Selma and
the Jews


Last week, I saw the movie, Selma.

This week, many traveled to Selma to observe the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.”

Yesterday, I received a picture from my friend, Peter Yarrow, with hundreds of rabbisand clergy of all faiths who gathered for that moment.

Today, I share with you words by Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, who wrote them in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this past January:

Selma…is a powerful movie that manages to feel epic and intimate at the same time; no easy feat. It is heroic yet nuanced; laudable for Hollywood….One critic accuses the film of “airbrushing” the Jewish presence out of the movie. If one watches closely, two figures can be seen wearing yarmulkes. What is lamentable, however, is the absence of a striking figure with flowing white hair and beard. In an iconic photo from the march, he is one person away from Dr. King. He is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, renowned philosopher, author and activist.


While it is well-known that Rabbi Heschel, along with several other rabbis, marched with Dr. King in Selma, the extent of Rabbi Heschel’s involvement is much less appreciated. Before going to Selma, Rabbi Heschel helped organize a demonstration at the FBI headquarters in New York protesting the treatment of participants in the previous “Bloody Sunday” Selma march. Eight hundred demonstrators converged; onlyRabbi Heschel was

allowed in to the building to present a petition.

Two years earlier, Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King met for the first time at a national conference of Christians and Jews meeting in Chicago, where Rabbi Heschel memorably said that “it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” Fourteen months later, the two again shared a podium at the biannual convention of the Conservative Jewish Movement, and a day later at a similar gathering of the Reform Jewish Movement. Both spoke not only of the civil rights struggle but of the plight of Soviet Jewry.

In 1968, shortly before his death, Dr. King lauded Rabbi Heschel at a gathering of Conservative rabbis, saying, “He has been with us in many of our struggles. I remember marching from Selma to Montgomery; how he stood at my side and with us as we faced that crisis situation.”

Rabbi Heschel was asked to speak at Dr. King’s funeral; he was the only rabbi to do so. It was fitting for the man whom King’s supporters often called “Father Abraham” and who Dr. King himself was known to refer to as “my rabbi.

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Fifty years ago, Jews and Christians attempted to march across a bridge, emblematic of the Jewish people crossing the Sea as they left Egypt. Unlike our story, they were crushed, destroyed, and (temporarily) defeated.
As we remember that moment – and as we begin our Passover preparations – let us ask what our responsibility is 50 years later? What has been accomplished? What is still undone? How can we – how must we – be like Moses…be like King…be like Heschel – and do the work of justice and equality? How do we cross the Sea?