Friday, March 24, 2017

"If I can help somebody as I pass along" - Reflections on the CCARConvention in Atlanta (March 19-23, 2017) - D'var Torah forVayakheil/P'kuday - March 24, 2017

        This has been a difficult week.   Some news commentators would likely apply that thought to what happened in the House of Representatives today. 
    Others might cite the Westminster attack, which is part of an unfortunately persistent wave of hatred and intolerance borne out in violent actions and murder.
    Many Jews around the world might be thinking of the young Jewish man in Israel who is now the main suspect identified as the perpetrator of bomb threats against Jewish community centers in the United States and two locations in Australia and New Zealand.   We are still not certain whether we will ever be able to explain his actions, even with reports that a medical condition may have affected his judgment, making him somehow see his actions as appropriate.  This particular situation leaves us asking more questions, even though we may have a partial answer. 
     In both of those cases of threat and tragedy, the perpetrator wanted to tear down a house, so to speak, or a society.   There may have been a desire to replace the house with something else.  Or the motive may have been simply to derive a sense of twisted satisfaction by exerting personal abilities and power to sow chaos, disruption, or even loss of life.    
    During the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Atlanta which I attended over the last several days,  my colleagues and I saw other examples of attempts to create chaos and act upon prejudice.   
The site of the Pencil Factory
     Some of us participated in a tour of Civil rights sites in Atlanta on Sunday morning. Our first stop was at an apartment and shop complex called the Pencil Factory.   I immediately knew where we were.  Leo Frank had moved to Atlanta from New York in 1908 to take over a pencil factory at that location.  In 1913, one of his employees, 13 year old Mary Phagan, came from Marietta to pick up her paycheck and never returned home.  As best as we can tell, after the revelations provided in the 1980s by Leo Frank's office helper Alonzo Mann, custodian Jim Conley had murdered Mary Phagan. Mann, who saw Conley carrying Phagan's body, was told by Conley that, if he told anyone, he would be murdered, too.   The prosecutor in the case didn't believe that Conley, a black man, could have perpetrated the crime.  The guilt was, instead, pinned on Frank, an easy target because of his Jewish identity.  
     Frank was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death, a judgment commuted by Governor Jim Slaton in 2015.  Soon after that, Leo Frank was taken from a prison hospital by a group called "The Knights of Mary Phagan" and lynched.  The Knights actually distributed post cards that bore photos from the lynching at that time.     From those events emerged the Anti-Defamation League and, sadly, an emboldened and renewed Ku Klux Klan.    So, standing at the Pencil Factory was simply chilling, and a reminder of how stereotypes and hatred can tear down decency in our midst. 
The original Ebenezer Baptist Church
    We then visited the graves of the Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr. And Coretta Scott King.  We sat in the pews of the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr.'s father had served as pastor and where King himself sang in the children's choir.   We attended the service at the current Ebenezer Baptist Church. Last Sunday morning, 1500 people gathered to celebrate the 131st anniversary of the church.   The service featured music led by different generations of singers and instrumentalists, dancers, a bell choir, and an inspiring sermon delivered by the Rev. Traci Blackmon from St. Louis.    While the death of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the result of yet another person - or a group of people - who wanted to sow chaos in society, the church itself, both old and new, signified  how a holy space can yield the creation of sacred partnership from one generation to the next. 
     Our final stop on the tour was at the NAMES Project/AIDS memorial quilt headquarters.   What we heard from the project's president and CEO, Julie Rhoad, was that this organization began as a way to draw people's attention to the challenge of AIDS through reflection and remembrance.   That left an impression on me.   They hoped to make great strides in medical research that would ultimately lead to a cure for AIDS.  Their means to reach that end became the creation and public displays of quilt pieces sent to them memorializing individuals who died of AIDS and donations that came in from all around the world.   I admire their continuing efforts and their peaceful approach that has woven together so many relatives and friends of persons with AIDS who died  into a human tapestry of hope. 
Julie Rhoad, Director and CEO of the NAMES PROJECT
AIDS Memorial Quilt, at its Atlanta headquarters
     And that brings us to the Torah reading for the week.   Moses called upon selected artisans, led by Bezalel and Oholiab, to come forward to fashion the Tabernacle, the Israelite house of worship, and its furnishings.   The people were asked to donate materials that could be used in the creation of the Israelites' sacred space. 
     So, they brought their contributions....and then more, and even more...until what they were donating became overwhelming.   Bezalel and Oholiab and their colleagues had accumulated enough raw materials to move forward with their work. They told Moses to announce to the people to stop!   The Torah says that the people "had brought enough for the work to be done, and even more."   
     Here was a group of people, in the wilderness, having just escaped slavery, that was able to be exceedingly generous.    After some of their fellow Israelites had previously given their jewelry to create the golden calf, a sign of communal breakdown and chaos, the people had learned from the past and reached a new level.  They understood unity.  They understood the honor of giving to something sacred.  They understood how important it would be, in their present and their future, to build up, whether it was raising their own spirits or raising a structure where they could go to feel the presence of God with them.    
Mary Gurley sings "If I Can Help Somebody" at the morning
service of the Central Conference of American Rabbis
convention in Atlanta, Georgia on March 20, 2017. 
     One moment that I haven't mentioned from the convention exemplified how history can create a holy foundation upon which we can build in the here and now and in the future.   Mary Gurley, who is now 88 years old, sang in the children's choir at the Ebenezer Baptist Church with Martin Luther King, Jr.   During the funeral of the civil rights leader, she was called upon to sing a song called "If I Can Help Somebody."   Just before the Kaddish during our convention service this past Monday morning, the service leader spoke about Mary Gurley.  Then, to the surprise of some of us, she herself walked up to the stage in the hotel ballroom, took her place at the microphone, and sang these words: 
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or a song,
If I can show somebody he is travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain!
   Know that among the 500 rabbis and other family members and guests gathered for that service, there was likely not a dry eye in the house.    
    That song's lyrics describe some of the most crucial building blocks of community because they direct us to act with kindness, with compassion, and with enough of a sense of fellowship to reach out to support others along our shared life's path.     
    What we do in our lives should not be about power, or control, or being more important and precious than anyone else. 
    We can be like the Israelites who brought their best to build a holy space where they would meet God.  
    And we, in our day, can do the same with generous hands and open minds and hearts.   
    May the space we create allow all people to enter, remembering that God's house can and should always be a house of prayer for all peoples.   May we make it so.  

No comments:

Post a Comment