Pursue Justice

 

It began as a regular Friday night at the Great Lakes Recruit Training. About fourteen recruits, roughly half of whom were Jewish and the other half who had come out of curiosity, joined together to celebrate Shabbat. Instead of using the military prayerbook / siddur, published by the Jewish Welfare Board(JWB) Chaplains Council of the JCC Association, we used a special service compiled by the Religious Action Center(RAC), which is under the auspices of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism, with various affiliates.

For more than 50 years, the RAC has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C. Its goal is to “educate and mobilize the Reform Jewish community on legislative and societal concerns, advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, and religious liberty… It is non-partisan and pursues public policies that reflect the Jewish values of social justice which are the core of Reform Judaism.” In memory of the important contribution made by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the cause of civil rights, this particular Shabbat was designated as “Shabbat Tzedek” – the Sabbath of Justice.

Powerful words of the civil rights leaders, then and now, were incorporated into the service, connecting ancient and contemporary prophetic voices to the prayers. Following services, a recruit led us in Kiddush. Just as another recruit was about to recite Hamotzi, something extraordinary happened – in walked over 35 non-Jewish recruits! Their service had been cancelled, so they decided to join us. For most of them this was the first time meeting a rabbi and experiencing Jewish prayer and learning.

For the next 40 minutes this group of 18-22 year-olds engaged in a powerful conversation about civil rights, examining teachings from selected biblical, rabbinic and modern texts as they relate to civil rights. Recruits drew from personal experiences, including community organizing. When asked how one gets involved in community organizing, a recruit replied, “When you see a need, you just gather a bunch of people and get started!

Recruits spoke passionately on the topic of unity and what that means in the Navy, quoting the sailor’s creed: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and I will obey the orders of those appointed over me. I represent the fighting spirit of the Navy and all who have gone before me to defend freedom and democracy around the world. I proudly serve my country’s Navy combat team with Honor, Courage and Commitment. I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all.”

As they spoke, I looked around the room and witnessed both the diversity and unity of this group of men and women. Diversity here means respecting individual differences in race, culture, age, ability, marital status, geographic region of origin, gender, religion, ethnicity, experiences, viewpoints, backgrounds and life experiences. This makes me wonder how this acceptance of diversity combined with a commitment to unity will influence their views when they return to civilian life? How will lessons learned and values internalized shape their vision for a bright future for all? Can we count of these young people to lead us in the on-going local, national and global fight for civil rights? Time will tell, but there is every reason to be hopeful.

The evening came to a close with the shehecheyanu – underscoring the specialness of this moment with a seemingly random group of recruits who convened for Shabbat Tzedek and became, for a ew moments, a unified community – a gathering of specific people who will go their separate ways at the end of the eight weeks of recruit training. Will they have a deeper understanding of the words in Deuteronomy (16:18): “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live…”? What will be the long-term impact of learning that in the face of diversity we can hold on to our uniqueness and still share values and visions? Will it lead to organizing around justice? To the building of coalitions with others outside of our communities?

The evening came to a close with the shehecheyanu – underscoring the specialness of this moment with a seemingly random group of recruits who convened for Shabbat Tzedek and became, for a ew moments, a unified community – a gathering of specific people who will go their separate ways at the end of the eight weeks of recruit training. Will they have a deeper understanding of the words in Deuteronomy (16:18): “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live…”? What will be the long-term impact of learning that in the face of diversity we can hold on to our uniqueness and still share values and visions? Will it lead to organizing around justice? To the building of coalitions with others outside of our communities?

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In Selma, Alabama, I learned to pray with my feet.” Then, and now – 50 years after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington – we, too, must pray through our actions. This means joining together and rerouting our anger from injustice to the pursuit of justice, that we might fulfill the words of the prophet, Micah: to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Holy One of Blessing. To this, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “I have a dream…”. Five decades later, what will we bring to this dream?

Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

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One thought on “Pursue Justice

  1. First…..your last paragraph is written twice.

    Second….this blog makes me miss the Base so much! I look forward to coming back into the fold!!!

    Rhonda

    Like

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