FIfty years after Selma march, local rabbis join NAACP in commemoration

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On her first-ever trip to the Deep South early this month, Rabbi Beth Singer of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El savored the grits, admired the lush Alabama backcountry and noted the locals’ friendliness.

Rabbi Sarah Weissman of Congregation Beth Am marches in La Grange, Georgia.

A half-century ago, Selma was not so friendly. At the height of the civil rights movement, it was the scene of the infamous police attack on unarmed civilians March 25, 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

This year, more than 150 rabbis aligned with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis signed up to join America’s Journey for Justice, a six-week, 860-mile march from Selma to Washington, D.C.

Singer, along with fellow Emanu-El Rabbi Jason Rodich, took part in the Aug. 1-2 kickoff portion of the trek.

Sponsored by the NAACP, the march commemorates the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Over 46 days, organizers will hold rallies in several cities, including Atlanta, Charlotte, Richmond and Washington, where the march is scheduled to conclude on Sept. 16.

With a spate of police shootings of unarmed African Americans and the horrific June 17 church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, Singer thought the time was right to take a stand.

“In the context of Judaism, I’ve always been interested in whoever is considered the most vulnerable,” Singer said. “In the Torah, it’s the widow, the stranger and the orphan. In our time, it’s the hungry, the low-income, the disabled, people with mental illness. This year, between the events of Ferguson, Baltimore and the [Charleston] church, so much is happening.”

Beth Am member Arnie Kamrin (left) of Los Altos and a fellow marcher in Georgia

On the opening day of the march, a rally was held in downtown Selma, featuring speeches by such dignitaries as NAACP President Cornell William Brooks. Like something out of a Faulkner novel, the weather was sweltering, with temperatures topping 100 degrees.

Walking Route 80 over the Pettus Bridge with 200 other marchers, Singer couldn’t help but think of the civil rights pioneers who came before. “Those guys really put their lives on the line so we could have a peaceful, uneventful march,” she said.

On day one she walked 12 miles clutching a Torah. On day two, participants walked more than 15 miles in the hot sun. Singer would chat with fellow marchers, most of whom had come from far-flung cities and states.

“I met some lovely, terrific, smart people,” she said, “dedicated to wanting to change things, working on the Voting Rights Act and jobs. The African Americans were so welcoming to the rabbis and the Jewish presence on the march. They were incredibly gracious.”

Other Bay Area rabbis (along with a few of their congregants in some cases) either will participate or already have, including Jason Rodich of Emanu-El, Rebekah Stern of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, Sarah Weissman of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and Stacy Friedman of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

Weissman, who walked for 12 miles in sweltering Georgia heat, decided to go on the march “because I wanted to show my support for the work of the NAACP, and because I hoped that our actions might have some positive effect, however small, on the pursuit of justice for all people in this country.

Congregation Emanu-El Rabbis Jason Rodich and Beth Singer on a country road in Alabama

“I was very moved by the staff and volunteers of the NAACP, especially those who were committed to marching the whole way from Selma to Washington, D.C.,” she added. “Their determination and hope inspires me.”

Friedman and her 13-year-old son Eli will fall in with the march when it gets to South Carolina. She says the 40-plus days poetically echo the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert.

“It’s an obligation,” she said of her attendance, “given all the tension and injustice throughout our country. In 2015 we still have rampant poverty, economic and educational disparity, gun violence and a lack of willingness to create legislation so our young people are safe. It’s a travesty that in a country with so much power and wealth that so many are systematically marginalized.”

Friedman said she was spurred on by the long history of black-Jewish ties during the civil rights movement, as well as shared religious underpinnings to Jewish and African America social action.

“I am amazed by the numbers of rabbis flocking to the South for this event during the busiest time of the year,” she said, “to carry the Torah in 90-degree heat. The idea isn’t just to walk, but to be inspired by Torah, to do what we can to bring social equality to our community and the entire country.”

Though carrying a heavy Torah for miles and miles — no easy feat in intense heat — had been part of the rabbis’ design from the start, it turned out that other marchers wanted a crack at it.

“This one African American guy next to me asked me, ‘Do you think I could hold it?’ ” Singer recalled. She gladly turned it over to him and then, as he carried the Torah, “he asked me if I could take his picture so he could send it to his mom.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.