A Weekend in Birmingham


Gabrielle Abrams

This March, freshman and sophomore students at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy (HBHA) had the opportunity to travel to the American South for a nine day trip Civil Rights trip. The longest stay of the trip was a four day weekend spent in Birmingham, Ala.

The experience in Birmingham began Thursday March 17th with a day spent touring the city’s historic sites. This was the HBHA students’ final day with their new friends from University Academy (UA). The two schools began preparing for this trip together in November of 2015, bonding with one another and learning about the sites that they would visit as well as their impact on American history. The tour guide for the day, local historian Barry McNeely, provided an information-packed guided tour for the two schools of his hometown. McNeely had a passion for the city and described each location as if the group was standing on holy ground.

The tour began with a visit to the symbol of Birmingham: the Vulcan. Vulcan was the Roman god of fire and metal-work. His statue rises above the city in remembrance of the city’s roots in iron manufacturing.

Vulcan is the world’s largest cast iron statue. Photo by Gabrielle Abrams.

The second tour stop was Kelly Ingram Park and the neighboring 16th Street Baptist Church. Kelly Ingram Park mixes the tough memories of the Civil Rights movement with beautiful landscaping and symbolism. On May 2 and 3 of 1963, during one of the roughest points of the Civil Rights movement, children left school and packed the 16th Street Baptist Church to protest segregation in Birmingham. The children fled to Kelly Ingram Park in order to avoid the water hoses and dogs that Bull Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, unleashed on them. Walking in the same park where Civil Rights activists protested less than 60 years ago was the definition of hands-on-history, the theme of the Civil Rights trip. From the coloring of the brick path to the “Four Spirits Sculpture” in remembrance of the girls killed in the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the entire park was bursting with meaning and symbolism.

Students walk through a statue in Kelly Ingram Park. Photo by James Mendel.

Civil Rights Trip chaperone and Hebrew teacher, Michal Cohen, was fascinated by the park and remarked that “the park was so peaceful, beautiful, and colorful, yet when you see the sculptures, you know what hides under this beautiful place.”

16th Street Baptist Church is right across the street from Kelly Ingram Park. Photo by James Mendel.

The group then walked to the 16th Street Baptist Church, the location of the tragic bombing on Sept. 15, 1963 that killed four young girls. Stained glass windows illuminated the sanctuary and the church included a museum which portrayed the history of the church. Afterwards, McNeely took the students to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

In the museum, there was an inspiring quote on the wall that read:

“I like to believe that the negative extremes of Birmingham’s past will resolve into the positive and utopian extreme of her future; that the sins of dark yesterday will be redeemed in the achievements of a bright tomorrow.”- Martin Luther King, Jr.

This quote was a perfect summation of the day in Birmingham. There were brutal times that lead to the city being referred to as “Bombingham,” but those times also helped influence hopeful leaders like King to restore peace and equality. The day came to a close with a heartfelt goodbye to the UA students as they headed back to Kansas City, while HBHA students continued their stay in Birmingham for the next couple days.

After a dinner at the Birmingham Jewish Community Center, HBHA students enjoyed a special surprise trip to Breakout Birmingham. The escape room at Breakout was a fun team building experience and a wonderful ending to an eventful day.

The next day, the HBHA students gave back to the city that they learned so much about, and they got to know Birmingham, Ala.’s Jewish community. Throughout the day, the freshmen and sophomores planted and cleaned a community garden, performed cleaning maintenance to an after school program facility, and painted a house for an elderly resident.

For sophomore Amanda Sokol, painting the house was an impactful experience. She described the community service project as being “a fun time to paint with my friends, listening to music, and being silly with each other.” Sokol added, “it felt so great to help this woman that could possibly lose her homeowner’s insurance. We were there to do that for her for free.” Coincidentally, the street number on the home was 613, the number of commandments in the Jewish bible.

Next, HBHA students got the chance to visit N.E. Miles Jewish Day School for their weekly Kabbalat Shabbat service. This tradition is similar to Taste of Shabbat, the celebration of Shabbat that takes place weekly at HBHA. It was a meaningful experience for the students to participate in a service similar to the one at their own school, but 600 miles away. The group finished the day with dinner and Shabbat services at Temple Beth-El, where they assisted in celebrating the Bat Mitzvah of Ida Rose Rutkoff.

Saturday, March 19 was the group’s final day in Birmingham, Ala.. It began with a walk to Shabbat morning services and lunch at Temple Beth-El. Students then spent the day relaxing at the hotel in observance of Shabbat. Sophomores Eliana Schuster and Haidee Clauer led the group in a musical Havdalah, a prayer sung at the conclusion of Shabbat, in the hotel. Lastly, the students split into two groups and traveled to an indoor trampoline park and a laser tag arena.

For a majority of the students and chaperones, this was their first time in Birmingham, Ala.

and many did not know what to expect from the city. Freshman Alina Bell “felt such a big connection to the city and it helped me understand the civil rights movement and how I can change the world one step at a time.” Birmingham, Ala. was an important stop on the Civil Rights Tour for the students to have a fully-formed view of the movement.