Pesach is a story of the long journey from degradation to dignity and is a theme that continues to repeat itself throughout history.  This year at my seder, and during this week when we tell the story and journey from then to now and from bondage to freedom, I am mindful that the journey is far from over. 

I recently went on a civil rights trip to Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, Alabama.  The trip was advertised as a journey not only about the Civil Rights Movement, but also as an opportunity to learn about Jewish participation in it.  I had seen the pictures and heard the stories of Rabbis Joachim Prinz, Eugene Borowitz, Abraham Joshua Heschel, of their support for the Movement, their marching side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and their arrests.  Not to take anything away from their efforts — indeed, they were true leaders exemplifying Jewish values in not just their words, but also their actions — photo-ops don’t tell the whole story.  Reality is a bit more complicated.

Yes, Jews marched, registered people to vote and were Freedom Riders, and, yes, some experienced repercussions, from beatings and arrests to the ultimate price, death at the hands of the Klan.  It is estimated that 60% of the white people who took a stand for Civil Rights were Jewish — an admirable number.  Not withstanding, however sympathetic to the cause, a very tiny percentage of Jews actually participated and only a handful of them were Southern.  Most Jewish protesters could return to their homes, families and businesses in the North with little consequence.  If you were a Southern Jew, it was a different story.  

In general, Southern Jews had a fine relationship with the black community. Both communities were considered by mainstream Southerners as inferior.  With this commonality came understanding.  With more at risk than their northern brethren and fearing violent reprisals to family and business, Southern Jews tried to stay neutral.  In the words of Elie Wiesel z”l, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”  

Indeed, Jewish values dictate that we take sides and that to “side with the oppressed— whether Jewish or not — is to be like God” (Rabbi Shai Held, PhD., More Than Managing, The Relentless Pursuit of Effective Jewish Leadership, p. 87.)  The words “never again” are a popular refrain, but never again for whom?  If only for Jews, “never again” are hollow words.  If based in Jewish values, they must mean never oppression nor human indignity for any person. 

On my trip, I heard eye-witness accounts of heart-wrenching experiences spattered with moments of light.  I felt horrified and inspired at the same time.  Reverend Gwendolyn Webb, a Baptist minister with a soft smile and vibrant spirit, spoke of her experiences as a high school student protester in the movement.  She described living with the daily indignities and how she wanted a better future than her parents’ past.  Our group joined her in making a human chain, arms intertwined, hands held tight.  Reverend Webb explained how the chain helped them act as one and created a safety net if one fell.  They acted in unison to swiftly pick her up. 

Joanne Bland described how she, as an eleven-year-old, had already been arrested 13 times since the age of eight for simple infractions such as possessing civil rights meeting flyers.  After trying to peacefully cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, she was chased down by the police and witnessed her family and friends’ brutal beatings on Bloody Sunday.  And there was 83-year-old Bishop Calvin Woods who led my group through Freedom Walk in Birmingham.  I listened to his descriptions of protesters, children included, being attacked by the police with dogs and fire hoses.  But then Bishop Woods led us in an uplifting song and I learned how the power of music, spirituals, folk and gospel songs bound the protesters together, lifted their spirits and gave them the strength to carry on.

I saw the faces of the four girls who were murdered by a KKK bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  I thought of my own children and I cried. At the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, I was enthralled with and angered by the presentation of the stages of black life in America that culminates in the current stage where racial disparities in our criminal justice system are racism's legacy and a continuation of our history of racial injustice.

On the heels of my trip, after Purim and with Pesach quickly approaching, I could not help but think about Amalek: “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.”  Throughout history there have been people who play the role of Amalek, prospering off of prevailing biases, curtailing the liberty and security of other people, creating "the other" and using words to promulgate fear and divisiveness.  Inevitably, those words turn into small actions growing in intensity and size until the unthinkable becomes reality. It happened in Egypt, in Europe and, yes, in the United States.  As Baruch Spinoza said, “If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past.”  But humans are slow to learn, with short memories and attention spans.  When we encounter injustice, it is so easy to assemble a series of reasons to justify our silence or indifference.  Have we not yet learned that indifference to suffering is the epitome of evil?  It is time we see everyone as ANOTHER.  Another human being; another life, another soul.  If not, our destruction may not be physical nor come at the hands of Amelek.  Our defeat will be of our own making.  It will be our moral defeat, the death of our soul for not standing up to the present-day threats to humanity.

During Pesach, I am thinking about our story.  Four hundred years we were slaves in Egypt.  And though our physical bondage ended, sadly, the fight for human dignity has continued.  This is similarly true for the black community in the United States.  The slave trade began in the 17th Century.  Four hundred years later, in the 21st century, after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, though the physical chains no longer exist, the battle for human dignity goes on. 

Jamie Ramsfelder, WHP Alum (Greater MetroWest NJ 15), was trained as an attorney, but spent most of her career working in development capacities at non-profits, both Jewish and secular.  She dedicates her time to volunteering for a variety of Jewish organizations, including her children’s day school alma mater Gottesman RTW Academy, her synagogue, Mt. Freedom Jewish Center, and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.  Jamie lives in Morristown, NJ with her husband Jonathan and three (almost grown) children, Zachary, Max and Allie.  She can be reached at