The little photo of me above is cut from the one shown here. It reminds me of the diversity and fullness of life, the wealth of friends and colleagues around me, and the cosmopolitanism of Pittsburgh, my home.
And yes, it depicts me with my mouth open, which my children will affirm is an apt representation.
This photo also shows why I support the global effort toward understanding that Black lives matter. Please hear me out.
The photo was taken on February 5, 2019, by lifelong friend Suzi Neft, whom I met in religious school at an Orthodox synagogue many years ago. In the photo I am delivering devar on the pulpit of St. Mary’s of the Mount Church in Pittsburgh, as part of an interfaith service arranged by the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP), with a theme of violence.
Participants in this service not only spoke from varied religious traditions; they also talked about different types of violence, from many perspectives. They spoke as reformed and reformers, as leaders and congregants, as a police officer trying to get ahead of violence and as mothers who had lost their children to bullets. Some sang in harmony and we all cried in unison. It was inspirational and enlightening. It was unifying.
I’d been invited to speak on “Jews and violence” (and had been given only five minutes!). A couple months prior I’d been leading a service at the Tree of Life when a shooter interrupted us with deadly fire, so I did have some fresh points to make.
The head of B-PEP, Tim Stevens, has for many years been a powerful Pittsburgh leader and ally in efforts toward equality, civil rights, and security. It is always a privilege to work with him. The afternoon after the synagogue shooting he was there, in the gathering place at the JCC, a welcome sight – his very presence meant we had a strong ally who understood we had endured an act of hatred.
Tim arranged the interfaith service.
Also speaking was Wasi Mohamed, then the head of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, whom I’d met when he worked with Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom (my employer), several months prior. Immediately following the shooting, Wasi had promised that the Muslim community of Pittsburgh would cover the cost of burying our eleven murdered – and they raised that much and more. Wasi is a great speaker; I was glad he spoke after me.
In my devar I mentioned that when the shooter interrupted our service, we were saying Kaddish D’Rabbanon after a bit of learning. In those months it was my custom during Kaddish to think of a young man, Antwon Rose II, only two degrees removed from my son’s circle of friends, who had been shot in the back for nothing by a police officer in June 2018. Yes, I had something to say about violence. Most of those there, though, had much more experience with it than I.
Through the varied tefillah of the evening, we all listened and learned from each other. People are being hurt, oppressed, offended, thwarted, redlined, profiled, insulted, tortured, and killed, around the world. There are not enough negative verbs to state what’s been going on for generations. And it isn’t up to the oppressed to effect change, it’s up to the rest of us. Whatever one may think of anyone’s protest methods or slogans, the need is apparent. It was obvious before any of those extreme tactics started appearing; we just were not yet doing enough.
We Jews know about prejudice, profiling, discrimination. Yet often we are guilty of it. I was taught that when one Jew commits a crime, all Jews are guilty. We are guilty. And we are responsible, in the United States and also in Israel where the Beta Israel have been subject to similar discrimination and mistreatment. (Solomon Tekah, 19, was not so different from Antwon Rose II, 17, both shot by police.)
Black lives absolutely matter! The point of that expression is to counter the sentiment that they do not matter; it doesn’t mean that everyone else’s lives are less. When women are getting injured, we might say, “Women are important.” When children are being killed, we might say, “We have no children to spare.”
That is not to say – as many of you will likely toss at me – that the organization which has claimed the URL “BlackLivesMatter.com” and sometimes espouses anti-Zionist attitudes represents the movement itself and all involved any more than a group that claims “Jewish.com” represents all Jews. There is no “Black Lives Matter” official organization that speaks for all. We don’t have to like Louis Farrakhan (and we don’t) to adopt and put forth the sentiments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
What I am saying, to this readership in particular, is that we collectively and individually have a responsibility to take action on behalf of all oppressed peoples around the world, starting with those among us – again, in the U.S. and in Israel and anywhere else – regardless what slogan is chosen to rally around.
The second image here is my protest sign. It holds a quote from Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel (10 BCE – 70 CE), along with the modern slogan. Our job is to work together toward everyone understanding both.
I am reminded of my mother z”l, who invited her boss and his wife to her wedding in 1955. She adored him, they worked together for years. She had dozens and dozens of guests, and all had a good time. When mom got her wedding photos back, there were no photos of the boss and his wife. As she told the story, and she told it often, my mother was rather distraught, and she asked the photographer why he had taken photos of everyone else and left out the boss. The photographer said he presumed the guy “wasn’t anybody.” The boss and his wife were Black.
We still have a lot of work to do.