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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

March 15, 2020 by

A Jewish Journey to Montgomery

Between 1877 and 1950, approximately 4400 African American women and men were lynched in the United States. Billie Holiday sang of them, “strange fruit hanging from the sycamore tree,” in Abel Meeropol’s iconic 1939 song, but it was not until 2018 that civil rights activist and attorney Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative raised enough money to open the commemorative Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Both sites are intended to acknowledge the racism at the heart of America’s story and address the many ways that the heritage of bigotry continues to fester and poison the body politic.

In late January, 50 people—rabbis, lay Jewish leaders, and one minister—visited Montgomery as part of T’ruah, The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

Rabbi Mira Rivera, the Jewish Emergent Network Rabbinic Fellow and a Board Certified Chaplain at Romemu, a Renewal congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was one of the participants. She and Lilith’s Eleanor J. Bader met in mid-February to discuss the trip and its impact.  

Eleanor J. Bader: Can you start by telling me about the T’ruah trip to Montgomery?  

Rabbi Mira Rivera:  From the moment I landed in Montgomery, I felt a punch in my gut. Our hotel was in a plaza surrounded by brick buildings. Standing sentinel to the slaves on their way to the auction blocks. These buildings were holding sites for human beings who were treated as less than human. 

I was aware of the similarities between this site and transit camps in World War II. My father-in-law’s father survived Westerbork, a transit camp in Holland that served as a staging ground for deportation of Jews to the death camps. My father-in-law himself, along with his brother, survived. They were Kindertransport, sent to England when they were six and nine years old. Being in Montgomery, and seeing these holding places resonated in our family story. In addition, we’d just commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. A few days later, there I was in Montgomery, a Jewish woman of color, who is not black but who believes in coalition building AND walking together AND grappling through our differences. 

EJB: Can you describe the Equal Justice Legacy Museum ?

Rabbi MR: The EJI Museum is actually housed in one of the former slave warehouses. You enter through a narrow alley and immediately see five slave pens. There was a hologram of an incarcerated slave at each cage. That’s what they were – cages! I approached one of the cells and a guard tapped me on the shoulder. She said that the audio-visual equipment was not working properly at that installation. Sure enough, the child never came on screen to join the mother. Her mother’s mouth moved without sound, but her hands were beseeching. I held onto the bars of the cell, my forehead glued to the cold metal. It was like being at the Kotel, with prayers and voices of anguish rising from all sides. 

This was the beginning of a through line in American history, clear as day:  From the transatlantic slave trade, to lynching, to legalized racial segregation and Jim Crow, and mass incarceration of blacks, other people of color, and immigrants.

The Museum itself is deceptively small. There are towering black-and-white pictures depicting the through line, grainy faces staring at you from the past, stoic underneath a lifeless body dangling from a tree.  There is another room, a respite of hope and courage with photographs of those who have fought for civil rights in the past and those who continue the fight today. I sat there in prayer and resolve with another Rabbi, renewing our pledge of partnership and allyship back in New York City.

There were many walls at the EJI Legacy Museum.  There was one where you had to bend and crouch low to the ground to read what was displayed. The walls included letters, recently written, from incarcerated black individuals as young as 13 years old, so many human beings facing impossibly long incarcerations with no end in sight. 

Another wall displayed statutes, including marriage laws that prohibited whites and people of color from marrying. The California Interracial Marriage Law was the one that made me crumble. My father had immigrated to the US, worked for decades, but did not marry until much later in his life. I always wondered why. I finally got the full picture of my father and my mother navigating this racially charged climate.. 

But the Museum also affirmed human connectedness among those who have experienced hatred and prejudice. Witness the wall of public signs: No Blacks, No Jews, No Dogs; We Serve Whites Only; Senoras Blancas; No Spanish.

There was also a wall of jars filled with soil collected by volunteers from sites of racial terror lynchings. The Museum called it the Community Remembrance Project. My mom had a similar wall of jars in her basement in Silver Spring, Maryland, where she lived. She gardened a lot and preserved fruits and vegetables in Mason jars for the winter. The rows of jars in the Museum reminded me of my mom’s wall. Like my mother, I garden. I plant. I dig my fingers into dirt. To know that blood and history are on the ground, in the ground… 

EJB: How about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice?

Rabbi MR:  From the Legacy Museum, the  Memorial is a15-minute walk. At first, the Memorial seemed similar to other outdoor tributes, but instead of a wall of names, this memorial is a forest of rusting rectangular metal boxes like standing coffins. Up close you can touch the name of a person and the year and county where they were lynched. I started to sing a wordless melody as I walked through the lynching forest. It was the only thing I could do, in lament, in prayer. I walked along a gallery of reasons for “why”: ‘Looking at a white woman;’ ‘Speaking to a white woman;’ or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the way out, I saw each of these rusty rectangular coffins, laid out along the pathway, begging, in rain or shine, to be laid to rest so that the victims might not be forgotten.

EJB: It sounds incredibly moving and intense. What were the major take-aways for you?

Rabbi MR: The Museum and Memorial are not just places that reckon with past injustice and wrongdoing. Slavery is alive and well; that’s the punch. Mass incarceration is an extension of slavery. For me, the whole experience, holding the bars, putting my head against the walls, seeing the bottled soil, hearing the stories, all of it activates a recommitment to equity and justice. 

I had been to other civil rights museums and memorials, but this was my first time with a group of Rabbis, Jewish lay leaders, and a Reverend. I believe that, as Jews, we are B’nai Israel, as well as  B’nai of, children of, the place where we partake of abundance. I am Jewish and I am American. I cannot divorce myself from the fact that the country that gave my family a future was built from slavery. I will continue to educate myself about interconnectedness to this land and its many peoples. As a Rabbi, I will continue to raise awareness about mass incarceration and bail reform. If I am silent, I am complicit. 

EJB: How did you get connected to T’ruah in the first place?

Rabbi Mira Rivera: I attended Jewish Theological Seminary and was ordained in 2015. T’ruah sent out a letter welcoming our crop of rabbis and cantors.  It’s like a rite of passage. My first action with them was on Sukkot in 2016 when they organized an action in front of Trump Towers to protest the administration’s anti-immigrant policies and bans. 

There is a teaching in the Book of Exodus in which Moses is asked by God, “Why do you cry out to Me?” God tells him that now is not a time for prayer. Now is a time to move forward and act. That teaching has always resonated for me.

My parents were immigrants from the Philippines to the US. I was born here and I am aware of my relative privilege, including freedom of movement with an American passport.  When I wanted to go to India to pursue spiritual knowledge, I could. I traveled all over the world in pursuit of knowledge, and returned to the US. That right has now been trampled. People of color and those who have surnames of unfavored heritage face increased scrutiny at airports and on the streets. We can get deported and ripped away from our families. I felt that it was important to show up for the T’ruah action that Sukkot and speak out against the criminalization of immigrants.