Jaimie Abt Shmelzer ’90 & Drew Shmelzer ’19 Civil Rights Journey

From February 14th to 17th,  Drew and I traveled with our synagogue, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, on a Civil Rights journey to Atlanta and Birmingham.   We went with 17 6th and 7th graders, the director of our religious school, Rabbi Stacy Rigler, and some other parents.   It was a powerful and emotional trip for all who attended. We went with a company called Etgar 36, and most of us learned while we were there that Etgar means “challenge” in Hebrew.   The trip itself was challenging; we were forced to look at our country’s shameful past regarding slavery, and the racism that still exists as a result of it.   We were also left with a challenge to try to make changes and be the generation that ends racism and achieves equal justice for all.

After arriving in Atlanta in the late afternoon, we met up with our incredible guide, Josh.   He took us to dinner and then told us a story about the lynching of a Jewish man.   Most of the kids, and some of the adults didn’t know what lynching is. While it wasn’t the best bedtime story, it really set the stage for the days to come.   Our first full day was spent in Montgomery, Alabama.   We started in the Rosa Parks Museum.   While everyone had heard of Rosa Parks and the bus boycotts, there was a lot we didn’t know, and we all found the museum to be interesting and worthwhile.   Then after a delicious lunch of southern fried chicken, we went to the Equal Rights Initiative.   They recently opened The Legacy Museum, which looks at racial inequality from enslavement through mass incarceration; and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is a memorial to victims of lynching.   These places were eye-opening. Some of the students came out of the museum really upset that they didn’t learn about this in school.   To hear that one in three African-American boys born today will serve time in jail really shook people. To see the thousands of names listed in the memorial on stones the size of coffins of those lynched for things like, “writing a note to a white woman,” was shocking to us.   There were dates and locations of the lynchings too, and they didn’t all take place in the South.  Some were in Pennsylvania. The latest date I saw was 1949.

That evening we attended a local Shabbat service, which was a really nice ending to the day.   Then we enjoyed a pizza dinner, and the kids got to let out their energy with a swim party.

The next morning, we left for Selma.   We stopped outside the Edmund Pettus Bridge where Rabbi Rigler led a brief, interactive service.   She was amazing at having everyone share short reflections throughout the trip.   The students were impressive each time, saying really thoughtful things.   In Selma we met Joanne Bland.   She was 11 years old when she marched from Selma to Montgomery and was beaten on the second attempt.  Ms.  Bland gave us a tour of Selma and shared her story, which included being arrested multiple times before she was 13 years old.   Ms. Bland was unbelievable.   She never gave up.   She has spent her whole life fighting for civil rights. She told us how much better things are now, but knows there is still a long way to go.   She told each of us that we are the most important person, and, “You are standing where history was made, I know you must be a history maker too.”   The impact she left on us will be  everlasting.

 

That afternoon we went to Birmingham, Alabama. Our first stop was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This was a very impressive museum where we learned more about the history  of the civil rights movement. After that we met up with Bishop Calvin Woods. He has been a civil rights worker since the 1950’s and was a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. He took us on a walking tour of Freedom Park and showed us the 16th St. Baptist Church, which was bombed and four young girls were killed. Bishop Woods told us incredible stories and sang with us. There is a plaque in the park dedicated to him, which is very unusual for someone still living.   Hearing stories from Bishop Woods and Ms. Bland left huge impacts on us.   It makes history come alive when you hear from people who lived it.

We drove back to Atlanta that night, and people were really tired.   It was a long few days. Rabbi Rigler said we were going to have a Havdalah service.   I thought the kids were going to complain and have nothing left.   They surprised me.   Rabbi Rigler asked each person to share one thing from the day that made the most impression on them. Each person said something that either the Bishop or Joanne said that was powerful and meaningful to them. It was beautiful.

Sunday morning, we went to the Names Project/ AIDS Quilt and learned how AIDS is a modern civil rights issue.   We then went to a church service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which is where Dr. King was raised.   Finally we saw his burial site.

 

This trip was so impactful.   Everywhere we went, people were telling the kids that they are the generation that is going to change things  and end racism and bigotry.   They felt empowered.   We now know that it is our job to tell these stories to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.   Some of the kids are going to do more than that; they are going to become activists for equality and prison reform.   Some of the students left saying they want to go again, others left saying it was too short.   The adults left feeling exhausted!   Travelling with students this age can be challenging – these kids made it easy.   They exceeded our expectations in every way.

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