Civil rights journey to the South opens eyes and hearts
Six Pittsburghers joined JCPA tour to visit sites focusing on slavery and the history of civil rights. What they learned is there is still a lot of work to be done.
There are reasons why Pittsburgh is called the City of Bridges, reasons that go beyond the physical connection of neighborhoods to one another, according to Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah at Congregation Beth Shalom.
Markiz returned last week from a three-day civil rights journey to the South, during which he learned about slavery, the evolution of civil rights and how historic inequities were a prelude to current injustices. He traveled along with two other young Jewish leaders from Pittsburgh, and two young leaders from Pittsburgh’s African American community, on a mission designed to educate as well as create social bonds.
“The opportunity to help bridge those connections between various communities and our own various communities is exciting,” Markiz said. “I think, especially in the world we live in right now, the only way forward are one-on-one relationships, in which people actually get to know each other.”
The trip was sponsored by the JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs), and began in Atlanta, Georgia, with 56 participants from 13 states. In addition to Markiz, the Pittsburgh contingent included Josh Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council; Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt, spiritual leader of Temple Ohav Shalom; Josiah Gilliam, My Brother’s Keeper coordinator for the City of Pittsburgh; and Lindsay Powell, assistant chief of staff for Mayor Bill Peduto. Mark Frank, a member of Pittsburgh’s CRC, also participated on the trip.
The trip was organized by Etgar 36, a pluralistic, nonprofit Jewish organization that runs educational tours.
The itinerary included the National Human and Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta; the Rosa Parks Museum and the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.; the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.; and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Relationship-building was a key component to the trip, said Sayles.
“What we saw here was an opportunity on a civil rights tour to grow black/Jewish relations in Pittsburgh,” he said. “It was an effort to bring a group there that would come back and say, moving forward, ‘What can we do to work together as young, upcoming community leaders to grow black-Jewish community relations in Pittsburgh?’”
The sites visited gave Sayles a greater understanding of the black experience in America.
“In August of 2018, I was in Germany exploring the history of the Holocaust, and I was incredibly struck by the similarities — and the memorials and the stories — between the Holocaust and slavery,” he said.
He found himself wondering what it would be like to be a Jew living in Germany, and having to confront the history of the Holocaust on a daily basis, just as black people in America must continually confront evidence of the history of slavery.
For Sayles, one of the most impactful excursions of the trip was a visit to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and Lynching Memorial.
“There were thousands and thousands of lynchings, and they had a plaque for every county where there was ever a lynching targeting a person of color,” he said. “And the names of everyone they could identify in those counties were placed on these plaques, and you walk through, and it humanized it.”
Likewise, the visit to the Lynching Memorial brought Weisblatt “hauntingly back to visiting Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Museum,” and educated him on a topic that he did not learn much about while in school.
The North Hills-based rabbi was eager to join the trip, he said, because “social justice is important to my rabbinate, it’s part of who I am as a Jew.”
“We can’t bring justice backward, but we can certainly bring it forward,” Weisblatt said, adding that he believes that “every Jew should do this trip. We need experiences like this to shock us out of our daily routine.”
For Powell, who is black, the trip was important “so that as a Pittsburgh delegation we could reflect on how the civil rights movement helped to build solidarity and shared understanding between black and Jewish people, especially considering recent tragic events in both communities,” she said. “It was moving to stand where so many fought and lost their lives fighting for civil rights.”
As for the fight for civil rights, “we have a long way to go but we’ll only realize an equitable society if we call out injustice when we see it, work collectively and show up for other communities when called upon,” she added.
Gilliam, who lived in Mobile as a child, was eager to “see important civil rights locations from the perspective of an adult, and to hear from local leaders, and personal stories.”
The relationship-building aspect of the trip was also important, he said.
“My work focuses on the intersection of race, equity in general, gender, and economic class,” Gilliam said. When “confronting realities of hate,” such as the Tree of Life massacre and the killing of Antwon Rose II, the “intentional building of bridges and relationships” is paramount.
The JCPA trip highlighted continued injustices in America, and the necessity of working together with diverse communities to rectify those injustices, explained Markiz.
He will be leading a group of about 30 people, mostly from the Beth Shalom community, on a similar trip from May 19-21.
“As a congregation, I think we should have a commitment — and I believe that we do — to understand American history, our place in it, and ways we can make the world better,” he said. “If this trip now allows me the ability to understand my neighbor, their lived experience better, then I can be a better neighbor to them.”
The Federation is planning a communitywide mission to the South in March 2020. Sayles hopes that the relationships formed on the recent JCPA trip will help recruit both Jewish and black participants for the mission next year.
“I think this was a unique experience,” he said. “When we talk as a Jewish community and we want to share how important Israel is to us a Jewish community, we are constantly telling people, ‘Oh, you’ve got to get to Israel, you’ve got to see it for yourself.’ Or, when we want to educate people about the Holocaust, we say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to get to Germany,’ or ‘You’ve got to get to Yad Vashem or the Holocaust Museum in D.C.’ And I think this experience is no different. If you really want to understand in a meaningful way — as somebody who is not a member of the black community — slavery and the civil rights movement and how that connects to criminal justice reform today, then you need to go to the South and learn about it.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at