New definition of activism: path of understanding4 min read

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In a field of unkempt grass that seemed to go on forever,  I stood hand in hand with my black and Jewish peers singing freedom songs. I was in Anniston, Ala., honoring the Freedom Riders’ bravery. There was nothing next to us except a sign that indicated that this was the site of the bombing of a Freedom Rider bus, which traveled across the segregated South to test the Supreme Court ruling that banned segregation on interstate highways, on May 14, 1961. The sign itself had recently been torched. Drivers rushing down the nearby highway were honking at our circle. I felt uncomfortable. Exposed.

I take part in Operation Understanding D.C., a cross-cultural social justice program that brings together black and Jewish teenagers who work to obliterate all forms of hate. OUDC is a year-long program split into three parts: we learn about Jewish and black history and culture, travel to the Deep South for two and a half weeks and then share our experiences and knowledge with our communities.

The courage, patience and heroism that I learned about in the Civil Rights Movement has taught me a new definition of activism. Before I took part in OUDC, I experienced activism by attending rallies on Washington and screaming chants with a sea of people. This, to me, felt like the only way I could really show up. When I am part of something big like those marches, I feel empowered, activated to do something. Yet after returning from popular protests, I question my impact. OUDC has helped me realize that activism is so much more than just passionately yelling at massive demonstrations. I have to think. I have to feel. I have to take action. Activism to me is standing up for my values through monetary and physical action, large or small. It is actively learning and unlearning every day.

When I stood up in Anniston, I was an activist. I channeled the courage of the Freedom Riders. I felt the drivers honking at me. I felt the fear of being isolated in a town far from anything I knew. Just by standing there, against that fear, I took action.

While we as Jews have a long history of oppression, we cannot let this past be an excuse for complicity. Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke before Dr. King at the March on Washington. He said, “The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

As Jews, we speak proudly of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with MLK or Julius Rosenwald creating freedom schools for black children. Yet we ignore the actions of other Jews, like those who stood amongst a mob of Klan members as fire rained down and irons pipes shattered the activists’ bus windows that fateful day in Anniston. I feel ashamed by their actions and betrayed by the silence of this story.

This summer, I gained a new sense of responsibility to be an active ally to the black community. It is not enough to learn about the acts of figures such as Heschel and Rosenwald, but rather we must stand on their shoulders to eradicate all forms of bigotry, including our own.

Resistance is not always easy and not always glorious. I had the honor of meeting Georgette Norman, the former director of the Rosa Parks Museum, whose mother provided alternative transportation for Montgomery bus boycotters. Norman’s mother could have been killed for her selfless actions and yet she is still not shown in a museum. She did not stand up for the attention or the glory. Rather, she lept out of her comfort zone to make a difference. Our generation can follow in her footsteps, whether on a large or small scale.

While at times on my journey I felt helpless, I ended up hopeful and proud. I embodied activism as I held hands with the same friends at the Equal Justice Initiative Lynching Memorial, and recited Jewish, Muslim and Christian prayers to honor the thousands of women and men who were brutally lynched in America. In the midst of so much hatred, it was a beautiful moment of coexistence and resistance.

Activism is indeed going on a march, but it’s also telling a friend that it is unacceptable to sing along to racist expletives or to make fun of someone’s culture.  It’s productively conversing with someone who has contrasting views. It’s standing up in the face of fear. Activism is so much more than a single action, it’s a lifelong commitment to growing and learning. Every day, we can all be bold activists.

This story was featured in the Volume 36, Issue 1 print edition of The Lion’s Tale, published on Aug. 28, 2018.

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