Concerned that upward of 90 percent of the youthful offenders behind bars in New Jersey are black and Latino, some rabbis are vowing to educate the Jewish community about what they perceive as a major injustice.
“It is our responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless, stand up for the downtrodden, and to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers,” said Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange.
“If black and Latino youth are 25 times more likely to be incarcerated in our state than white youths, what we are saying is that by allowing these rates to continue, we are opening up an entryway for them to reoffend, and reoffend, and reoffend — rather than educating them and giving all of our youth, regardless of race or ethnicity, the opportunity to repent,” said Olitzky.
Olitzky joined in a Feb. 1 conference call on juvenile incarceration sponsored by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which in December issued a report titled “Extreme Racial Disparities Exist in NJ’s Youth Prisons.”
“Black and white young people engage in similar offenses at about the same rates overall, but New Jersey’s black youth are disproportionately incarcerated in youth prisons,” said the institute’s president and CEO, Ryan Haygood, as he addressed the conference call. “What strikes me is these racial disparities don’t reflect actual participation in criminal behavior. People of all races commit crimes at about the same rate.”
Although Olitzky was the only rabbi to participate in the call, which included members of the Christian clergy and two state legislators, other Jewish religious leaders told NJJN they are equally alarmed at what they perceive as a severe injustice.
“It’s not that Jewish kids don’t get busted, but young people of color often get processed and treated differently,” said Rabbi David Levy of Temple Shalom in Succasunna. He said Jews “have a special responsibility based on our history. No person should be treated any less than another and right now, that is happening.”
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, a resident of Teaneck, is director of programs for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Her organization has been campaigning to educate the Jewish community about mass incarceration. “It is encouraging to me that over the last few years the Jewish community has been talking more about issues of race and acknowledging white privilege among Jews,” she told NJJN.
Wary of the conservative nature of the Trump administration, Kahn-Troster said that “one of the things that gives me hope is that a lot of incarceration reform has to happen on a state level” as opposed to the federal government. “We can come together with churches and mosques and demand changes from our local police,” she said.
Rabbi Mark Cooper of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange said religious communities and houses of worship “can and should connect social problems to ethical teachings and values and to root solutions in the ethical behavior mandated by our religious traditions.”
Cooper said religious leaders have an obligation to educate, to illuminate, and to connect these issues to our values system, which stems from religious teachings, “and we need to inspire people to act based upon religious teaching. There needs to be fairness before the law for all people. We cannot tolerate disproportionate application of the law.”
“What we do as rabbis is to point a light at injustice and be a prophetic voice stating that this needs to be remedied and help bring people’s awareness to it,” said Rabbi Philip Bazeley of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
Bazeley told NJJN that the majority of white people — including Jews — are “completely ignorant” of many of the injustices blacks and Latinos face in the United States. “We live in our own ideological bubbles with people who look like us and think like us. Temples ought to be getting involved with programs that help break down those ideological barriers so we can speak with one another in humane ways,” he said.
Among others who participated in the conference call was the Rev. Sara Lilja, director of the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey and member of the executive committee of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. As a mother of teenagers, she said, she has “incredible concern at the over-policing of communities of color and the hypervigilance that has put a burden on nice, good kids who are living in communities of color.”
She said when young people are swept up in the criminal justice system, “it is around their necks for their whole lives. If you make a bad choice as a juvenile it shouldn’t stay with you for the rest of your life.”
The Rev. Charles F. Boyer of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Woodbury said during the call that it is “imperative” for people of faith to “move this mountain of racial inequity.”
“We are stacking the deck against these young people by putting them into prisons,” he said. He termed efforts to protect society’s most vulnerable people as “the civil rights issue of our day.” n