You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Teenage Reflections on Civil Rights and Isaiah 58

November 25, 2013
A Play by Teens from Beth Emet the Free Synagogue and the Second Baptist Church, Evanston, Illinois. sankofaStudents from Beth Emet and Second Baptist studied Isaiah 58 together with Minister Brian Smith (Second Baptist) and Elliot Leffler (Beth Emet), and performed this play at Beth Emet on Yom Kippur morning, with the guidance of Leffler and Smith, who helped them compose and stage it. The participating students had traveled together during Passover and Holy Week to civil rights sites in Alabama, including the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham. The trip was called “Sankofa,” a West African word that is best translated as “go back and get it.” The expression suggests that in order to move forward, we need to learn about our past. “The trip was more than a history lesson,” writes Rabbi Andrea London of Beth Emet. “It was an opportunity to learn about each other and the different ways we experience the world based on our race and religion. Each teen was assigned a partner from the other community with whom to sit on the bus, room with, and reflect on the sites we were visiting. The trip was an opportunity to see how the past continues to impact the present and to explore how racism still affects us today. In addition to visiting sites together, prayer and the sharing of religious traditions and rituals was an integral part of the experience.” Emily: Isaiah has a challenge for us today. Isaiah looks around at the community, fasting, and in Chapter 58, Isaiah says: MD and Seth: On the day of your fasting, you do as you please and you exploit all your workers. Renaye and Leor: Your fasting ends in fights and violence and in striking each other with wicked fists! Emily and MD: You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high! Seth and Renaye: Do you think this is what I wanted from you? Just a day for you to inflict pain on yourselves? Leor and MD: You think I want you to fast so that you will shrink up and lie down and feel sorry for yourselves? Emily and Renaye: No! This is the fast that I want: MD and Seth: I want a fast that inspires you to work for justice. Renaye and Leor: I want you to unlock peoples’ chains. Emily and MD: I want you to empower the oppressed, to free the enslaved, and to break every yoke. Seth and Renaye: Share your food with the hungry, and provide the poor wanderer with shelter. Emily and MD: Put clothes on the naked and return to your people. Seth: Isaiah looks at a people who mean well, but who fall short – who learn the letter of the law, but don’t always act in the spirit of the law –- who engage in ritual practice, but not in the practice of justice. Renaye: And we have to be sure that we heed Isaiah’s warning. MD: We do a lot of rituals in our communities, both at Second Baptist and Beth Emet. Emily: We blow the shofar. Seth: We fast. Renaye: We get Baptised. Leor: We light the Shabbat candles. MD: We take communion. Seth: We sing. Renaye: We dress up for Easter. Emily: We have Passover seders. Leor: But why? Isaiah tells us we better do these rituals with the right intention, Renaye: We better do them in the name of God. MD: We better do these rituals in a way that invites people into a circle of responsibility. We better be swelling the ranks of those who are willing to fight for justice. Seth: Six months ago, we went on a journey together. And we, too, did a lot of rituals together. Renaye: There was this bridge. It’s called the Edmund Pettus bridge, and it’s in Selma, Alabama. Leor: Two groups of civil rights activists crossed this bridge in the course of their marches. The first group was met with clubs and dogs and tear gas. They were beaten so badly that the march ended right there. MD: And the second group bravely walked in the footsteps of the first – and it was one of the most successful marches in Civil Rights history. Emily: We, too, walked over that bridge, and we learned the history as we walked. We did it as a ritual. MD: We didn’t just walk from one side to the other. We walked in pairs, two by two, black and white, Jewish and Christian. Seth: And we walked slowly. And silently. Many of us held hands. And we bookended the walk by hearing excerpts from John Lewis’s memoir, an incredible civil rights leader who was on both marches. Renaye: The ritual of crossing the bridge made it stick with us. When I went back to my history class afterwards, and my class was learning these details, I was virtually able to teach the class. MD: And walking the bridge, ritually, also pulled us into a circle of responsibility. We’re now responsible to do something about the racism and discrimination that is still plaguing our society, the threats to voting rights, the injustice of a legal system that just accepts the murders of young black men –- Leor: Now I can’t really ignore the problems of institutionalized racism. Now that I know where I stand on the spectrum of privilege, I can’t ignore that privilege. I have to check in on myself: “Hey Leor, you can’t forget about this, this is a problem.” Seth: And we have to help other people to learn about it, we have to spread the message. Emily: That’s true for all the rituals of our journey together: the crossing of the bridge, the pilgrammage to Martin Luther King’s assassination site, Leor: the prayers we said, the blessings over our food, the footwashing ceremony – Renaye: All these rituals should inspire us to work for justice. Seth: Even the songs we sang. MD (singing): Woke up this morning with my mind . . . (everyone sings the first verse of the song) Leor: When I hear those songs, I get really emotional. I feel this profound connection to something bigger than myself. Seth: It gives me the chills. Renaye: It gives me hope. Even though people suffered, the song makes me feel like – not like everything is okay, but –- MD: like it is gonna be okay. Renaye: Yes. Because it’s not over. We’re only moving forward from here. Emily: And we’re moving into a bigger and stronger circle of responsibility that we’re building. That’s what these rituals were about. Leor: And maybe that’s what all our rituals should be about. Like Isaiah said, we ought to do these rituals in a way that inspires us to work for justice. Renaye and Leor: to unlock peoples’ chains. Emily and MD: to empower the oppressed, to free the enslaved, and to break every yoke. Seth and Renaye: To share our food with the hungry, and provide the poor wanderer with shelter. Emily: So when we blow the shofar, Renaye: When we get baptised, Leor: When we light the Shabbat candles, MD: When we take communion, Emily: When we have Passover seders, Renaye: When we dress up for Easter, Seth: And, yes, when we fast for Yom Kippur, MD: We ought to focus on what we’re doing. We ought to always be expanding and strengthening the circle of responsibility. Leor: Because, as we read in Leviticus on Yom Kippur, we have to love our neighbors as we love ourselves -– and both Hillel and Jesus said that was the most important commandment. Renaye: In our rituals, we love; we bring others into the circle of responsibility. Emily: And we build and support our communities. In the shadows of Isaiah’s demand, we act to create justice. Leor: Let’s learn to recognize, and to act against, oppression and injustice. Let’s educate our communities about systems of oppression and let’s have conversations about them. MD: And let’s do it with urgency. There is still a certain gradualism in our communities in making investments and paying visits to the more dangerous areas of our Evanston community. We find ourselves doubtful of our own abilities to make substantial and lasting change in Evanston. But the more we interact with the least of these, the more our circle of responsibility expands. Renaye: I’m ready for action. Are you ready? Seth: Isaiah awaits your answer.