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Why I Spent Shabbat Protesting Police Brutality

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice march in New York / JFREJ

Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality. My Shabbat was, as it was for many other Jews, a time of reflection and restoration, a time to remember (zakhor) and a time to observe (shamor).

I remembered the innocents whose lives were snatched away for the crime of being people of color in the United States. I remembered my obligation as a Jewish person to see myself as someone who came out of Egypt, who knows the suffering of someone made to feel a stranger in a strange land, and who lives by the creed that all people are made b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God.

I observed this Shabbat as a time of reflection, contemplation, and community. Rabbi Scott Perlo of the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue argued that social justice has a place in Shabbat, that “[Shabbat] is about seeing. It is about understanding. It is about contemplating. It is about generating compassion. It is about seeing our small place in the big picture. It is about recognizing how we fit, before we fix.”

As I marched, I listened to the people who are daily, directly affected by discriminatory and abusive policing. I dug down into myself for compassion and empathy and at the same time reflected on how radically different our situations are. I marched as part of a Jewish community who thinks this difference is fundamentally wrong, who abhors that people in this country are treated as criminals because of their identity rather than their actions.

Image by JFREJ

This Jewish community made it possible for me as a white, Jewish person to have a place in the march. For nearly two years I have spent countless hours working as part of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s Campaign for Police Accountability. The organization, JFREJ, has been a home for New York City’s progressive Jews for 25 years. I work on this campaign because it allows me to express my Jewishness in a way that feels, to me, more powerful than traditional prayer or ritual. I fight to end discriminatory and abusive “broken windows” policing because I believe that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere, that my definition of safety doesn’t include putting a man in a chokehold and not letting up even while he’s gasping, “I can’t breathe.”

The Torah says in Numbers 15:14 that “the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you.” In other words, the separate set of rules that seem to apply to Eric Garner, to Michael Brown, to low-income communities of color, to youth, to immigrants, to LGBT people, to homeless people, and to other vulnerable populations aggressively targeted by broken windows policing practices like stop and frisk is something that my Judaism doesn’t condone.

Sure, participating in a protest march alongside these very populations is not something that many people would consider traditional Jewish practice. But in fact, there is a strong tradition of American Jews reaching outside of the Jewish community to work for justice. Since the American Revolution, this country’s Jewish communities have been involved in every major social movement working for greater equality and freedom, including the Civil Rights Movement of fifty years ago whose work we are still doing today. This isn’t the Jewish history that I was taught in Hebrew School, but it is real. I am proud to continue that tradition through my work with JFREJ.

In the coming months we’ll continue to educate and engage Jewish people in daily practices of watching out for those who are targeted by broken windows policing while we seek policy change that will promote a culture of policing based on real trust with and accountability to the community members the police have pledged to keep safe. As for me, I’ll continue my personal journey of cultivating a Judaism that feels true, a Judaism that is based on reaching out, standing up, and marching in step with our allies.

As a child, I was taught the lesson of Mishnah Sanhedrin, that saving one life is the same as saving the world. I was taught that each life matters not because it is one but because it is multitudes within one. At Saturday’s march, the chant from grief-stricken communities demanding to be heard was, “Black lives matter!” They were crying out to be seen as human, to have their lives valued as much as every other life. Black lives matter. Save one; save the world. If that’s not Jewish then I don’t know what is.

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