proclaiming its messages, values and responsibilities?
I confess to you that I don't have the immediate answer, the quick fix, or the solution that is going to solve the problems that we are seeing in our world. But I know that we need to have a conversation, and that by listening to one another, by discussing how to strengthen our connection to these painful issues, we can find a way to act upon the best that is within all of us, to move from a place of making incremental change, to a place of making lasting change.
There are so many dark corners in our world in need of light. In 1992, when I was an eighth grade student at Marlboro Middle School, I remember sitting in an assembly where Leon Bass addressed us, telling us his story in harrowing detail. Serving as an infantryman in the all-black 761st Tank Battalion during World War II, Bass fought through Europe with General Patton and in the spring of 1945, the battalion assisted with the liberation of Buchenwald.
Buchenwald changed Bass' life forever, helping him to understand that human life is sacred. Having been segregated into an all-black regiment, Bass found himself deeply affected by what he saw in the concentration camp. "There were so many different groups placed in that camp by the Nazis," he remarked. "And what did the Nazis use as a yardstick as to who would be chosen to go there? They said those people who were not good enough, those people who were inferior; they could be segregated...Segregation, racism, can lead to the ultimate, to what I saw at Buchenwald."
Bass spent the latter part of his life working for social justice, promoting a universal message for humanity and he died this year at the age of 90. Twenty-three years after he addressed our middle school, I still remember the power of his message, and his story of liberating people who were not his own, a gesture that truly mattered.
At the end of his remarks, Leon Bass would often adapt the words of James Baldwin and close by saying:
Either we love one another, either we hold on to one another, or the seas will engulf us
And all of the lights will go out. We - you and I - have an awesome responsibility
We must keep the lights shining.
On this holiest night in the Jewish calendar, God, we turn to You in prayer. When will we be able to stand together, cherishing freedom, equality, dignity and justice? When will we finally know a time when we will no longer need to liberate one another? To these sacred goals, we dedicate ourselves anew.
 Bryan Stevenson, oration at RAC Consultation on Conscience, April 27, personal notes.
 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, CCAR Sermon Resources for High Holy Days 5776.
 October 1992, during the week after Yom Kippur.