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NJ Jewish community not sitting protests out
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NJ Jewish community not sitting protests out

Local synagogues and organizations respond to racial unrest, conflict with BLM movement

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Incoming Rabbi Ari Isenberg, center, and members of Congregation B’nai Israel march in a June 7 demonstration in Millburn. Photo by Shira Vickar-Fox
Incoming Rabbi Ari Isenberg, center, and members of Congregation B’nai Israel march in a June 7 demonstration in Millburn. Photo by Shira Vickar-Fox

Shouting “Say their names!” and “Black lives matter!” while holding a Congregation B’nai Israel banner, members of the Conservative synagogue in Millburn joined an estimated 1,000 people on a June 7 march from Millburn High School to nearby Taylor Park to protest violence against African Americans at the hands of police.

At nearby Congregation Beth El in South Orange, members have been symbolically “sitting shiva” for George Floyd, the Minneapolis man killed by a policeman who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, since just after his June 9 funeral until June 16, each participant taking a one-hour slot at the entrance to the synagogue.

“We want the comfort of our Jewish rituals to mourn this tragic loss publicly, and to acknowledge the loss of so many men and women of color who have died as a result of police brutality,” said Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Beth El.

Congregations around the area are finding ways to express their outrage at police violence directed at the black community. For some it means participating in local events and actions, and for others it’s about collaborating with community organizations or engaging members in learning and conversation. Many are reaching out to black organizations and churches they have already developed relationships with, or are taking the moment as an opportunity to begin forging them.

Berkeley Costello, 3, at Freedom Park in Randolph. Photo Courtesy Meryl Balaban

“After Tree of Life, so many reached out to us. It is upon us to do the same,” said Rabbi Doug Sagal of Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson, referring to the 2018 shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. He said he has been reaching out to African-American churches and organizations in the area, and was scheduled to speak at a June 8 rally in Rumson.

At Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange (AABJ&D), over 100 people participated in “Healing Together: Moving Forward in a Broken World,” a conversation featuring AABJ&D Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler, West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi, and Pastor Doug Adams of JOY Church of God in West Orange. “It is critical that we engage and connect with all of our neighbors,” said Zwickler. He wanted to make sure that Adams, who is black, and his congregation would not only feel the Orthodox synagogue’s empathy, but also “our desire to build a strong supportive connection.”

Some have gone to extraordinary lengths to participate.

Rabbi Daniel Geretz, who leads the Orthodox partnership minyan Ma’ayan in West Orange, encouraged members to attend a local rally on June 6, Shabbat. Citing the principle that humans are created “b’tzelem Elokim,” in the Divine image, he told members in an email, “It is important for us to stand in solidarity with those choosing to publicly object to the violation of this tenet.” Geretz and several members walked about seven miles round-trip together.

Two weeks ago, as news broke about Floyd’s death, Rabbi Michael Satz of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown broke Shabbat to attend a car parade/funeral cortege for Floyd in Morristown, and he even took to social media to encourage congregants to attend. “I felt that the Jewish community in Morristown had to be present,” Satz said.

Aaron Segal of West Orange, a rising senior at Ithaca College and co-president of the Hillel, grew up in Montclair attending Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield. He told NJJN that even though he’s not marching as part of a synagogue group, his Jewish values influenced his decision to protest. “I’m proud to be Jewish because of the morals that we learn to live by, one of them being ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’” he said. “If our neighbor has been dealt a bad hand for the past 400 years, we’re obviously not doing a good enough job treating them equally.”

Thousands march June 7 in a Montclair demonstration. Photo by Aaron Segal

Many congregations are providing recommended reading lists for their members about race in the U.S., and facilitating book and movie discussions. Reading material on the list includes Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” and “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo. Films include “Just Mercy” and the 2010 drama “American Son.”

The Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ is holding a series of webinars that begins on Tuesday, June 16, with a showing of “I Will Not Be Silent,”  a documentary about Rabbi Joachim Prinz, followed by a panel discussion with local rabbis led by Rabbi Cliff Kulwin, recently retired from Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, Prinz’s pulpit.

The current crisis has also inspired some congregations and rabbis to try new things. B’nai Shalom in West Orange is starting a task force for sustained engagement with racial justice issues, and Rabbi Robert Wolkoff at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick posted a sermon on social media for the first time, writing, “When I saw the president unleashing uniformed police to use tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades, and raw physical violence to disperse peaceful protesters from a church, in order to stand on that sacred ground and raise a Bible in his hand for a perverse photo op — a photo op! — when I saw that, I had had enough. Mr. Trump, standing on sacred ground, with a Bible in your hand, you came into my wheelhouse, and I will do what little I can to make you pay the price.” The response — close to 1,500 shares within a few days — took him by surprise.

“The floodgates have opened on this thing,” Wolkoff told NJJN.

But not every congregation is jumping in. For some, the anti-Israel sentiment embedded in the original platform of the Black Lives Matter movement is too much to overcome. Rabbi Elie Mischel, who leads the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center, an Orthodox congregation in Livingston, condemned racism and the murder of Floyd, but he took issue with the Black Lives Matter movement. “The Jewish community must not remain silent about the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias of the Black Lives Matter movement, whose official platform calls Israel an ‘apartheid state’ that perpetrates ‘genocide’ against the Palestinian people.”

Rabbi David Levy, regional director of AJC New Jersey, noted that the language Mischel cited had been removed from the platform. In any case, he said, “We need to differentiate between saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’ or even using the hashtag, versus the organization, Movement for Black Lives, that in 2016 promulgated a platform with a paragraph disparaging Israel and supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which AJC publicly condemned at the time.

“This is not an either/or, but a yes/and,” Levy told NJJN. “We can both say that Black Lives Matter and We Stand with Israel. “

Thea Gardin, 9, with her mother, Miriam Gardin, at an evening protest on Main Street in West Orange. Photo Courtesy Miriam Gardin

Dov Ben-Shimon, federation executive vice president and CEO, offered a different perspective, saying in a video he posted to LinkedIn that just as the Jewish community gets to determine how to define and respond to anti-Semitism, “We have to respect and follow the lead of black organizers,” and that those most impacted by housing and zoning practices, differential policing practices, prosecutorial and sentencing decisions, among others, “should have our support in defining their response.”

Miriam Gardin of West Orange is torn. She attended one of the rallies in West Orange with her 9-year-old daughter, Thea, and carried a sign with both “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” Justice, justice, you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20) and “#BLM.”

“I wanted to be clear that we were there as Jews, and that quote is such a powerful rallying cry for Jews,” Gardin said. Even so, she added, “I struggle with the ‘#BLM’ part, because I want to support the movement and the main tenets that it stands for and what the people are demanding, [but] I have concerns with the anti-Israel/anti-Semitic stance of the official movement.”

Like Gardin, many clergy see collaboration as the only way forward. Some are working with local clergy councils, including Rabbi Inna Serebro-Litvak of Temple Shalom in Succasunna and Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. And Beth Hatikvah Rabbi Hannah Orden is encouraging congregants to call town, county, and state government officials to ask them how they are increasing police accountability and decreasing police violence.

Like Orden, other organizations are taking political action. Some are working with New Jersey Together, a multi-faith community organization in northern New Jersey; and Reform congregations are working with the Reform Jewish Voice of New Jersey, an extension of the movement’s national advocacy arm, the Religious Action Center (RAC). On June 9 RAC released a letter signed by more than 800 Jewish clergy in the U.S., including more than 30 clergy from New Jersey, urging law enforcement not to interfere with peaceful protests. And AJC New Jersey engaged in a discussion of the murder of George Floyd and the issue of combatting systemic racism with Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Dist. 5) last week as part of its Garden State Against Hate series.

In addition to attending the June 7 march, B’nai Israel in Millburn put up a “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” banner outside the synagogue, and offered the signs to congregants to put on their lawns.

Said synagogue president Mariela Dybner, “We believe that to pursue justice, we must speak out when we see injustice and that our voices are better heard when we speak together.”

jginsberg@njjewishnews.com

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