“Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot:
“That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.
“That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”
This passage is read every Friday night at my synagogue, Barnert Temple, and I am moved each time it is read. Ever since I was a teenager, I would picture Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walking hand in hand in 1965, marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.
Rabbi Heschel famously said, “Our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.” There was such incredible unity among clergy of different faiths in the fight for equal rights and privileges. I have always been proud that Jewish Americans marched arm in arm with black Americans, fighting for justice during the civil rights movement.
Unfortunately, the issues that Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel protested have not gone away. Ferguson, Missouri has become symbolic of how much change is still necessary in the struggle to defeat institutionalized racism.
Why should Jews care? Why do the events in Ferguson matter to us?
My friend Jared is a black Jewish man. He wrote a harrowing personal story in the Jewish Week about driving home from a Purim party.
Jared was the designated driver for his group of friends. He was pulled over by a police officer and told to walk in a straight line to prove his sobriety. After this, he was accused of plotting to conspire in acts of terrorism!
When 10 policemen pointed guns at his head, Jared began reciting the Shema under his breath. Luckily, he made it home, uninjured, without having been arrested. As Jared told me this story, he said somberly, “I was almost another Michael Brown.”
There are far too many stories like Jared’s that reflect the prejudice that pervades our country. Too many people are afraid to walk near police. Too many people are afraid that their children will never come home.
If you have light skin like me, you probably don’t worry about people following you around in stores because they worry that you might steal something. If you do steal something, you probably won’t have to worry about getting killed by the police. If someone near you is hurt, you probably won’t be the first person blamed.
If you are caught with marijuana, you probably won’t be arrested. In fact, you are four times less likely than someone with darker skin to be arrested for marijuana possession.
If you have light skin, you have the power to be understood and listened to. Your status can be used to help change our system by being an advocate for equality and transparency.
This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, teaches that unlawful action is the indirect responsibility of the community. If a murdered person’s body is found lying in an open field, the nearest governing body must sacrifice a healthy young cow. The people then plead with God, asking to be free of guilt for this death. With the governing body attempting to prove its innocence, the underlying implication is that the community has transgressed and must acknowledge its role in this loss of human life in order to be forgiven.
This is a beautiful example of how we Jews have an obligation to seek out justice on behalf of those who suffer, whether they are Jewish or not.
“Justice, justice shall you pursue,” God insists. In other words, God says: “Be my hands. Create a just world.” Listen to those who cry out. Remember that we are all together.
Rabbi Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.” How true this is.
Here are eight things we can do to make a difference. Pick one today (google keywords to find them online):
1. Organize a discussion within your community or perhaps host a workshop on conflict-resolution or view a documentary about race in America.
2. When people focus on the small minority of looters in Ferguson or on Michael Brown’s theft at a convenience store, remind them that killing someone who is unarmed is never justified.
3. Share news articles about Ferguson on your social media pages. Keep your friends in the loop about what’s going on.
4. Sign the petition to create Michael Brown Law, which would make police action more transparent.
5. Donate to the St. Louis Area Food Bank.
6. Donate to the National Lawyers Guild, which helps protesters who have been arrested in Ferguson.
7. Donate to the Michael Brown Memorial Fund to help Michael Brown’s family with legal fees.
8. Write to your local clergy organizations to ask how we can work together to spread awareness and pray for peace.
“There is no way to get from here to there, except by joining hands, marching together.”