“If not now, when?” My Interfaith Civil Rights Journey
“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” ― John E. Lewis, a former freedom rider. Walking into the museum part of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, I had to do a double take. My mind immediately jumped to the quotation from pirkei avot. Rabbi Hillel says:
“אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי"
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
The parallels portrayed in these quotations are one of many I encountered on my trip this spring break. I was a participant on the Springboard School Break Trip: Let’s Get Together, a civil rights and ally building trip. The trip brought together Jewish and African American teens to learn about each other's histories, traveling by bus from Chicago to Memphis, Little Rock, St. Louis, and Springfield.
The quotation from the freedom rider, which is part of black history, and the quotation from Rabbi Hillel, part of Jewish history, both convey the message that we need to speak up and fight. Us — personally, and now. Throughout the trip, it was amazing for me to see how the thoughts of our histories are very similar. These quotes encouraged us to advocate for others and for ourselves. The theme of vocalization continued to appear throughout the trip.
In St. Louis we went to see The Color Purple, which follows the life of a black woman named Celie in rural Georgia. The musical shows her growth from being raped, abused and belittled, to gaining confidence in herself and learning how to “wear the pants,” one of the musical numbers. The play began with the actors walking out in complete silence. Throughout the show there were many silences. Every scene change, awkward moment, intense moment, sad moment, or amazing moment was exaggerated by the silence. During all of Celie's struggle no one spoke out for her, no one helped her. She was silent and stuck. The silence of the play made me physically see the importance of speaking up for each other and ourselves. “אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי” We as individuals need to speak up when we see injustices in our own lives.
But sometimes standing up for ourselves isn’t enough. On the bus we watched the movie Marshall, which shows the case of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell. Joseph Spell was a black man accused of rape and attempted murder in conservative Connecticut. Samuel Friedman was hired by the NAACP to defend him, with the help of Thurgood Marshall. The movie showcased an early example of a Jew aiding a black person and it served as an example for trip participants. Though Marshall was not forced to remain silent, as the movie claims, there is truth in Friedman using his voice to defend the accused African American. “וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי” We need to stand up for others when their voices are not loud enough.
"וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי" “If not now, then when?” In Springfield we had an activity in the capitol building where we used our voices to suggest change. We broke up into groups, working to propose a bill. The leader of my group, Stephanie, asked us what issues we saw in Chicago. One boy, Josh, brought up the problems regarding funding for public schools. I mentioned gun violence in neighborhoods. Another girl, Mpatanishi, pointed out the problem with hate symbols. Her comment gave us the chance to share how hurtful the sight of a swastika is and how it still makes appearances, such as when the Loop synagogue was vandalized, and a rock was thrown through the window. The discussion progressed to cover hateful words about LGBTQ+ people, black or other minorities. This activity brought us closer together because it gave us insight into what each of us cared about and allowed us to share our personal experiences. It also gave us a chance to brainstorm together ways we could address these problems by collaborating and working together.
Most of the trip was about “getting together”. My favorite moment of the trip was sitting in the room of one of my new friends on our last night because we wanted to savor every minute together. At first it was just a few girls, then others joined us, and the number kept growing. Someone turned on music and everyone started dancing and laughing with each other. One girl started singing a song and everyone else made up verses. We shared food and chatted about life. Our race or religion didn’t matter. It was just a bunch of girls hanging out together. It felt natural for us to just be friends.
At the first post trip meeting-- or reunion-- we all agreed that the next time there is a march we will show up together to support each other. On the trip we became a family, we recognize the need to be there for each other. If there is another Black Lives Matter march, or something in a black community, I want to be there to support my friends. If something happens at my synagogue, like what happened at the loop synagogue, I know I can count on the friends I made on the trip to be there for me. I want to use my voice to fight for them. I want them to know my history and about anti-Semitism. I want my friendship to go beyond the four days of the trip and for us to really be for each other. “If not us, then who?” We need to use our voices for each other. Not just me but US. It’s a communal effort that we need to take responsibility for.
-Ariana Handelman, Let's Get Together 2018 Participant