Continuing to proclaim liberty, 50 years after ‘Freedom Riders’


In this week’s Torah portion, Behar, God instructs the Israelites, via Moses, that every 50 years they are to observe a jubilee (yovel) year in which they shall “proclaim liberty (dror) throughout the land.” This phrase should “ring a bell,” since it is written upon our nation’s Liberty Bell. Nineteenth century abolitionists adopted this phrase to champion the fight against the institution of slavery; “dror” can also be translated as “release from servitude,” since every Israelite in servitude was to be released during the jubilee year, free to “go back to his family and return to his ancestral holding.” The reason given is “For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt.”

Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1961, black and white Civil Rights activists rode buses into the South, testing the 1960 United States Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, which outlawed racial segregation in the restaurants and terminals serving interstate buses.

These “Freedom Riders” also tested the Jim Crow travel laws which maintained segregation on local buses and other public transportation. Because the activists were arrested for such crimes as “trespassing and unlawful assembly,” and were even physically assaulted, they brought national attention to the blatant disregard for the law upholding desegregation, and thereby advanced the national civil rights movement.

Fifty years later, it is tempting to say that the civil rights movement achieved all that it set out to do, ensuring equality for all Americans in all spheres of life. It is no longer illegal for blacks and whites to marry in any of the 50 states, nor is it lawful to deny someone service in a restaurant or a home mortgage loan based on the color of their skin. Some went so far as to proclaim America a “post-racial” society following the election of our first African-American President.

The Rep - A Christmas Carol

However, racism still exists in America. Since public schools are largely funded based on property taxes, rather than having funds distributed equally across school districts, the poorer, urban – and predominantly black or minority – districts have far fewer dollars to spend per student than the wealthier – and primarily white – suburban districts, resulting in a poorer quality of education for many minorities. Racism in the media can be seen in the reporting of local crimes, when white teenage suspects are described as “youth” but black teenage suspects are called “men.” Profiling of blacks by police is common enough to have earned the catch-phrase, “Driving While Black.”

These 49 days between our liberation from slavery in Egypt until the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot, are the ideal time to dedicate ourselves to identifying and eliminating the subtle, but no less pernicious, forms of racism. In Pirkei Avot/ The Ethics of the Fathers we learn that, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” May the eradication of racism and slavery of any kind be our work for the next 50 years.

D’var Torah: Parashah Behar

Rabbi Ari Hendin is the Song Leader for Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and a Jewish Educator with CAJE.