Standing for justice: Bay Area Jews say #BlackLivesMatter

Hundreds of Bay Area Jews spent the first night of Hanukkah not inside their warm homes with their families, but outside in the pouring rain in downtown San Francisco.

“From Ferguson to Frisco, black lives matter!” chanted protesters as they marched from Yerba Buena Gardens to the intersection of Powell and Market streets, where they would block traffic for nearly half an hour.

The San Francisco protest, which was led by a small group of rabbis and Jewish progressives, was one of at least 15 #ChanukahAction events held in cities nationwide on Dec. 16 in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a burgeoning civil rights crusade spurred by the deaths this year of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and other unarmed African Americans at the hands of police officers. It came on the heels of several local protests and interfaith events over the weekend that members of local Jewish congregations attended in support of their black neighbors.

With many people stunned by the lack of indictments against police officers in the Brown and Garner cases, Bay Area synagogues and Jewish organizations are joining the movement to fight racism and police brutality. Some are reaching out to local African American churches and secular organizations; others are preaching about it to their congregations. The Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Community Federation, both based in San Francisco, issued a joint statement on Dec. 5 expressing concern about racial divisions and the deaths of Brown, Garner and Rice. The JCRC is considering working on a new consensus statement about racial equality, its first in 30 years, according to Abby Michelson Porth, JCRC’s associate executive director.

Participants in the #ChanukahAction protest in San Francisco on Dec. 16 photo/gabrielle lurie

Others are taking to the streets.

“We’re here tonight because this is the most Jewish thing we could be doing,” said Rabbi Michael Rothbaum of Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, speaking to J. at the Dec. 16 San Francisco protest, in which organizer say 300 people participated. “Our Torah instructs that all human beings are created in the image of God,” added Rothbaum, regional council co-chair of Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish organization that was involved in organizing Chanukah Action.

Rothbaum and others who helmed the Chanukah Action protest refused to say how planning for the multi-city demonstrations got underway, preferring to characterize the protests as having bubbled up organically from the Jewish conscience. Rabbis Rothbaum, David Cooper, Dev Noily, Sydney Mintz, Dan Goldblatt, Jane Litman, Noa Kushner, Diane Elliot, Lynn Gottlieb, Alissa Wise, Rabbi/Cantor Elana Rosen-Brown and Cantor Risa Wallach attended the protest, along with members of their congregations and other Jewish supporters. Tiffani Marie Johnson, an African American educator and minister, led an opening prayer.

The rabbis, clad in their prayer shawls, led the march and lined up in a horizontal row all the way across Market Street, with other protesters assembled behind them. Different protesters traded off reading the names of African Americans who had been killed by police officers, and the group observed four and a half minutes of silence to commemorate those deaths. Rabbis Noily and Gottlieb led the crowd in the Mourner’s Kaddish. Protesters had originally planned to carry a lit menorah, but the rain made that impossible.

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum prepares to join fellow protesters at the “die-in” on University Ave. in Berkeley, Dec. 14. photo/sue fishkoff

Unlike in New York, where four rabbis who blocked the street at a Dec. 4 protest organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice were arrested, the police monitoring the San Francisco action controlled and rerouted traffic but did not make arrests or try to stop the protest.

For Rabbi Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, the Dec. 16 demonstration was his second Black Lives Matter protest in a week. On Dec. 14, he, along with members of his congregation, took part in a well-organized protest and die-in organized by The Way Christian Center and Congregation Netivot Shalom, which sit across the street from each other on University Avenue in Berkeley.

Black leaders nationwide had designated Dec. 14 as Black Lives Matter Sunday, calling upon African American churches to mourn the deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement. In many cities, including Oakland, Jewish congregations joined worshippers at black churches to show their support.

Black Lives Matters Sunday also represented, at least in the Bay Area, efforts by clergy to assert leadership of a protest movement that in many places — particularly Oakland and Berkeley — has been plagued by violence. At this week’s events, Jewish participants were sensitive to the complaints that had surfaced in the media from black protesters quoted as saying that white protesters were too dominant.

At the University Avenue protest, Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Netivot Shalom was the sole white speaker; he co-wrote and led a prayer at the invitation of Pastor Michael McBride, founder of The Way.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor (left) reads a prayer while Pastor Michael McBride joins him at the Berkeley protest, Dec. 14. photo/sue fishkoff

“We are here as a presence of solidarity,” Creditor told reporters. “Standing in solidarity doesn’t mean standing in the limelight. We’re very committed to listening.”

Another Netivot Shalom member at the protest echoed that message.

“It’s an aspect of white privilege to assume that your framing of an issue is the right framing, and that your voice is the voice to be heard,” said Marjorie Stamper-Kurn of Oakland. “There are times when being a white ally means letting someone else frame the issue, standing in solidarity without needing to take the lead.”

According to McBride, the Jewish community has an important role to play in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. McBride is part of a national coalition of clergy working to end gun violence that came together after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in which 26 children and teachers were killed in Newton, Connecticut. He keeps in contact with rabbis and other faith leaders across the country.

“That black lives matter is not something that only black people should be saying,” McBride said. “To have the Jewish community working with us harkens to a time of the civil rights movement of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s good to be making those connections again.”

The Dec. 14 protest in Berkeley was organized very quickly, by word of mouth and email, as a tactic to ward off outside agitators that have been blamed for the violence and vandalism marking other local protests. Starting at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, several hundred marchers set off to walk Berkeley’s streets, joining up with supporters gathered at The Way and Netivot Shalom for an hour-long commemoration that had been coordinated in advance with Berkeley police. Christian clergy wore white collars and ministerial robes, and the rabbis were visible in their kippahs and prayer shawls.

Rabbi Alissa Wise (left) at the Dec. 16 protest in San Francisco photo/drew himmelstein

During the event, McBride called for four and a half minutes of silence to remember “the four and a half hours Michael Brown’s body was left to lie in the hot sun” and invited those able to lie down in the street for a symbolic “die-in” to honor black people killed by law enforcement in this country. Most of the 300 participants did so, blocking University Avenue in both directions for approximately 30 minutes.

“We are aware there are anarchists out there who seek to impose their will on our struggle,” McBride told the gathered crowd. “This is not your struggle. Don’t hijack our struggle.”

U.C. Berkeley student Eniola Abioye, 21, a member of the Black Student Union on campus, spoke to the crowd, saying that she was tired of trying to keep track of the constant murders of black men. “You never get used to it. It still hurts,” she said. Then, thanking the crowd, she said, “Growing up in a country where my skin color is a death sentence, I need the love of you all, lying down here on this cold street. That’s what heals me.”

The protest ended exactly at 3 p.m., as organizers had promised the police.

Earlier that morning, about 40 members of Temple Sinai attended worship services at Allen Temple Baptist Church at the invitation of the senior pastor. The two Oakland congregations have a longstanding relationship and have worked together on social justice issues in the past, according to Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai, who was called to the pulpit along with a visiting minister during the 8 a.m. service.

The crowd marches up Market Street on Dec. 16. photo/drew himmelstein

At the church’s later 11:15 a.m. worship service, attended by about a dozen Temple Sinai members, the church was joyful and full of song, led by a three-piece band and a children’s choir that swayed back and forth in time to the music.

“We have a number of visitors here today, and we want to thank you for coming to be among us,” said Pastor J. Alfred Smith Jr. as he invited members of Temple Sinai and a Presbyterian church in Lafayette to stand. “We are encouraged by the presence of our sisters and brothers from these two congregations here today.”

Noting that Rabbi Michael Lerner of Berkeley had, in a recent Huffington Post column, called for “people of faith” to come and worship at black churches that Sunday, Smith said, “All over America, people are responding. And we are happy that our Bay Area community has responded with so much love.”

“I’m here in solidarity and support for Black Lives Matter, because all lives matter,” said Pat Livingston, a Temple Sinai member. “We’re all part of the same community. I really appreciated how welcoming everyone has been to us.”

Church member Jamie O’Donal was there with her two sons, a 9-year-old who was holding his 6-month-old brother in his lap as mom put on the infant’s hat.

“I think it’s wonderful that we can congregate together in fellowship with each other,” she said of the Jewish presence at her church’s service. “I don’t think we get to do this often enough between different religions. As the mother of two boys, Black Lives Matter means a lot. I tell my son, if you are ever approached by a police officer, you listen. Everyone’s life matters.”

Mates-Muchin said she will be meeting with Smith soon to discuss how Temple Sinai can support and work together with Allen Temple Baptist Church on the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

“The best that all of our faith traditions have to offer remind us that we were created in the image of God,” McBride said. “We have differences in theological understandings, but we have an underlying unifying belief that God has given us all a certain dignity that gives us protection.”

J. editor Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.