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Rabbis See Birth of New Movement for Civil Rights

Rabbis See Birth of New Movement for Civil Rights

Calls for justice outweigh concerns about anti-Semitic elements among marchers.

Protestors marching across the Brooklyn Bridge this week in support of George Floyd. Rabbis say the protests could re-energize black-Jewish relations.
Protestors marching across the Brooklyn Bridge this week in support of George Floyd. Rabbis say the protests could re-energize black-Jewish relations.

The worldwide reaction to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police two weeks ago is seen by some rabbis as a “turning point” in the quest for racial justice.

Others believe the marches in cities across the country, ones marked by huge, multi-ethnic and multi-racial crowds, could be the catalyst for a new era in black-Jewish relations.

Still other Jewish spiritual leaders, not wanting bias against Jews to be shunted aside, are voicing concerns about the perceived anti-Semitism of the Black Lives Matter movement itself.

And several rabbis are also complaining about what Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch called the “politically incompetent and morally deficient national leadership” at a time when there is an “assault on the guardrails of democracy.”

In pulpits all over the country, rabbis, the vast majority of whom are voicing support for the protestors, are nonetheless grappling with a tangle of emotions.

Several synagogues have reached out to black leaders and clergy to help address racism.

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of the Reform movement’s Central Synagogue issued a joint statement with clergy from the Islamic Society of Mid Manhattan and Saint Peter’s Church, also in Midtown, in which they condemned the murders of Floyd and “countless” other black people killed by police.

At the Conservative movement’s Sutton Place Synagogue, Rabbi Rachel Ain held a Zoom discussion with a black member of her congregation and two black physicians that focused on racial justice, the Jewish community and the American community at large. And Congregation Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in San Francisco, featured a Zoom discussion with two black clergy and a black university professor that explored the challenges blacks in America face today.

Colleagues at the Jewish-run Masbia Soup Kitchen Network joined in marches in Brooklyn and Forest Hills, Queens, in protest of the police-custody death of George Floyd. GifterPhotos/Masbia via Facebook

The black-Jewish dialogue put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic is being renewed at Beth El Synagogue Center, a Conservative synagogue in New Rochelle, “to learn how we can support the movement toward systemic change,” according to Rabbi David A. Schuck.

But at the same time, some of the looting that took place in cities around the country struck a nerve for rabbis, as did intersectional efforts to bring Israel into the discussion.

Rabbi Hirsch, of the Reform movement’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side, told congregants that while the “overwhelming” number of protestors were peaceful and that he stood with them, some looters in Los Angeles took time to deface “Jewish institutions and targeted Jewish-owned businesses. And we have heard, in the midst of all this injustice, that some have found ways to blame Israel and the Jews. We are disappointed, but not surprised, and we condemn these contemptible people in the strongest possible way.”

A similar admonition came from Rabbi Hershel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere, L.I. He told his congregants in a statement to “be wary and aware because too often anti-Semitism converges within all of these movements, even though it has no rational or historical relationship with this American political and social problem. Although we as Jews must support measures to oppose racism in America, there is unfortunately a complicated history between Black Lives Matter and the Jews.”

Jewish groups objected in 2016 when the platform of the Black Lives Matter coalition described Israel as an “apartheid state” that, it claimed, perpetrates “genocide” against the Palestinian people.

“The murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer was a heinous crime. But the movement has also been implicated in anti-Semitism, and this creates a major problem for me,” said Billet.

Like Rabbi Hirsch, Rabbi Billet cited news reports that a number of Los Angeles kosher stores and synagogues were vandalized, looted and defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on the Upper East Side, condemned the violence that has accompanied some protests. “Society cannot accept those who rob and loot or direct violence at police,” he said. “We stand together with those who respect the human dignity of all of God’s children.”

Trump’s photo-op

In his sermon last Shabbat, Elliot Cosgrove, rabbi of the Conservative movement’s Park Avenue Synagogue, criticized President Donald Trump for a lack of leadership during the unrest. He recalled watching Trump on television on Monday, June 1, as he stood in front of a Washington church holding aloft a Bible.

“There is so much that sacred scripture could have taught us on Monday evening — to heal us, to challenge us, to prompt dialogue and action,” said Rabbi Cosgrove. “But we know that is not what happened. On Monday evening, the Bible remained sealed shut. Our most sacred text — held literally upside down — turned into a cheap prop for political gain.”

He regretted that Trump had wasted an opportunity to “bring healing to our country and our souls in such desperate need of repair.”

Protests erupted and spread to all 50 states and around the world after a  video showed a Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee into the back of Floyd’s neck as he lay on the ground for nearly nine minutes. The officer has been charged with second-degree murder.

While some rabbis and commentators are anxious about the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, others suggest that few of those demanding racial justice are aware of the coalition’s views on Israel. When the organizer of a march last week in Port Washington, L.I., was told the leaflets she was distributing listed BLM’s support for the boycott Israel movement, she apologized, took them back and distributed different ones, according to a local resident.

Many clergy say Jews have a responsibility to support the marchers’ justice agenda despite disagreements over Israel.

“We as Jews know what it is like to be ill-treated because of our beliefs, and thus we are commanded to pursue justice for all,” said Andrea Merow, rabbi of the Conservative Beth Sholom Congregation near Philadelphia. “There are no masks or vaccines that can cure the racism that people of color in our beloved country experience. It is up to us, each one of us, to work on curing our hearts and our communities of racism.”

In fact, Rabbi David Englander of B’nai Torah Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla., questioned whether this might be “a turning point when long festering systemic issues of race and fairness and justice are addressed with more than words, thoughts, and prayers.”

Rabbi David Steinhardt, the congregation’s senior rabbi, suggested that “change will come when people feel what other’s feel. … We have to feel more deeply, more profoundly. We have to tremble and cry and engage in more profound ways to bring about some of the change that is necessary. If not now, when?”

Rabbi Howard Stecker of Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Great Neck, L.I., said “we need courage to admit our own sins of omission and commission when it comes to racism; courage to call out racism whether it comes from our house, the house next door or the White House.”

As Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Temple Israel, a Reform congregation in Lawrence, L.I., sees it, these demonstrations mark “the birth of the 21st century civil rights movement.” He called on future generations to “continue the struggle to erase the plague of racism from our land.”

And Rabbi Marc Schneier of The Hampton Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation in Westhampton Beach, L.I., reminded congregants that “no segment of American society provided as much and as consistent support to Dr. [Martin Luther] King and to the civil rights movement as did the Jewish community. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s brutal and senseless killing, the historic black-Jewish alliance has been re-energized.” 

There is also a Jewish “obligation to speak up for change,” according to Rabbi Matt Nover of Beth El Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in East Windsor, N.J.

“We can speak through silence by listening to those who are suffering,” he said. “We can speak through action by changing the ways we act. And we can speak loudly and demand justice. But what we must not do, must never do, is remain silent and stand idly by the blood of our neighbors.”

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