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18 Feb 2023

Black Jews make a pilgrimage on the Civil Rights Trail

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February 18, 2023 Category: Local Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO COURTESY: Reconstructing Judaism

By Constance Garcia-Barrio

It is said that our history lives within us. A group of Jewish leaders of African descent who made a pilgrimage to places on the Civil Rights Trail in October of 2022 might have been following that philosophy. To mark Black History Month, the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall hosted a virtual discussion on February 9  about the trip. In the discussion, “Deconstructing Racism to Reconstructing Judaism: The Story of Trip Down South,” participants in the pilgrimage spoke about their experience.

The discussion reflected the Weitzman’s goal of public programming that looks at overlapping identities, or intersectionality, of gender, culture, and other characteristics, the museum’s website explains.  To that end, recent presentations have included Black Jewish food historian Michael Twitty, indigenous Jewish actress Sarah Podemski, and Jewish lesbian artist Deborah Kass, creator of the OY/YO sculpture at the museum’s entrance. Last Thursday’s panel included Black rabbis, rabbinical students, faculty and board members at a rabbinical college, as well as synagogue presidents and lay leaders.

Reconstructing Judaism — an organization headquartered in Wyncote that trains rabbis —  organized and funded the pilgrimage. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan adopted the term “reconstructionism” in the 1920s with the belief that Judaism must be “’reconstructed’ in each generation to renew its relevance and ensure its sustainability,” the organization’s website states.

As part of a pilgrimage to the South, a dozen Jews of African descent who are leaders in the Reconstructionist movement prepare to visit key civil rights sites in Selma, Ala. Photo courtesy: Reconstructing Judaism

The pilgrimage aligns with Reconstructing Judaism’s philosophy of being “…part of the repair, dialogue, fellowship and relationship with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Jews and communities of color that are essential to a more just future.”

 Pilgrimage participants serve as leaders in the Reconstructionist movement.

Adam W. McKinney, artistic director of the Pittsburgh Ballet — who describes himself as queer, Black, and Jewish — facilitated the pilgrimage. He kicked off last Thursday night’s discussion. 

 “Trauma lives in our bodies,” McKinney said. “[Some] theorists believe that to recover from trauma, one must return to the sites [where it occurred] to develop new memories.” 

Blacks and Jews were beaten and sometimes killed during freedom marches. The U.S. Civil Rights Trail passes through many states, however, the pilgrimage centered on sites of trauma in the South “within a Black and Jewish context,” staff at Reconstructing Judaism said. 

The trip, whose itinerary included Atlanta, Montgomery, and Selma, could help heal that trauma, McKinney felt. “It’s more powerful to do this work collectively,” he said.  

Amanda Mbuvi, (r) vice president for academic affairs at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Rabbi Sandra Lawson Photo courtesy: Reconstructing Judaism

The places visited included the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where police inflicted ferocious blows upon unarmed protesters marching for voting rights on March 7, 1965. The infamous event became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Pilgrimage participants also spent time at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama “dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by Jim Crow…” and other forms of racial oppression. “More than 4,400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950,” the website states.

Group members also visited the neighboring Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which stands where Black people had to “…labor in bondage.”  

During last Thursday’s presentation, some participants spoke of deep responses to what they saw and learned.

 “In Alabama, I found myself breathing shallow,” said Marques Hollie. Based in Philadelphia, Hollie is a theatre artist, storyteller, and classically trained musician. “It helped that we’d agreed to stay within sight of each other.”

Reconstructionist Rabbi Kendra Watkins experienced difficult emotions. 

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