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50th Yarzheit of Andrew Goodman Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, June 20, 2014

A woman who lost her mother volunteers every year on her mother’s yarzheit, birthday and other special occasions at Glide Memorial Church. Her mother had been active in a food pantry where she lived, and in this way her work is perpetuated.

A young man in my congregation in Brooklyn who lost his father young, began to wear his father’s sweaters and even developed his dad’s little pot belly for a while. Over time he found other ways to carry forward values his father lived out as the principal of a school with many impoverished and at risk students.

A yarzheit can be a time of reflection and introspection. We think about the best values that our love one exemplified in his or her life. We light a candle and recite Kaddish. Traditionally a person would make a donation to tzedakah in their loved one’s memory or dedicates study to their memory, perhaps the communal study a daf of Talmud.

On the yarzheit of someone famous, particularly someone whose work was not complete at the time of their death, like Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, there might be conferences and commemorations, as his children and grandchildren, along with  those inspired by his life and his political allies, attempt to build on his legacy.

Anne Brenner in Mitzvah and Mourning, writing about the ongoing needs of healthy mourning, notes that “we perform mitzvoth in their memory. We connect their name with a project that continues their values”. Similarly Anita Diamant in her book about loss writes, “mourners can keep their loves one’s values and beliefs alive in the world by committing time and effort”.

Through Bend the Arc, a national social justice organization, and the miracles of modern communication I have had the opportunity to virtually meet David Goodman the brother of Andy Goodman, who was killed 50 years ago during Freedom Summer.

In the spring of 1964 as a 20 year old Queens College student majoring in theater and living at home, Andy Goodman wrote a paper on the segregationist Senators who were attacking the Civil Rights Act. Just a few days later he asked his parents’ permission to participate in Freedom Summer.  He left his home on West 86th street in Manhattan for Oxford, Ohio where he went for training and then on to the heart of the segregated south, Mississippi. It was on the night of his first day in Mississippi, June 21, 1964, that he was killed along with civil rights workers James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. Their murder by the KKK galvanized America, further bringing Black and White, Christian and Jew, Young and Old together in the civil rights movement  and leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

For the families of these young men, the story was not just of heroism and inspiration. David describes how a postcard from Andy arrived at their home on the day the FBI officially declared the three young men missing. He recounts how they waited through the summer, hopeless but still without certainty about the fate of their brother and son, until the bodies were found on August 4th, and with closure came dashed hopes and the end of silent wishes.

David’s parents Robert and Carolyn Goodman created the Andrew Goodman Foundation in 1966 to carry on the spirit and purpose of their son Andy’s life and to grow other hero citizens in the spirit of activism. They have supported journalism on civil rights, encouraged non-profit professionals doing civil rights work, and above all helped grow activist college students. This summer they are supporting efforts to recognize and combat contemporary threats to  voting rights today, 50 years later,  in 2014.

As you are probably aware, about a  year ago, on June 25, 2013,  the Supreme Court declared section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional in their decision Shelby Country V. Holder. This section included the formula which was used to determine which states and counties would be subject to Section 5’s requirement of preclearance for changes in the voting laws. Until a new formula can be approved by Congress, which some fear is as far off as the coming of the Messiah, the Voting Rights Acts has lost one of its most important tools in protecting voting rights.

Immediately following Shelby County v Holder many states stepped up efforts to make it harder for its citizens, particularly citizens of color, to vote.  Since the midterm elections of 2010, new voting restrictions have been introduced in 22 states, 18 of which had entirely GOP controlled legislatures.  Even before the Supreme Court decision, states beginning with Georgia and Indiana had passed restrictive photo ID laws and these have continued to spread. Challenges to these laws are in the courts currently in Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin. There is also an ongoing case in Iowa.  Some states have passed laws to improve voting access, but these 16 states are not the states with the most significant minority populations. More commonly laws were passed requiring more onerous voter identification, limiting opportunities for  voter registration, restricting early voting and making it more difficult for those with past convictions to have their voting rights restored.

A new Voting Rights Amendment Act has been introduced by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican and John Conyers, a Democrat.  The Voting Rights Act in 1965 was passed with bipartisan support and the act was reauthorized four times with support from both sides of the aisles, but in the current climate it will take tremendous citizen pressure to get this through.  To that end this coming week will be a week of activism in Washington DC in which the Jewish community is heavily engaged. 

Voting is an important Jewish value as well as an American civic responsibility. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein , one of the most Orthodox of American Rabbis in a letter written on October 3  1984 insisted that voting in the United States is a mitzvah, a duty incumbent on every American Jew. He wrote: “ it is incumbent upon each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which guards the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent on each individual is to register and to vote.”

Our Torah portion this week deals with the height of partisan division in ancient Israel in the struggle between Korach and Moses. Like many of the issues today, it was a situation where Korach’s main issue was Moses himself and the resentment of his role.

The portion introduced in a different way. The last verses of last week’s Torah portion are not about the story of the wanderings but are concerned with the laws concerning the Tzizit- the fringes at the corners of our garments, which today has become the tallit. This is the source of the closing paragraph of our Sh’ma-with its opening words: lemaan tizkeru- so that you will remember. Zachor- Remember, a vital Jewish commandment. Yizkor- the special remembrance of the dead.  On this special Yazrheit, let us fulfill the Jewish commandment to remember, in a way that influences not only the past, but also the future.

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