Praying with their feet: Shabbat in Selma

On the walking tour outside Brown Chapel AME Church

If Selma needs a tourism spokesman, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom, the National Synagogue in Washington, would be a likely candidate.

After leading a 125-person delegation from Washington and Atlanta on a civil rights Shabbaton during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, Herzfeld called it “one of the most powerful, intense and emotional experiences of my life.”

He also wonders why more congregations don’t make similar trips, and asserts that “every Jewish Day School in the country should take their classes to Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham.”

The Orthodox congregation held services at Selma’s only synagogue, the 117-year-old Mishkan Israel. The classical Reform congregation has about seven Jews remaining in the town and holds services infrequently.

There was also a Shabbat morning walking tour, which culminated in a crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the 1965 Bloody Sunday clash.

Herzfeld said the trip’s inspiration came last summer when David Duke, who has criticized Herzfeld personally in the past, ran for Senate in Louisiana. Herzfeld felt the best antidote is to educate about the past, especially to children. A significant number of children took part in the weekend.

The group flew into Atlanta on Jan. 13, then went to Montgomery to tour the Rosa Parks Museum and Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.

In addition to the Ohev Shalom members, Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Beth Joshua in suburban Washington was on the trip, accompanied by one member of his congregation — she explained that most people at the small congregation of young families has very small children and could not make such a trip.

While in Montgomery, Topolosky posed with his two children on the steps of the Alabama Capitol, a reprise of a photo they took several years ago when he was rabbi of Beth Israel in Metairie and took them on a trip to Alabama.

There were also 20 students from George Washington University’s Hillel and Multicultural Students Services Center. A couple of Knesseth Israel members from Birmingham, where the group would have a post-Shabbat gathering on Jan. 14, also spent Shabbat in Selma.

Rabbi Adam Starr of Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta brought about 20 members to the Montgomery part of the trip, returning to Atlanta before Shabbat.

Jackson Richman, a GWU senior, joined the group in Montgomery, relating that he took an Uber from the airport to the hotel. During their conversation, the driver mentioned that his father had been in the U.S. Army in Germany during World War II, so Richman told him that his grandparents had survived the Holocaust. The driver then said his father had helped liberate Dachau — so Richman told him that his grandfather had been in Dachau, “and thanked him, and his father, in spirit, from the bottom of my heart and my family’s.”

The group traveled to Selma where they checked into their rooms, then had time to take a bus to Mishkan Israel before Shabbat began.

The sanctuary was mostly full for Shabbat evening, with the visitors, the few Mishkan Israel members and some local dignitaries. Ronnie Leet, president of Mishkan Israel, welcomed the group, after which Topolosky led the spirited Shabbat evening service.

This was the first time there has been a mechitza separating men and women at Mishkan Israel, in the form of a plastic drape laid across the top of the pews down the middle of the room. All of the Orthodox prayer books had to be brought in.

Topolosky referenced the famous quote by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with King in Selma in 1965 and reflected that it was like praying with his feet. With that spirit, he said, the service would be a foot-stomping experience.

The traditional service, far different than the mainly-English Reform Union Prayer Book service done for decades in that space, echoed off the walls. At the end of Lecha Dodi, dancing circles broke out on both sides of the sanctuary for several minutes.

“Praying in Mishkan Israel was very powerful,” Herzfeld said, “and it was beautiful for the prayers to be filling the sanctuary.”

At Shabbat dinner, mayor Darrin Melton spoke of the town as “the birthplace of democracy” because before Selma, not everyone had the right to vote.

He felt right at home during the service, saying “It was just like my own church.”

Herzfeld urged the mayor to support efforts to preserve Mishkan Israel, for its place in Selma history and its possibilities as a home for visiting Jewish groups.

Also speaking to the group was Susan Youngblood, from Selma’s city council. She proclaimed that she was “in awe” of being among so many of “God’s chosen people,” who had overcome so much throughout history.

After referring to the Holocaust, Youngblood asked how many in the room had ancestors in the Holocaust. She was visibly stunned when over one-third of those in the room raised their hands.

At the dinner, like so many times throughout the weekend, singing and dancing broke out, with traditional Jewish songs of brotherhood and unity mixed with songs from the civil rights movement.

In what is likely a first, at the start of the lunch Birkat, the prayer after meals, on Jan. 14, the introductory paragraph, “Shir HaMa’alot,” was done to the tune of “We Shall Overcome.”

After the morning service on Jan. 14, the group walked to the Selma Interpretive Center and met their guide for the walking tour, Joanne Bland.

A co-founder of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Bland was 11 years old when the Selma to Montgomery march occurred, and she was on the bridge for Bloody Sunday. By then, she had already been arrested 13 times.

Bland spoke of losing her mother at an early age, because she needed a blood transfusion and they had to wait for some “black blood” to be shipped in from Birmingham.

Her grandmother was active in civil rights, but Bland said she didn’t understand what freedom the movement was talking about, because she knew Lincoln had freed the slaves. She recalled looking through the window at the lunch counter at Carter’s Drug Store, wishing she could sit there. When she was told that was the freedom they were fighting for, she instantly became an activist.

One of the stops was at a boarded-up building that used to house a black restaurant. It was there that Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts who came to Selma in 1965, ate while in town for the demonstrations.

After the meal, Bland said, Reeb headed north instead of south, passing by a white restaurant where segregationists saw him and two fellow ministers, and beat them. He died from his injuries two days later.

At the memorial to Reeb between the two buildings, Topolosky led an impromptu recitation of the “El Malei,” the memorial prayer.

The furthest point on the walking tour was Brown Chapel AME Church, which was the civil rights headquarters. Surrounded on all sides by housing projects, it was seen as a safe place, because anyone looking to attack the facility would be noticed by residents.

After returning to the interpretive center, the group walked across the bridge, two by two as was done in 1965. Some sang “Hinei Ma Tov.” Herzfeld had kept his tallit on for the crossing.

That afternoon, the group visited the Jackson House, where King and Heschel stayed the night before the march.

On Jan. 15, the group headed back to Atlanta, stopping at the King Center and chanting Psalm 23 in Hebrew at King’s grave. About 40 Young Israel members joined them before the group flew back to Washington.

While many Jewish groups do civil rights tours of the South and stop in Selma for a couple of hours, Herzfeld said by staying over Shabbat and spending time walking in Selma gave them a much greater experience and sense of the place.

As the large group walked up and down Broad Street, they were greeted by locals. Reuven Walder said “When we walked through the neighborhoods, I spoke to many people — not just perfunctory greetings but conversations We need to do more of this.”

Based on conversations — and Shabbat remarks the next week — the story that made the biggest impression was Bland’s recollection of a shoe store on Broad Street, which had a pair of shoes she desperately wanted. Finally, her grandmother took a string and measured her foot, and they went to the store with that string.

The eager Bland grabbed one of “her shoes” and started to try it on, but was quickly yanked out of the shoe. It turned out the shoe was not the right size — but they had to buy them anyway, because the store owner said they could not be sold to a white person since her foot had been in it.

“That shoe store isn’t there any more,” she chuckled to her astonished audience.

“Hearing her story, so powerfully told in the exact spot where it took place was unforgettable,” said Sarah Gershman, an Adjunct Professor of Communications at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

The next week, Topolosky tied Bland’s story to the weekly portion, where Moses is instructed by God to remove his shoes at the Burning Bush. “I discussed the idea of taking the time to stand in someone else’s shoes, to appreciate their story.” He also referenced the speech King gave the night before he was assassinated, when he called civil rights activists a “burning bush.”

David Suissa of the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, who is friends with Herzfeld, went on the trip with his teenage daughter. He focused on the Saturday walk through Selma, with the ideas of hope and despair — the hope that came from civil rights victories, but the despair evident in seeing so many abandoned buildings and broken homes in the economically-depressed area.

He did find hope in the words of Melton and his plans to improve the city.

To have such a weekend in Selma, many hurdles had to be overcome. Everything from kosher food to being able to observe Shabbat had to be considered.

Avril Weisman, who coordinated the trip, said “it was an involved process involving many people and many calls back and forth, but I think it worked well in the end.”

A truck delivered all the meals from a kosher caterer in Atlanta, and the Selma Convention Center became the venue for meals. “With the assistance of Convention Center staff, we had kosher, delicious hot meals for Shabbat,” she said.

Harris Cohen, who oversaw the meals, also stopped by Costco in Atlanta to get snacks for Shabbat morning Kiddush at Mishkan Israel, before the walking tour.

A bigger hurdle was hotel rooms, as there aren’t many options close to downtown Selma, and it also depends on the definition of “walking distance.”

A few stayed at the St. James Hotel a few blocks away, a historic 42-room facility currently owned by the city and in the midst of ownership disputes while needing a major renovation.

The bulk of the group stayed at a motel over a mile away, with the motel staff taking charge of the key cards during Shabbat. Naturally, Selma does not have an eruv, so those who are Shabbat-observant could not carry anything.

“Most of the logistics and timing for events worked well,” Weisman said. “The mayor and people of Selma were so kind and gracious.” The lengthy walks back and forth through the city were escorted by the Selma police, and even motorists stuck at intersections seemed unfazed.

Herzfeld said the logistics of the weekend were a challenge, “but it’s doable.”

“I really recommend this type of experience for other congregations,” Herzfeld said. He floated the idea that Mishkan Israel could become a center for Jewish groups that come to Selma, and perhaps it should be dedicated in memory of Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner.

Gumbiner had been rabbi of Mishkan Israel for eight years in the 1930s. In March 1965, he returned to Selma with three other rabbis from California, to take part in the civil rights protests, much to the consternation of his former congregants.

Though King’s legacy was a major feature of the weekend, a recurring theme was how King could not have accomplished so much without the foot soldiers in each community who were agitating for change in their own cities.