January 2105 - Ferguson and others

Dear Friends,

A newspaper clipping from Philadelphia’s The Jewish Exponent with a photograph of college students Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman hung over the desk my last year in high school.  Members of the Ku Klux Klan had murdered Schwerner and Goodman in Mississippi on the first day of Freedom Summer in June of 1964.  Schwerner and Goodman became part of my gallery of notable Jews, which included Rabbi Akiba, Moses Maimonides, Theodor Herzl and Martin Buber.  I added Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to them all a year later when Heschel “prayed with his feet” while marching arm in arm with the Reverent Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Alabama.

As a Jewish kid living in a lower middle class white neighborhood in South Philadelphia, where being Jewish was being “other,” the black struggle for equality was my struggle, too.   For me, blacks and Jews shared a bond in their common quest to end discrimination and exclusion.  But while my personal experiences informed that bond, the Torah principle taught to me by my teachers in my Orthodox day school that we are all created in the image of God, and, consequently, that we are all equal in the eyes of God, determined my obligation to work for the cause of people of color.

Today, almost fifty years later, the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and of Eric Garner in Staten Island prove that there is still a great divide between blacks and whites in our country.  As Charles Blow wrote in an op-ed article in The New York Times, “Bias in the system often feels like a fog in the morning: enveloping, amorphous and immeasurable.  But individual cases, like the recent ones, hit us as discrete and concrete, about particular unarmed men killed by particular policemen – although those particular policemen are representative of structures of power.”  To be sure, Blow states, “Most police officers are not bad actors, but neither are most citizens.  Yet prejudice is a societal poison (that) each of is in danger of ingesting, and many of us do.”  We see this to be true not only on our nation’s streets, but also in the racist slurs uttered against our president.  It is this poison that necessitates Yevilah McCoy, a Jewish black executive at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, to have the “conversation” with her four children that many black parents have with their children about how to behave in any encounter with the police: to answer any questions simply, to avoid making any sudden movements, and if they have to reach in their pocket for an ID, to make clear what they are searching for.  Needless to say, I never felt the need to have such a conversation with my children.

We need to have a different kind of conversation in our country regarding that segment of our society, which is over-policed and criminalized, whose children are typically seen as suspect and threatening.  While public protests in the mold of Occupy Wall Street, the People’s March for Climate Change, and the recent “Die-Ins” are important in raising attention and expressing frustration, these cannot be seen as an end in themselves but as a prelude to political and judicial action.  I look forward to being part of the continuing struggle in the year to come, a struggle to ensure that all of our nation’s citizens are equal in society and under the law and in the eyes of those who are vested with the responsibility to enforce them.

I wish you all a happy, healthy and peaceful 2015.  Warmly, Lee