URJ Mitzvah Corps connects Reform Jewish teens with immersive social action opportunities across North America. Alongside a group of committed peers and our dedicated staff, teens volunteer with grassroots organizations that provide them with unique hands-on experiences and a deeper understanding of the major issues facing their communities. Participants in Mitzvah Corps New Orleans spend two weeks in the deep south, working on Gulf Coast relief efforts.
Over the past few days, I traveled with Mitzvah Corps outside New Orleans to visit Alabama and explore different historic moments from the civil rights movement. The sites we visited included the 16th Street Baptist Church, where MLK Jr. was the pastor during the civil rights movement; the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was the location of Bloody Sunday; and many museums that illustrate the civil rights movement on a personal level. The gravity of being in the actual locations of such significant events in our history, as well as hearing people's real life accounts of experiences in the movement, gave me a significantly different view on the American fight for civil rights, and a new mindset to apply to our world today.
Learning about Jewish involvement and the significant role that we played during this part of United States history was intriguing. It was the European Jews who experienced similar and worse discrimination-depending on whether they lived in a Nazi-controlled region-who fled to the United States, only to witness racially-based atrocities occurring in African-American and other minority communities. As a result, Jewish people throughout the country joined the cause to bring about change. After tragedies, tears, and years of fighting for justice, racial equality in the eyes of the law was achieved, and changes in the rights of minorities occurred in a big way.
Fast forward to today and look around. It is clear that in the last 50 years, African-Americans have secured the rights they were fighting for. However, it would be a false statement to say that our country, and even our community, is without racism. Let's not overstate this; to find a person who truly and overtly believes his or her race to be superior to others is, thankfully, a hard thing to find. But subtleties, like racist jokes, even the occasional slur, do make it through the cracks in our conversations. I've heard them. Sometimes I hear racist remarks multiple times in one day. I don't support the remarks, but up until my trip with Mitzvah Corps, I didn't openly oppose them either. Most of the time I would hear it, let it play out, and move on. My understanding, until now, had been that racist comments or jokes were harmless and were meant to be funny, despite the fact that in many cases it is the opposite.
After traveling with Mitzvah Corps through these historical sites and talking with people who heard these slurs used with force and hate, and who hear these jokes as being hurtful, my understanding of what these jokes represent has changed entirely. They are no longer the stupid harmless jokes that they were before-they represent something completely different. They are the manifestation of hundreds of years of hate and intolerance that continues to seep into the 21st century. Whether said with actual malice or not, these jokes, slurs, and epithets are callbacks to an era in which there wasn't racial equality or justice at all. While we must not forget the struggle that engaged our entire country and led to change, in order to move successfully forward together, the negative and hateful language must be left behind.
Elie Wiesel, reflecting on his experiences in Nazi-occupied Europe and the concentration camps, commented, "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." This is especially important as it relates to the jokes and slurs and other situations where I would "hear it, let it play out, and move on." I now recognize my responsibility, not just as a Jew to love my neighbor as myself, but also as an "innocent" and "neutral" bystander to put an end to this racism in any form. I have made a commitment to myself, and to my community, to apply this to my life on a near daily basis, and continue to support the same fight for equality that my ancestors did so many years ago.
Paul Witten participated in the Mitzvah Corps trip to New Orleans in 2013.