Last month, rabbis, pastors, priests and imams gathered together in Ferguson, Mo., a city rife with racial violence and pain. Along with my rabbinic colleagues from Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Justice, I decided to join together with the people of Ferguson in their struggle for justice. I went with the intention of teaching protesters and police alike how to forge a new path for justice.
I realized that I had the wrong idea: This wasn’t about clergy teaching anyone anything but about our bearing witness to a movement. After 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer, the youth of Ferguson are demanding that he, and they, not be forgotten.
Rabbis went to Ferguson to hold ourselves accountable. We participated in an interfaith prayer service calling upon community leaders to advocate for racial justice; we stood before the Ferguson police station demanding that they, and we, atone for standing idly by when Michael Brown and so many other young people of color are harassed, jailed and killed. We left the sukkot in our home communities, eschewing comfortable meals and the joy of the festival, and went to Ferguson to build a different sort of sukkah: a sukkat shalom, a “shelter of peace.”
Here is what we learned:
Our children are angry. They are angry that young men of color like Michael Brown are being shot on our streets. They are angry that police caused Brown further indignity by leaving his body in the street for more than four hours, forcing parents to hide their children’s eyes. They are incensed that even in death, the police did not show his corpse a modicum of dignity.
Our children are committed. For 65 days, these young leaders have shown exquisite leadership, organizing nightly protests, confronting police, demanding answers, crying out for justice.
Our children are hopeful. They believe that with the power of their voices, the gathering of their feet and the sacred work of their hands, they can bring about justice and dignity for all people in this nation.
Our children are righteous. As we stood in front of the police station at Ferguson, one young African-American woman stood face to face with a police officer in riot gear, a sign in her arms held high: “Black Lives Matter!” She testified to him, staring deeply into his eyes: “What you all did to Michael Brown makes me want to hate you. But I won’t have hatred in my heart. I will only have love. And I know you all want to repent for what you’ve done, for creating a system that lets my sisters and brothers of color die. I won’t hate you. I want to hug you.” And she did. With fierce tears, she treated that officer like a human being. And she asked — she demanded — that her humanity be seen.
Our children are capable. I thought that the protesters in Ferguson needed rabbis and ministers and imams to “show them the way”. I thought that we would show them how to make justice happen. But they don’t need us to do it for them. They need us to amplify their holy work, to bear witness to their righteous anger and their anguish and their longing to be treated with compassion and with dignity and affection.
Our children are impatient. After all, they are children. They should be dreaming of a world unfolding in front of them. They should be impatient with how they’ve been treated. What does it say about us when we ask them to be patient?
And finally, our children are here. Did we need to show up and stand for hours minutes in the pouring rain to face off with police officers in riot gear? We did. We did so to show that this movement is about repentance: for the police who fail to serve and to protect; for all of us who have allowed this to happen; for each one of us who needs to commit to the hard work of dialogue and social change.
What the mainstream media show are neighborhoods in chaos. What we saw were young people full of passion, skill and moral courage demanding that America live up to its national promise–that we are all created equal. That dignity is not for some of us, but for all of us.
This is not the kind of issue that makes it onto the agenda of most synagogues in America. Yet our congregation is in the beginning stages of addressing issues of race, racism, and the impact of the rising prison population on our community. Recently we hosted an interfaith forum on gun violence prevention and spoke of the need to bridge the gap between the middle class white community of south Minneapolis and the more impoverished, North Minneapolis. One African American spoke with honesty and integrity which made some people who attended uncomfortable: “Thank God you’ve woken up to the pain of gun violence. What happened to the children of Newtown is a nightmare! It is horrible and awful., Black parents have been burying our babies for 20 years. You’re late. Welcome.”
Doing this work means that the truth can sting and shake us awake to the pain of others. When empathy can be generated, real change is possible. Members of my congregation are eager to get involved. The question, of course, is how? How do we get to know people in different neighborhoods—where children of color are harassed by police, shot, and killed at alarming rates? How can we be effective partners and allies? What does it mean to be a congregation devoted to compassion and justice when the work will require that we face the reality of our own privilege?
I need to find a way, as the congregation’s rabbi, to help my members be a bit uncomfortable with the current reality because that is the prerequisite to effecting some real change in society. Both clergy and lay leaders will be challenged as individuals and as a holy community—but I believe this is necessary if we are to create a better future for our city and for our children.
Rabbi Michael Latz serves as Shir Tikvah’s Senior Rabbi. Previously, he was the founding rabbi of Kol HaNeshamah in West Seattle. A Wexner Fellow during rabbinical school, Rabbi Latz was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is deeply committed to building an animated Jewish community, engaged in the hard and holy work of spirituality and social justice. In 2014, he was named by The Jewish Daily Forward as one of America’s most inspiring rabbis.