As they look ahead to what their rabbi called “a yearlong exploration of racial equity,” some 30 members of Jewish Reconstuctionist Congregation (JRC), 303 Dodge Ave., visited the newly opened Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. in July.
The 11,000 square-foot Legacy Museum is housed in a former warehouse where enslaved Black people were imprisoned and traces a continuum of oppression “from enslavement to mass incarceration.” The accompanying memorial commemorates victims of lynching in the United States.
The trip was the brainchild of JRC members Beth Lange and Laurie Goldstein, according to Rabbi Rachel Weiss. The synagogue has been planning a number of workshops, discussions and events focusing on the impact of racism and racial inequity, and has a newly formed Racial Equity Task Force.
A central question, recalled Rabbi Weiss, is, “How do we as a community of primarily adult White Jews, with a congregation that has a fair amount of Jews of color in our children population, understand the deep effects of racism and racial inequity in our country, and what our role is in it?”
She added, “It’s very much my belief that, in order to develop our skills as an ally, that, because many of us are White, it’s up to many of us to educate ourselves.”
Many congregants believed that traveling to the Alabama sites would provide a good opening to those conversations.
Ms. Lange, who heads up JRC’s Immigrant Justice Task Force, said that many had been following the progress of the museum and memorial, which opened in April.
“We said, ‘It’s one thing to read about this and say it’s a good idea, and another thing to show up and say we have to go,’” she explained.
Ms. Lange and Ms. Goldstein proposed the synagogue trip not knowing so many people would be interested in going.
“It turned out that it resonated with a lot of people,” said Ms. Lange, who noted that JRC members rarely shy away from difficult conversations. “It really propelled a lot of us to go right away, and speak with our feet and say that this is really important and we want to experience it.”
The museum documents and illustrates not just slavery but other forms of racial mistreatment. Rabbi Weiss recalled getting a better impression of “the seamless link between the international slave trade and domestic slave trade, and lynchings, civil rights [abuses] and mass incarceration. The continuity of oppression of Black and Brown people in this country has always been systemized. For me, looking at those very specific ways was very eye opening.”
JRC members held a prayer service at the memorial. Rabbi Weiss called the location “a stunning, devastating and elegant memorial that speaks to what became a spectator sport for terrorism and violence. We realized we are all are complicit in carrying that narrative forward if we don’t talk about it and recognize what happened.”
Various members also visited a number of other pertinent nearby sites, including the Rosa Parks Museum; Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Rev. Martin Luther King preached and helped plan the Montgomery bus boycotts; and the Freedom Rides Museum. Some congregants visited other locations in Selma and Birmingham as well.
“There was so much to take in,” Ms. Lange said. “Our community does that – we go places to experience, to bear witness, to learn and reframe who we are and how we go about doing things. JRC was the community I wanted to do that with.”
Added Rabbi Weiss, “As Jews, and as people with consciences and hearts, we can’t look away. We have to engage, and that has to start with ourselves.”