NEW YORK – Some 30 rabbis were among approximately 200 clergy who participated in civil disobedience Monday in Ferguson, Missouri and asked police to repent for having shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown on August 9th. While several protesters were reportedly arrested — including writer and professor Cornel West — none of the rabbis were detained by police.
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At the demonstration, called “Moral Monday,” the clergy spoke with individual police officers about repentance until the regular police were replaced by officers in full riot gear who pushed the clergy back, said Rabbi Susan Talve, who has been part of the ongoing protests since the day after Brown was killed.
Brown’s killing has sparked national conversation about hostility between mostly white police forces and the profiling and shooting of young black men. Some of the Ferguson demonstrations have involved thousands of people.
Talve is senior rabbi at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis. “I go pretty much every night. It’s young people protesting and clergy showing up to model nonviolence and to listen to what they have to say,” Talve told Haaretz just after the clergy protest ended. She spent the day Yom Kippur began occupying the police department, she said, after 13 young people were arrested for gathering on a sidewalk to protest. She stayed that day until 5:30, with other clergy working to make sure that those arrested were released and to negotiate their amounts of their bail.
“It is not violent but it’s definitely tense here,” said Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, senior rabbi of Congregation Shir Tikvah, a Reform temple. Latz flew into St. Louis from his home city of Minneapolis on Sunday night, for Monday’s demonstration. “We are incredibly inspired” by the local protestors, he told Haaretz.
The rabbis at Monday’s protest spanned the denominations, from Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, executive director of the social justice organizing program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, to modern Orthodox Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, a member of the clergy staff at St. Louis’s Bais Abraham Congregation. Several rabbis were from the area, though most traveled from more distant points, organized by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, a New York-based group.
“Arrests or not we’re going to stay 4 hours 32 minutes, the amount of time Brown’s body lay in the street. Pouring rain,” tweeted T’ruah’s executive director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, from the protest.
Arm-in-arm with Christian clergy, the rabbis marched from Wellsprings Church to the police station in a demonstration reminiscent of the Selma, Alabama march for civil rights at which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stood with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
One of the rabbis Monday, Rabbi Ari Kaiman, cited Heschel’s oft-quoted phrase when he tweeted “We are praying with our feet. No more blood in our streets.” Kaiman, who is assistant rabbi at St. Louis’s Conservative Congregation B’nai Amoona, spoke from his car after leaving the protest, soaked by the rain that poured down on the clergy during Monday’s tornado watch.
“Clergy were invited to go one on one to police officers and truthfully it was for me a very holy moment,” Kaiman told Haaretz. “I’m praying for dialogue, for a conversation to happen.”
The clergy protesters crossed the first police line, and then police formed a new one, pushing them back.
“We stood and we chanted and sang” songs, among them the spiritual “Wade in the Water,” Kaiman said, the rain pounding his windshield audible over the phone line. “The rain felt helpful. For many of us this is about being vulnerable, about saying that we live in a community that is broken. Vulnerability breeds trust. It saddens me that we live in a community where people don’t trust the police and police don’t trust the people. I don’t want to watch that happen, which is why I went to participate.”
“I hope just as the civil rights movement made some significant gains, so too we locally and nationally will make gains in thinking about how police and the black community interact, how all of us can be complicit in structural racism and how the death of Michael Brown, his tragic death, has awoken many of us to the cries of many of those who are experiencing this,” Kaiman said.
The local Jewish community is divided about the protests, Kaiman said. Some early protestors rioted and looted area stores, including the local Wal-Mart, and some members of the local Jewish community who are also business owners see it as an “us-them” issue, he told Haaretz. “Business owners that I know have had their businesses looted. And that to me is a wrong. Not all the protestors are responsible for that. Just like we can’t lump all the police as racist we can’t lump all the protestors into being rioters,” Kaiman said. “Those who see this as black and white feel this is a controversy people should not get involved with.”
But “I’m involved in this because everyone needs to do teshuva. When people die in the streets it’s a tragedy,” he said. “When the police, are involved in that death they should acknowledge that tragedy as well.”
Signs at some protests have compared the Ferguson killings to those in Gaza, which has concerned Kaiman. “As a person who supports Israel I was glad to see that there were no signs and conversation about Gaza at all” on Monday, he said.
“It's sometimes easier for me to get up in the pulpit and say what needs to change and not be on the ground,” said Picker-Neiss. “To stand with other clergy and talk about concrete change and link at arms and look at people living in the area was so powerful. It’s an important message for those of us who sometimes have the luxury of staying behind our pulpits.”
“This is the most holy work, the most extraordinary giving life to Sukkot I’ve ever seen,” Latz said. The message is “everything we build in our homes doesn’t matter.
If we can’t build a sukkat shalom of peace and dignity, then what on earth are we doing here.? If we’re praying in our sanctuaries, if we’re fasting, what is it for? What are we doing if not making a good reality on earth?” Latz hung up quickly saying that the police were moving in on the clergy. Later he messaged, “they just sort of charged and had billy clubs and tried to push us back. It settled down but it was intense for a minute.”