Davis Goes to Birmingham
Fifth Grade students at The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School, just returned from our annual day trip to Birmingham, Alabama. Why does Davis go to Birmingham? The easiest way to answer is by paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who responded to the same question when it was posed to him in 1963, “We go to Birmingham because injustice was there.” We go to Birmingham to help our students understand the Civil Rights Movement and to reflect on the complicated history of the American South. We go there because, as a Reform Jewish Day School, we are committed to looking at, rather than away from, difficult topics like racism, discrimination, and segregation.
The first stop on our Birmingham trip is in many ways the most compelling and complicated one: Temple Emanu-El. Temple Emanu-El is a synagogue with a rich and celebrated history. We take our students there to reflect on the Jewish experience in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era. Rather than speaking generally about the conflicting forces at play in the Jewish community, we teach them about the extraordinary life of Rabbi Milton Grafman. Rabbi Grafman led Temple Emanu-El from 1941 until his retirement in 1975.
On the Tuesday prior to our trip to Birmingham, students and parents came to The Davis Academy for a family program. Students received name tags that said, “Rabbi Milton Grafman.” That evening we discussed and debated Rabbi Grafman’s co-authorship of the open letter, “A Call to Unity” in which he and seven other local clergymen called civil rights demonstrations, “unwise and untimely.” We then read excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s response, the famous, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which King criticized Rabbi Grafman and the other clergymen at great length. While the level of discourse was extremely high and the topic deeply nuanced, the adults in the room engaged the children in conversation about the many different factors at play.
Sitting in Temple Emanu-El’s historic sanctuary two days later, our students took a deeper dive into the life of Rabbi Grafman. They recalled that the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed on Sunday, September 15th, 1963 resulting in the tragic death of “four little girls.” They then learned that Erev Rosh Hashanah in 1963 fell on September 27th. Students learned that Rabbi Grafman spoke from the heart that Rosh Hashanah, with notes but not a fully written sermon. They then had a chance to offer suggestions for what Rabbi Grafman might have said to his congregation that evening. After brainstorming suggestions, we listened to an audio recording of Rabbi Grafman delivering the introductory lines of the actual sermon after which some of the students were invited to the very same bimah to read additional excerpts from Rabbi Grafman’s remarks. We processed the experience and concluded with a very special and sacred moment. Thanks to Rabbi Laila Hass of Temple Emanu-El we were able to hear not only Rabbi Grafman’s sermon, but a unique recording of Rabbi Grafman reading the names of the four little girls before the recitation of Kaddish Yatom. We rose as a congregation to recite the words of Kaddish together, not only for the four little girls, but for Rabbi Grafman as well.
From Temple Emanu-El we went to the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Museum. At each step of our journey we helped our students look at, rather than away from, the complex topics of racism, discrimination, and segregation. Together we thought about our obligation as Jews to help build the kind of world in which we want to live, rather than accepting the world as it is.
We went to Birmingham to learn about the injustice that had so deeply defined the city for much of its history. Along the way we learned a deeply moving Jewish story, the story of Rabbi Grafman and Temple Emanu-El. We left Birmingham with a renewed appreciation of the challenges and opportunities that we have as Jews and as Americans.
The Davis Academy’s annual trip to Birmingham is an experience that encapsulates some of the essence of what it means to be a Reform Jewish Day School. We look forward to next year’s trip when an additional seventy students will meet Rabbi Grafman and the congregation that he so courageously shepherded.