Two Teaneck rabbis – Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, director of programs for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders – took part in last week’s protest against police brutality in Manhattan.
Many Jews joined in the demonstration, at 96th Street and Broadway; it was organized at least in part by the Jewish community. Four rabbis -Sharon Kleinbaum, Jill Jacobs, Shai Held, and David Rosenn – were arrested there.
The protest last Thursday night followed a Staten Island grand jury’s decision the day before not to indict policeman Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Eric Garner to death in July, in what the New York City medical examiner found to be a homicide.
“There’s a lot of anger and frustration in the Jewish community that the cops can kill people of color and can use deadly force and that is permitted under their job,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “The idea that you can have an encounter with a cop and have that become a deadly encounter is just so shocking. The Jewish community is just waking up to those realities,” she said.
Rabbi Sirbu said the verdict in the Garner case, as well as the decision by a Missouri grand jury the previous week not to indict the policeman who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, motivated her to go to New York City for a protest. That was the first time she had done so in the 11 years she has been living in Bergen County.
The verdicts “show that something is very wrong right now in our country, both with police tactics and power dynamics and with the justice system,” Rabbi Sirbu said.
Demonstrators recited Kaddish for people killed by New York policemen. “It was extremely powerful and chilling,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “It was just a real moment of solidarity with the communities that are affected.”
The demonstration, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was organized by the group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and followed the group’s annual awards ceremony. At the demonstration, 27 people were arrested after blocking traffic on 96th Street and Broadway, including Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Truah’s executive director.
“There is a deep, cultural racism in this country that many people live with, and it is becoming very apparent to the larger community through these recent cases,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “We need to step up, to encourage changes in terms of policing and the culture of racism in this country.”
Why did Rabbi Sirbu not choose to block traffic and be arrested?
“Honestly, I was scared. I was not sure that I wanted to put myself in the position of having to deal with the legal system since I have my doubts about it at the moment,” she said.
Rabbi Kahn-Troster said the killings by police reflect systemic problems.
“We have a police that is heavily militarized, that has been trained to jump to the disproportionate use of force extremely quickly,” she said.
“It’s very hard to convict a police officer of brutality. The laws have been written to that if a police officer believes they are in danger they have permission to use disproportionate force.
“It’s easy for people who identify as white to think of the problem as individual bad cops, or that if we just train the police better we could solve it. There has been a lot of study of unconscious bias against people of color. We have to acknowledge the racial bias in our system and speak out on it as people who benefit from it,” she said. “We benefit from racial discrimination in ways we don’t really understand.”
She said that at a workshop on facilitating discussions about racial justice, she came to appreciate how events that appear one way to the Jewish community have a different meaning for African Americans.
“We talked about the GI Bill. For the Jewish community, the GI Bill is how we became middle class. People went off to the Second World War, and when they came back their move to the suburbs was financed by education and loans that came from the GI Bill,” she said.
At the same time, however, “The army was still segregated, and a lot of the benefits around housing were not available for African Americans. Here you have a story essential to who Jews became as Americans that was a negative for African Americans. Learning to unpack stories like that, about how we benefit from who we are even if we don’t think of ourselves as racist, is an important challenging conversation to have.”
Rabbi Kahn-Troster said that as an increasing number of Jews adopt African American and African children, the issues of skin color become questions that Jewish families confront first hand.
“Over Pesach, right after Trayvon Martin was shot, a friend raising an African child said, ‘my Jewish friends don’t understand that we can’t give our son all of our white privilege.’
“Just having him say that was astounding for me.”