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Kivie Kaplan NAACP National President and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Kivie Kaplan NAACP National President and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This has been a difficult week for our country, as we marked the one-year anniversary of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Baltimore, Staten Island, South Carolina and elsewhere, have experienced similar police confrontations with African Americans, and tensions with police have risen. The “Black Lives Matter” movement that emerged this past year is now justifiably asserting itself in the Presidential primary process. As New Yorkers, we not only suffered the horror of watching Eric Garner’s life snuffed out, we have suffered as well the targeted killing of two police officers as they sat in their patrol car last December. All this, as we mark the anniversary, also this very week, of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, 50 years ago.

On the other hand, a remarkable movement has been in full swing this month, in a partnership between the NAACP and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the “RAC”), in addition to a number of other organizations dedicated to social justice. [Read more about this history.]  In an historic 860-mile march from Selma to Washington during August and mid-September, the “Journey for Justice” is promoting a focused advocacy agenda including: fairness in our criminal justice system; unfettered access to the ballot box; sustainable jobs and a living wage; access to a solid public education. Over 100 Reform rabbis are carrying a Torah scroll from Selma up to Washington, DC, to culminate in a huge rally and lobby day on the day after Rosh Hashanah in September. Reform rabbis from all over the country have been traveling to points along the route, and marching for a short time along with partners from the NAACP.

We recall that in 1961 the RAC was founded, and the building in Washington built, by a Reform Jew named Kivie Kaplan, z”l, who at the time was President of the NAACP. Apparently a few years earlier Kivie and his wife traveled from Massachusetts to Florida on their honeymoon. They took a cab to an exclusive restaurant when they saw a sign outside that read, “No dogs, no Jews.” The cab driver, who was African American, said: “They don’t even bother with us.” At that moment Kivie Kaplan vowed to spend the rest of his life fighting that sign, and his leadership of the NAACP and the RAC were the results.
On this, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we recall that significant portions of this landmark legislation were drafted on the desk in library of the RAC. When the Supreme Court vacated a section of this bill with the Shelby Decision two years ago, it set off a wave of local maneuvering in different states to further chip away at the right to vote, the most fundamental right for all Americans. This should shock and alarm us all.
This Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. It is during this month, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, that our tradition charges us with the responsibility to make Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. This now is our responsibility as Jews, and as Americans. Our entire country needs to be engaging in an accounting of its soul. I am proud of my colleagues who are participating in this march, and I will join with them in the efforts of this journey for justice. In the coming weeks and months, we will discuss the agenda of this march with greater specificity.