By Matt Smith
They say in order to fully understand someone–and their cause–you should walk a mile in their shoes. In an effort to reconnect with the roots of Reformed Judaism, understand socioeconomic issues, celebrate Jewish history, and strengthen relationships with congregates outside the local community, Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester did just that…and then some.
On Thursday, August 27, Rabbi Jaffe took part in the Journey for Justice, an 860-mile (in total) march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC, in commemoration of the March in Selma and the Voting Rights Act’s 50th anniversary this year.
Organized and led by the NAACP, in association with the Religious Action Center–“the very first political advocacy group by the Reform Movement in Washington, DC,” noted the Rabbi–the march aimed to promote awareness for a variety of social issues and unite people of different faiths, religions and backgrounds under a common agenda. Members of the Reform Jewish Movement were asked to sign up and march for the cause. One of 200 Reformed Rabbis from all over North America, who marched in support of social justice and education reform, among others, Rabbi Jaffe joined the group in Columbia, South Carolina, and marched for a day.
“The experience was wonderful,” the Rabbi said of the event. “I met people from the NAACP I would have never encountered [otherwise], and heard about what they’ve been doing, and shared our stories as well. It’s a wonderful bonding experience for two communities that seldom come into contact with one another.”
Among the highlights of his day was walking with Cornell Brooks, current President of the NAACP. “It was wonderful watching Mr. Brooks literally walk the talk along with the many volunteers,” the Rabbi continued. “He even carried the Torah…all the while taking time to speak with the volunteers.”
Rabbi Jaffe also noted that the march was significant because it solidified for him the idea that, in certain areas of the country (and of course, the world at large) people still hold great prejudice against others–especially chilling to encounter considering the inherent purpose of the march. “You see the best and worst of people in these times,” he stated. He recalls one instance where “as we were walking, there was a service station where [shopkeepers] went inside and then ran up Confederate Flags. There was [also] a motorcycle that buzzed by us a couple times and was definitely keeping tabs on us.”
However, he was also touched to see others’ outpouring of generosity and kindness during later rest stops throughout the journey. Specifically in the “one-gas-station town” of Bethune, “one of the shopkeepers saw that we were coming and ran inside and quickly cooked hot dogs and put out salad and provided lunch, ‘cause she wanted to do something to support the marchers. That selflessness was quite amazing and inspiring to see.”
But the exposure to the different people and other areas within the country are just two of many reasons behind the Rabbi’s decision to embark on this journey. At its heart, as he reinforced, the event the march is acknowledging is “a very strong part of the history of reformed Judaism.”
And, in fact, it’s also a strong of part of the history of Temple Beth El: Rabbi Murray Saltzman, one of Beth El’s Rabbis during the 1960s, participated in many protests throughout the Civil Rights Movement, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and was even one of the rabbis jailed for his participation in the St. Augustine Movement. With this centralized connection to the Chappaqua community, coupled with the history of the Jewish community and the general call for rabbis’ involvement, “I jumped at [the chance to join],” exclaimed the Rabbi. “It seemed like an amazing opportunity.”
Not only does it seem like it was indeed an amazing opportunity, but the day’s events seem to have struck a chord for Rabbi Jaffe. He expressed interest in finding ways to continue supporting the issues protested during the march on a more local scale, as a way to get the community more involved. (Specifically, he mentioned working with the Antioch Baptist Church in Bedford Hills, NY, with which Temple Beth El maintains a close relationship).
America’s Journey for Justice took place between August 1 and September 16, where it ended at the nation’s Capitol. For more information on
Temple Beth El, please visit
Matt Smith, a proud graduate of Skidmore College, is a regular contributor to The Inside Press.