This summer I had the opportunity to work with an organization called Operation Understanding, an organization committed to social justice. OU takes an equal number of Jews and Blacks, boys and girls all rising seniors on a journey to learn about their individual and shared histories so that they can effectively help to lead a greater understanding of diversity and acceptance.
The organization was founded in 1985 by an African Congressman and a Jewish businessman. These two men came together over mutual concerns about the strained relations between Black and Jewish communities. Both men became convinced that exploring their histories together might begin a powerful, constructive dialogue. Together, they conceived of Operation Understanding.
My work with OU began late June and we left Philadelphia, and headed to a place called Fellowship Farm, hung out there for a couple of days for some team building, then set out on our journey, to New York and spent time in Harlem and Crown Heights, Park 51 and the World Trade Center Memorial site. We met a Queen, Queen Quet, leader of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, we went rafting in Atlanta visited the Martin Luther King Center, learned about the Leo Frank Case. We visited the Paper Clips Project, in Tennessee, learned about the horrific tragedy of the Scottsboro Boys; nine black teenage boys accused of raping two white women Alabama in 1931, when their only real crime was catching a free ride on a freight train. We got some serious experiential education on slavery by being made slaves ourselves and being put on a slave ship. We crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and learned a first hand account of what happened Bloody Sunday March 7, 1965 in Selma Alabama; and what it was like to be a freedom rider. All of this information you will never find in U.S. History text book. We popped into the Southern Poverty Law Center and Tuskeegee, help to build houses in New Orleans and learned about Jewish life in New Orleans. We hung out with the Jewish community of Jackson Mississippi. We had lunch with Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles the last person to see Dr King alive and our last stop was DC before heading home. Along the way we attended Muslim, Jewish and Christian services. Visited civil rights museums, a holocaust museum and learned about Israeli, Jewish, American, black and African cultures.
This week’s Torah portion urges us repeatedly to pursue justice. I could not help but go back to the phrase “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף (“Justice, justice, you shall pursue”) The verb tirdof is in the imperative, commanding us to engage in the work at hand. It teaches us to pursue the goal of Justice through means that are just and teaches us: Justice for ourselves and justice for the other.
The kids I worked with learned a lot on this trip about the tragedies of the past and hope for the future. I also learned a lot. After a rough first year of rabbinical school and wondering if there really was a place in the Jewish community for me as a Rabbi. These kids and Operation Understanding helped to remind me that there is a place for someone like me in the Jewish community and for me Tzedek Tzedek צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף represents my two communities, both seeking and pursuing justice.