It was almost a whole year in advance that I was invited by Rabbi Sid Schwarz to join the faculty of a retreat for rabbinical students across the denominational spectrum, on the theme of “spirituality and social justice.” It felt like a real honor to join the teachers on this program of CLAL’s Rabbis without Borders. The venue was Pearlstone Retreat Center, on the outskirts of Baltimore. What we could not have predicted was that the retreat would be at the end of a terrible week for the community of Baltimore, a week of demonstrations and riots stemming from the outrage at the death of yet another young black man while in police custody. Obviously a group of rabbis and rabbis in training, gathered together to talk about the role of social justice in the rabbinate, could not and should not ignore the anguish on the streets so close to where we were.
What is our role as rabbis, and as members of the Jewish community, in the continuing fight for justice in our cities in general, and in the Black Lives Matter movement in particular? The theory of social justice articulated by Rabbi Sid Shwarz in his presentations and in his book, Judaism and Justice, is about the Jewish experience being on a continuum between the ‘tribal’ narrative of the exodus and the ‘covenantal’ narrative of Sinai. He argues that even though Sinai describes the experience of revelation for the Israelites, something in this moment moved them from the particular to the universal, to a more encompassing commitment to justice. The conversations and the exercises, the depth of thought and passion, along with a wonderful and joyful building of a spiritual community across the spectrum of Jewish belief and practice, were all very inspiring, uplifting and hopeful. Truthfully, however, the most powerful part of the weekend for me, was the day I spent in Baltimore after the retreat was over with Ari Witkin, a young student from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Before starting rabbinical school, Ari had lived for ten years in and around Baltimore and, as an activist, knew the city and the community well.
We took the metro from Pikesville to downtown Baltimore, going right underneath the Mondawmin mall and Penn North, where the majority of the looting and rioting had taken place just days before, resulting in the deployment of the National Guard. We joined a gathering of artists and activists poised for a very peaceful and colorful march, stopping along the way for poetry, music, Capoeira and other soulful expressions in solidarity with the community of Baltimore and the work of justice everywhere. We met Ari’s friends and fellow Jewish activists, Gabe and Gerry, along with a very diverse and creative group, representing different races, cultures, as well as sexuality and gender. We stayed outside the community center where they were gathered for a while, but they weren’t in a hurry to get started and we wanted to get to a clergy rally outside the city hall.
A very different scene awaited us there with hundreds of people of faith congregating right outside halls of power to pray and talk, sing and chant words of justice and support. Stirring words from Baptists, Catholics and Jews, accompanied by some very moving gospel singing, including chants of slogans from the Black Lives Matter movement, like “Hands up, Don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe.” We heard powerful words and heartfelt prayers from black church leaders, as well as a Catholic Bishop and a rabbi, who got the crowd chanting in Hebrew the words from Deuteronomy “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice shall you seek!” This rally was loving and peaceful, but the message was very clear: people all over this nation need to be out on the streets in solidarity until there is justice and equality in our cities. Although the two gatherings I witnessed seemed so different in their character, it was striking to feel the power of the same message, whether through art or religion, dancing or praying.
We left this rally to go and reconnect briefly to an old friend and colleague from rabbinical school, Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, known as The Urban Rabbi. He moved with his family to take a job in a shul in downtown Baltimore and has done some incredible work building a community, integrating with the world around him, in a neighborhood that is regenerating. Daniel has been very much involved in recent events, speaking and acting from a place of deep and real connection to the black community. Beth Am is in a neighborhood surrounded by large houses once occupied by wealthy German Jews, and subject to “white flight” a couple of generations later. As we saw the shul and walked around the neighborhood, seeing a community garden, an urban farm and a diverse and integrated community, I felt inspired by the very brief glimpse I got of this urban regeneration, where people are working together to build a gentler, more hopeful world.
I spent the evening catching up with old friends who live in the heart of a very religious Jewish neighborhood in Pikesville. This was a wholly different kind of community, which brought up some uncomfortable questions for me around how oblivious and detached this community might be from their fellow citizens and their plight just a few miles away. It was a great contrast to the growing Jewish community downtown around Beth Ami. I can’t help wondering where on that line between tribalism and covenant we are when we keep ourselves separate, regardless of how vibrant and passionate our Jewish lives might be.
There is so much work still to be done in our broken world — to restore justice, to work for peace and to find our place in that work, as allies to anguished black citizens, and as prophets for a new future. Even though it had been such a painful few days for this city, my weekend in Baltimore, first with idealistic rabbinic students and then with local people working for change, gave me great hope overall in what can be achieved by the courageous human spirit, in all its diverse expressions.
Here in Boulder, a group of activists has organized JABA — Jews as Black Allies. It provides an opportunity to do that work, to get out in the public sphere and restore justice; to align ourselves with the people of color who continue to struggle with the deep racism in this country 50 years after MLK’s legacy that gave so much hope. It will not be easy work, and it will not be quick, but this continuation of the work of the Civil Rights Movement is vital. On May 28th, 7-9pm at Nevei Kodesh, JABA is hosting a diverse panel to discuss the work of the Black Lives Matter Movement. This is an opportunity to join the covenantal narrative, to stand in solidarity and to refuse to be silent.