It is not news that we are living through times of unimaginable oddness. Odder than fiction.
Just as the strictures imposed by the novel coronavirus — note that it’s named novel for a reason; it’s new, and scientists still don’t know how it works — were making people so restless and unhappy that they were beginning to think they’d venture outside and reopen anyway; just as the mind-boggling numbers of deaths started to decline in nightmarishly hard-hit New York and New Jersey; the video of George Floyd killed by a policeman who stood with his foot on Mr. Floyd’s neck and his hands in his own pockets as the seconds and minutes dragged by and Mr. Floyd begged for his life and then went silent.
Since then — May 25, Memorial Day, about three weeks ago — there have been protests against the police and the racism that increasing numbers of Americans, white as well as black, believe is endemic and systemic in police forces across the country.
The protests have taken different tones. Some have been violent; some of the violence has come from the protesters, some from the police and other governmental bodies. Some have been somber. Some, increasingly, have been hopeful. Reports tell us that protests at night, in cities with or increasingly without a curfew, are more dangerous; the ones during the day are more peaceful, as late spring blooms around them.
Some protestors are masked against covid-19; others are not. Some practice social distancing; others do not. Some attempted social distancing until the police kettled them into enclosures or vans, or launched tear gas at them.
Last week, there were a number of peaceful, often student-organized and led marches in northern New Jersey.
One of them was in Teaneck; it started with a rally at the Bryant School and ended with a walk to Cedar Lane. The crowd was estimated variously, ranging from 500 to 3,000 people — it’s particularly hard to count people when they come and go, when some march and some line the route with signs and cheer.
It was organized by high school students and recent graduates, with help from the town council and the police department. It was peaceful; there was a great deal of anger, some of it incendiary, but no fires were set. It wasn’t until the end, when a group of marchers broke away and went onto Route 4, that anything felt dangerous, and most of the protestors were not in that group.
Reflecting Teaneck as a whole, the marchers seemed to be either African-American or Jewish. (No, we can’t tell Jews by looking at them — unless they’re wearing kippot or head coverings or long skirts or carrying signs with Hebrew lettering. There was a lot of all those things.)
Because of the constant threat of covid-19, many of the Teaneck protesters were masked. Others chose not to walk but instead to drive; the organizers allowed 50 cars to parade.
Many local rabbis encouraged their congregants to go.
Rabbi Daniel Fridman of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, an Orthodox shul, encouraged his congregants to go, but not on foot. Consistent with his decision not to allow the shul even outdoor minyanim, given the risks to many of his congregants, he wrote: “I urge all those who choose to participate, to please do so in a car, as, despite the best intentions, social distancing is very difficult to maintain in these rallies.”
He is uncomfortable with the group Black Lives Matter, he added; the group, “which has been involved in organizing this march, is not a group that I support, even as I am horrified and appalled by every act of racism in this country, including the brutal murder of George Floyd. Individual members of the group, as well as the group itself, have made deeply troubling claims about supposed genocides carried out by the state of Israel, and have trafficked in antisemitic tropes.”
Other local rabbis found themselves less troubled by Black Lives Matter, which seems to have moved away from any focus on Israel or anti-Semitism as the need to work wholeheartedly again racism in the United States. They still were troubled, however, by the need to balance social activism with social distancing.
Nathaniel Helfgot is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom, another Orthodox synagogue. He was not able to go to the march, or even to watch it walk by; it was in the middle of the day, “and I teach during the day, and also have responsibilities,” he said. (He’s a department chair at the SAR High School in Riverdale.) He did not encourage congregants to go to the march, but not because of the message or the sponsors. “I want to be careful about health,” he said. “Some of the rallies haven’t had social distancing. I want to set the right example. That is why as a synagogue we didn’t join the rally. We didn’t want to put anybody in the situation of being unsafe in terms of their health.
“But it wasn’t because of the content of the rally. It was because of covid.”
There is a playground on Netivot’s grounds; a fence protecting it fronts Cedar Lane. The synagogue put a big sign up on the fence. “Netivot Shalom stands in in solidarity with the black community,” the sign read, in huge handwritten block letters. “Justice for George Floyd.” On another segment of the fence, it quoted Deuteronomy 16:20. “Justice justice shall you pursue,” it said.
“Netivot Shalom is solidly behind ending racism, and we wanted to express that,” Rabbi Helfgot said. “Even though we weren’t marching as a synagogue, we wanted to express our solidarity with people who were in deep pain.
“Unfortunately, this is a killing that never should have happened, reflecting racism and not treating people with the dignity that they deserve.”
Members of Netivot Shalom also handed out bottles of water to protesters as they walked by.
Will this murder and the protests that followed be a turning point in the relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities? “I don’t know,” Rabbi Helfgot said. “But in general, in broad strokes, the relationship has been very positive. When we in the Jewish community faced tremendous amounts of anti-Semitism in the last few years, and when there was terrorism directed at synagogues throughout the country — in Pittsburgh, in Poway, in other places — we got great support from various members of the African-American clergy. We also need to share other people’s pain, and to support each other. We have to try to make a more perfect society.”
Still, he added, “I don’t know how it will play out on the ground. In general, the rallies, as far as I know and understand them, are about systemic change in our systems of government and of policing. They are about our attitudes and our institutions. All of us have to work on a double level. On the institutional level, we have to make sure that every voice is heard and that everybody’s concerns are taken seriously, and that at all levels of government, issues of bias, discrimination, and racism are dismantled. And on the individual level, every person, of every color and creed, has to work on themselves, and has to work internally on their own communities. They have to work on their own biases, and on the message they teach their children.”
Joel Pitkowsky is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom. He’s a Conservative rabbi; he, his wife, and their two children — one 19 years old, the other 16 — walked together.
“I found it very powerful,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “It was a meaningful experience.” And it was crowded, he added; “there seemed to be tons of people there.
“I felt it was important that I be there, as a human being, as a Jew, and as a religious leader in the community,” he continued. “It was to make a statement about the value of human life, the value of black lives. We should stand up for each other when our community is in pain.
“This is an issue that has been around for a very long time — for 400 years,” he said; the first enslaved people were brought to what later became the United States in 1619. “The Jewish community has done valiant work supporting civil rights and African-American rights in the past, and I felt that going to this march and continuing to do this work is the very least that we can do. The least that I can do to help this bad situation in my own small way.
“There is a lot more work to be done, but just going there and showing my face and saying that this is an important issue for me matters.”
How did he balance the need to shelter from the virus and to show up to be counted? “My family has been fairly strict about social distancing,” Rabbi Pitkowsky said. “We have barely been to stores in the last three months. We have really been doing our best to follow the rules and stay safe. So attending a rally with possibly thousands of people was not a forgone conclusion. But we felt — or at least we hoped — that it would be possible to stay socially distanced at a rally that was not jam-packed with people. We wore our masks the whole time, and we did our best to stay six feet away from people during the march.
“We found that the social distancing was possible. It wasn’t so crowded that you couldn’t move. And I wanted to march. I didn’t want to be in a car. I totally respect everyone who was in a car, and who did not march but stood holding signs and cheering. It was wonderful.”
A few images from the rally and the walk stick in his mind.
“It was a little hard to hear the speakers at the rally, but I know that Phillip Pannell’s mother was there.” Phillip Pannell was 16 in 1990, when he was shot in the back by a Teaneck police officer who later was acquitted of manslaughter in his death. He was African-American; the officer said that Phillip had reached for a pistol, but the only gun found at the scene of his death was the cop’s.
His mother is Thelma Pannell-Dantzler.
Teaneck was riven by the pain of Phillip Pannell’s death for many years; scars have grown over the wound but it’s hard to say it’s healed.
Rabbi Pitkowsky grew up in Fair Lawn and was in college, at Rutgers, in 1990. “I have very clear memories of the shooting and the protest,” he said. “I understand what it means for a community to have a historic memory. Every Jew knows what that means. So understanding the place of honor that Phillip Pannell’s family has, his mother speaking was very touching and powerful, and spoke to the universality of police shooting African-American people.
“The second image was when we walked by Holy Name Medical Center,” he continued. “There were maybe 75 people from the hospital who were lined up on the sidewalk, cheering and clapping. It was incredibly powerful to feel that connection. They took time out of their day to do that. We’ve been cheering for them, so it was powerful to see them doing it for us.”
The third image is from the walk. “There wasn’t much organization. Some people would start a chant, and then they would stop, and other people would start another one. It seemed very home-grown. My wife and I were walking in a section where a young African-American girl, maybe 10 years old, was leading the chanting for a good portion of the walk.
“It was incredible. That a child that age would have the presence and the ability to carry a crowd like that.”
Karen Orgen, a pharmacist and an Orthodox Jew, is newly elected to Teaneck’s town council. Her term will start next month. “The march was planned and executed beautifully,” she said. “High school students planned it.” Like Rabbi Pitkowsky, she was struck by the applause from Holy Name workers. “It was so energizing,” she said. “And then people from the 7-Eleven and Noah’s Ark were outside with water. It was peaceful. It was wonderful. It was uplifting for everybody.
“I hope the people who organized it felt the support from the community. The community was there to support them, and I hope they felt it, because they really had it.”
Barry Lichtenberg of Teaneck, a lawyer, and his wife, Sandee Brawarsky, drove in the march; during the rally, they occasionally got out of their car — a red convertible — to talk to people, remaining socially distanced and masked throughout.
“I went there to listen,” Mr. Lichtenberg said. “There is this old Jewish joke that Jews don’t listen. We just wait.” And then we talk. “I came to listen and to understand better, and I was very heartened by what I saw. The speeches and the placards were very articulate. Anger came through very clear, but in a very constructive way. I’ve been to rallies that were rowdier and more boisterous. This one was raucous at times, and it was angry, but it was democracy at its best.
“I also was heartened to see a robust number of kippot. There were a lot of observant Jews. The community cared, and they came and listened. It was a good vibe.
“We were there to bear witness to how the black community felt. We are part of the community.”
Roz Friedman and her husband, Ira, were there as well. “We went because we felt it was important that the Orthodox community be a part of this,” she said. “We have strong feelings about what happened, so we went. We did not march, but only because it was not physically safe for us. That’s because of the virus. And only because of the virus.
“This really was the Teaneck community at its best,” she added. “I think that just about every group in the town was represented. I thought it was very moving, very significant, and very meaningful, and a reminder of why we live here.
“This was the original integrated town, and it continues to be so.”
In 1964, Teaneck voted to integrate its school system voluntarily. It was the first town in the country to do that.
The Friedmans have lived in Teaneck for decades; they already lived in town when they bought the house they live in today in 1990, the week that Phillip Pannell was murdered. “That was a very sad part of Teaneck history,” Ms. Friedman said. “This show of unity happened for a bad reason, but it is a good part of Teaneck history.”
So far, 26 Jewish organizations have made statements condemning the murder of George Floyd. Although it’s not surprising that some of them took a strong stand against racism and police violence, the range of groups responding is unusual. It is an unusual and unusually clear-cut situation that can elicit a statement from Bend the Arc and Keshet, on the left, through mainstream groups like the American Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress, Hadassah, and New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council; from all the major Jewish streams, not only the Union for Reform Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly but also the Orthodox Union and its rabbinical association, the Rabbinical Council of America. There’s even a response from Agudath Israel of America, which generally does not align itself with these other groups.
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Teaneck is the deputy director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. She was at the rally with her friend Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, also of Teaneck, who is Hadassah’s director of the member and unit services division.
“I was very impressed by the way the Jewish community turned out,” Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “I was really pleased that the Jewish community was able to be in a multi-racial space where they could learn first-hand from African-Americans about living in a majority white town.”
T’ruah’s statement said, “The divine image is diminished as we mourn the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. This is yet one more tragic example of the racist violence too often perpetrated by police officers, who are charged with protecting all of us — not only some of us.”
George Floyd died on Memorial Day, just before Shavuot, Rabbi Kahn-Troster said. “It was important for us,” after that holiday of revelation, “to say that black lives matter. We have an obligation to speak out as Jews. For me, as a human rights activist, we have to live out the fact that it is everybody who was created in the divine image. It’s not just something that some people get to say.”
It’s difficult to protest right now, because the threat of covid has not gone away, she said; as the mother of young children, that’s on her mind. If you can’t do anything else, you can “put signs out on your front lawn to make your position public.” And talk to your children. “Growing up in an activist household, my kids have had that conversation” — the one about how dangerous it can be to be black in America — “but if you haven’t had it yet with your children, you should try. Remember that for some communities, having that conversation is not a choice.” Just because we have the luxury of preserving our children’s innocence for longer, that doesn’t mean that we should take advantage of that luxury.
Ora Horn Prouser of Franklin Lakes is the CEO and academic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, a nondenominational seminary in Yonkers. The AJR’s statement, noting that Mr. Floyd called for his mother just before he died, quoted the matriarch Rachel, whom it said, “leads us in mourning.
‘A voice in Ramah is heard, lament and bitter weeping. Rachel weeps for her sons. She refuses to be comforted.’ (Jeremiah 31:14) We too will not be comforted and we will not rest until the dignity of all people of color is respected and honored.”
The Academy felt it necessary to put out a statement because “there are many issues that arise that are Jewish issues. Justice and the dignity of life are human issues,” Dr. Prouser said.
“The Black Lives Matter movement is pushing us to understand that we will not have the dignity of every human until the dignity of every black person is appreciated and respected and honored. This is a Jewish issue. This is why we felt it not only important but necessary to say something.”
Nathan Diament is a lawyer and the executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center. (No, he’s not local; he’s based in Washington.)
The statement read: “We are saddened, sickened, and outraged to have seen another broadcast video of an African-American man dying at the hands of police officers. Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a political issue. It is a real and present danger that must be met head on.”
It’s not surprising that the OU’s advocacy center put out that statement, Mr. Diament said. “The leadership saw the killing of Mr. Floyd as a horrific incident, and felt that it is important, in the diverse society in which we live, to make clear that the Orthodox Union was horrified by it, and shouldn’t remain silent in the face of such a thing.”
Stan Steinreich of Teaneck heads a public relations firm that carries his name, and much of his work is spread out across the Jewish world. He sees a lot, and he’s not at all surprised by the outpouring of anguish and support for the African-American community that he’s seen from the Jewish world.
“The Jewish community has a rich history of working with the African-American community,” he said. “There were so many rabbis who marched with Martin Luther King. And they were Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, affiliated and unaffiliated. That is a real point of greatness in our community.” Now, he said, all these years later, with some of those connections attenuated, “we are working with African-American communities to build bridges.
“It is different now,” he said. “The call to action now is so compelling that Jewish organization need to step up, to put their best foot forward and put their resources toward helping to make change.”
It’s been 50 years since Jews really were active in the civil rights movement in large numbers, and “there were a lot of holes in what happened then,” he said. There was a lot of room for bad things to happen, some of them legal, some of them illegal but unpunished. “As Jews, we have an appreciation of discrimination.” All taken together, Mr. Steinreich said, “there is a great deal of interest in saying something.
“As Jews, we sometimes beat ourselves up when we don’t do the right thing,” he said. “In this case, you are seeing the organized Jewish community across the board doing the right thing.”