Recap: Ruchama decided to drop out of college. She is too embarrassed to go back after having a seizure on campus and after being accused by the dean of writing a divisive article that she never wrote.
I still had some time until the dreaded doctor’s appointment. Baruch Hashem, I hadn’t had any more symptoms. I felt totally fine.
I sat around the house moping all day. My mother suggested I look for a job as an assistant teacher. “You’re so unhappy being home with no structure.”
Ella called me after I’d been home a few days. She sounded angry. “How could you just pick up and leave and not even discuss it with me? You were part of JIS and you were my friend. I miss you.”
I felt a catch in my throat. “I’m sorry. I just couldn’t go back there.”
She didn’t argue. She just offered to read her seminary notes to me at night.
“Thank you so much,” I said.
On the first night, Ella read to her notes from Chumash class. We were studying Parshas K’doshim. “‘Lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa.’ It means not to stand by when someone is being treated unjustly or hurt. It’s our obligation to step in and help.”
Ella shared some more from her notes. I was distracted by my guilty feelings and I had trouble concentrating on what she was saying.
We hung up and she promised to call again tomorrow night after class. I thought of the three civil rights workers who were killed and the mastermind of their killing who was still living freely. My paper was left unfinished and that was not honoring their memory.
I found a job at a local yeshivah. It was a pre-school class with little boys. They were a handful and the job was exhausting. I never really wanted to be a teacher. I thought wistfully of my journalism class and all the things I had learned and that I wanted to learn from Mrs. Lewis. I tried to block out those feelings and find good things about the teaching job.
There were ten lively, little five-year-olds.
“Morah, I want to go outside.”
“Morah, Yoey hit me.”
“Morah, I did not.”
Yosef was the most challenging one. He just couldn’t sit still or focus when we had circle time or centers. He was always moving around.
“There’s going to be a new student coming to our class today,” Morah Leah confided in me. ”A family converted recently, and they enrolled their son in our school. They are an African American Jewish family. Our students have not known many African American people. I am nervous about what they will say. I want this child to feel included.”
A few minutes later, the principal stood at the door, and next to her was a little boy wearing a kipah. He smiled a shy smile. There was something charming about him. The children stared at him. The principal said, “Boys, I want you to help William to feel at home here. He just moved to New York from Missouri.”
“Why does he have brown skin,” one of the boys said.
The principal frowned. “We are all Jews and we don’t make any comments.”
I didn’t think the little boy meant anything negative. He was just curious. Yosef strode right over to the boy and said, “You come sit next to me.”
Watching him, I felt a warm feeling inside. I thought about Mickey Schwerner and Rita and Andy Goodman and James Chaney and I felt a sad feeling inside. They were trying to change the world. And here was little Yosef doing the right thing. There was something inside of each of us that was so good and pure.
The next night, I gazed out the front window. There were tall sycamore trees in our front yard. The whole block was lined with these shady trees. I opened the window. I could hear the loudest chorus of crickets I’d ever heard. I thought about the classes I’d left and the paper I’d abandoned. I noticed a figure walking towards our house.
Just then there was a knock at the front door. I opened the door and my mouth dropped open. Rita Schwerner was standing in the doorway.
“Mrs. Schwerner!” I exclaimed.
“Please call me Rita. Aren’t you going to ask me in? I traveled close to a thousand miles to see you.”
“Yes, please come in. I can’t believe you came all the way here to see me.”
Mrs. Schwerner strolled into the living room. She had a backpack slung over her shoulder. I wasn’t sure if she planned to stay so I offered, “You’re welcome to sleep over at our house as long as you like.”
“Thank you, but this is not a social visit.” She laughed to herself. “Funny, I said those words to President Johnson.”
She sat down on the couch and made herself comfortable. “Yes, I met with the President of the United States when Mickey went missing. I said to him, “Sir, this is not a social visit. Where is my husband?”
“What did he say?” I asked, fascinated by her incredible courage.
“He didn’t answer me, but the news reporters said he was put off by my rudeness.”
“Rudeness? You just wanted to find your husband.”
“Exactly, and I wanted the federal government to finally step in and do justice for the people in Mississippi. I said outright, ‘This would not have become a federal case if there were no white men missing.’”
I brought Rita a glass of lemonade.
“It was a horrible time. We had 44 days of searching for my husband, but I’m not here to talk about that now. You have Yonah Hartstein’s journal for that.”
“Oh, yes. I’m so sorry I didn’t return it to you. Did you travel here for that? I feel terrible, I could have mailed—“
Mrs. Schwerner interrupted me. “No, I did not come for that. I want you to finish reading it and I need you to finish your research project. Mrs. Lewis read your rough unfinished draft and she was so impressed that she showed it to me. It is so good and so well written. I brought it back to you with her corrections. I showed it to my friend who is an editor at The Wall Street Journal and she is interested in publishing it when you are done.”
The Wall Street Journal! Me? This was incredible.
“The only thing is,” she continued. “It needs to be done in two days – by Wednesday.”
Whoah! Could I do that?
She said, “I don’t understand why you left. Mrs. Lewis called me and told me you left and dropped out of the journalism class.”
I couldn’t meet her eye. “Yes, I, well, I was accused of––”
She interrupted again. “You were accused of something. So, what? Do you know how much Mickey and I were accused of? Like ruining the way of life in Mississippi and bringing Communism there. If I ran away because of those accusations, then nothing would have changed – nothing. None of it was true. When it’s not true, so why let it bother you. Mrs. Lewis told me that they accused you of writing a subversive article about violence on behalf of some radical organization. You didn’t write it, so they can accuse all they want.” I felt my cheeks flame. She was right. I was a coward. “I’m not as brave as you, and there was something else.”
I felt comfortable enough to confide in Rita. “I had a seizure right in the middle of campus.” It was the first time I had said it outright. I felt a sense of relief sharing this.
Mrs. Schwerner shook her head. “Don’t you know that everyone has something? Everyone has something. For some, it’s something medical or emotional or psychological or some problem. Hey, you’re religious, which I’m not, but don’t you believe G-d gives you these tests? They’re not your fault.”
Here I was getting musar from someone who wasn’t even religious – someone who claimed that she didn’t believe in G-d, and yet she was hitting it right on the mark. Hashem was in charge – not me. She had traveled all this way to tell me something I should have realized all along.
I was speechless.
Mrs. Schwerner rose. “Thank you for the lemonade, Ruchama. I hope you make the right decision. Call me when the paper is done.”
She strode towards the door and left before I could formulate a response in my brain.
To be continued…
Susie Garber is the author of Denver Dreams (a novel, Jerusalem Publications, 2009), Memorable Characters…Magnificent Stories (Scholastic, 2002), Befriend (Menucha Publishers, 2013), The Road Less Traveled (Feldheim, 2015), fiction serials and features in various magazines including A Bridge in Time – historical fiction serial (Binyan Magazine, 2017). She writes for the community column for the Queens Jewish Link and she writes the Queens page for Hamodia. She works as a writing consultant in many yeshivos and she teaches creative writing to students of all ages.