Jews find ways to stay involved in #BlackLivesMatter

Spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement of 2014, Rabbi Susan Leider of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon wanted to engage her community in racial justice issues last year.

At first she thought about focusing on the disproportionate number of black Americans who are behind bars and the effect it has on their communities.

But then she started listening. At the 2015 Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally in Marin City, the hot topic was about how local black students lagged seriously behind other students in math proficiency.

Though police violence and racism in the criminal justice system are major tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement, Leider was persuaded that education disparity was also an important part of the race equation, and one with a lot of local interest.

“Instead of picking an issue and diving in, one of the philosophical approaches that we engage in is building relationships with people in the community and figuring out what they’re interested in changing,” Leider said. 

Participants in the #ChanukahAction march for #BlackLivesMatter in San Francisco in December 2014 photo/drew himmelstein

Kol Shofar members partnered with the Hannah Project, an educational nonprofit in Marin City that promotes achievement for minority youth, and took part in an interfaith discussion group with local residents.

“We have these challenging discussions that I’ve not been able to have in other settings,” Leider said.

Leider was not the only Bay Area Jewish leader inspired by Black Lives Matter. The movement emerged in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, then took off as a reaction to the deaths of Michael Brown (in Ferguson, Missouri), Eric Garner (in New York City), Tamir Rice (in Cleveland) and other African Americans at the hands of police officers.

At the end of 2014, a group of Bay Area rabbis spent the first night of Hanukkah walking arm in arm down Market Street in San Francisco holding a large #BlackLivesMatter banner. Behind them marched hundreds of Jews who had joined this “Hanukkah Action” to protest police violence and racial injustice. They blocked traffic on Market Street for nearly half an hour.

Over the year that followed, police violence against the black community stayed very much in the news, with new high-profile cases emerging every few months. The Black Lives Matter movement grew.

But come Hanukkah 2015, there was no dramatic march down Market Street. Which raised the question: Was the local Jewish community, which became alarmed about entrenched racism and police violence in 2014, able to turn that concern into action over the course of 2015?

The answer, according to recent conversations with Jewish religious leaders and political activists, is a qualified yes.

Racial justice issues continue to generate interest, concern and dialogue within Bay Area Jewish organizations. In some settings, that’s where the issue stays: at the level of internal discussion and education.

But some have found to ways to engage more actively: through participating in protests and legislative campaigns, and, arguably most powerfully, engaging in coalition work that translates the lessons of the Black Lives Matters movement into grassroots activism at the community level.

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell’s photo in a Bend the Arc campaign last month photo/courtesy bend the arc

“I think a chord has been struck,” said Susan Lubeck, the director of the San Francisco office of Bend the Arc, an organization that mobilizes American Jews around progressive political causes. Bend the Arc has been working on racial and criminal justice issues for awhile; the organization has active campaigns promoting sentencing reform (with the aim of reducing the prison population nationwide) and ending the practice of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in California.

The agency partners with congregations and rabbis, and enlists members of the Jewish community at large to become active in its campaigns. Last year, Bend the Arc and other Jewish groups joined the successful campaign to pass Proposition 47 in California, a ballot measure that downgraded many nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors. Since minorities represent a disproportionate part of the prison population, sentencing reform is directly related to the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Additionally, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has been using organizers in California to campaign on the state level for police reform measures, such as ending racial profiling and creating a state database to record when officers are killed, injured or discharge their guns in the line of duty. Such campaigns, which address concerns about police violence, have enjoyed successes, Lubeck noted. For example, measures requiring body cameras for police officers and racial bias training have passed in many states.

Outside of social action organizations, though, activism happens more slowly. Still, Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell, a musician, educator and member of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, argues that the Black Lives Matter movement has taken root in the Jewish community, even if it hasn’t yet taken the synagogue world by storm.

“Engagement with racial equality, as an issue, seems like a less exotic issue than it did” at the end of 2014, said Russell, who is black. “It’s on the table … It’s the next horizon in terms of the ongoing collaborative history” between blacks and Jews.

Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos elected to join the South Bay interfaith organizing network PACT (People Acting in Community Together) and address racial justice in its community in collaboration with religious congregations (mostly Christian).

Rabbi Lisa Levenberg of Shir Hadash said that a community-based approach to activism can be difficult but is worthwhile.

“I think it certainly does challenge us to think through our motivations for why we are getting involved,” said Levenberg, the synagogue’s educator. “Sometimes we get involved in social justice issues because it makes us feel good about ourselves. True change comes when we’re involved because we want to really create the kinds of communities we want to live in.”

PACT has customized the lessons of the Black Lives Matter movement to the unique issues of the San Jose area. After hearing complaints from the South Bay Latino community that they were being treated unfairly by police officers, PACT has hosted a series of community dialogues and has advocated for the local implementation of police body cameras.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley has a longstanding friendship with Pastor Michael McBride of The Way Christian Center, which is across the street from his synagogue. During the height of the Ferguson protests in 2014, McBride invited Creditor to speak at a “die-in” in front of the church. The rabbi, who frequently speaks out on civil rights issues, was the sole white speaker that day.

“The Black Lives Matter movement is truly about allies listening,” Creditor said. “We don’t know the answers, but we want to be part of the answers determined from within the black community. I think it’s a very delicate kind of walk.”

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.