When Rabbi David Booth heard about George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto called his friend, Pastor Kaloma Smith.
“I asked for guidance from him,” Booth said. “He is a wonderful leader and voice.”
Smith, the pastor of University AME Zion Church, the oldest black church in Palo Alto, has visited Israel twice with Booth, first on a clergy trip organized by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and then last summer with both their congregations.
The two men spoke several times those first days after Floyd’s May 25 death, with Booth asking Smith what he, as a rabbi, could do to help.
“One thing he said that stuck with me was the need to preach to our own communities,” Booth said.
So Booth reached out to colleagues at Conservative synagogues around the country, asking them to join a virtual evening of prayer and learning, and to invite their congregants to join in as well. “First and foremost to share our grief at the violence in our communities, specifically against black people,” the invitation read. Second, a “call for action, encouraging people across the country to add their voices to those advocating for police forces dedicated to de-escalation.”
Held June 9 on Zoom, “Fighting Racism: A Night of Hope and Memory” drew nearly 200 participants from eight synagogues in six states from coast to coast, including Kol Emeth and one other local synagogue, Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa.
“The Jewish community has a historic friendship with the black community, and this is a time to show that we stand together,” Booth told J.
He opened the event by admonishing the Jewish community for “allowing itself to spend too much time standing by” and allowing racism to flourish.
“For repentance to mean anything, our behavior has to change,” he said. “For too many years we have been passive. We have spent generations standing idly by, being concerned with our own Jewish issues. It’s time to open our eyes.
“This is an important moment to mourn, but also to make a commitment to action.”
The evening was filled with prayer: the Mourner’s Kaddish and a reimagined El Malei Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the soul of a person who has died. In this version, led by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum of Synagogue Emanu-El in Charleston, South Carolina, the group called out to “the souls of our brothers and sisters … who have been killed, burned and lynched because of racism and baseless hate.”
Then, in accordance with the #SayTheirNames campaign, the names of 26 black men and women murdered, mostly by police, in recent years were read aloud, with a pause between each name so it could be repeated by participants. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. The list went on in solemn cadence.
“We will say their names, and we will use Jewish ritual to remember them and to see the lost humanity,” Booth declared.
Most of the hourlong gathering, however, was given over to Pastor Smith, who made an impassioned plea for American Jews to be allies to the black community. It’s a long process, he explained, and it takes real work. Uncomfortable work.
First, he said, get educated. “Read about the black experience in America,” he said. “Once you start educating yourselves, you will see the complexities. The answers are not always that simple.”
Then, he said, stand together with those who are protesting. “The only way we can honor the work these young people are doing in the street is to stand behind them,” he said. “This is a generation that is eager to go to the streets. They are leading us.”
Calling out to those in the virtual gathering whom he recognized from his trips to Israel, Smith smiled, saying; “One of the things I admire about the Jewish community is your ability to create advocacy, to go to government and get things done. We need your advocacy at this moment.”
Remember, he told the crowd, “the same white supremacists who oppose the black community will [work against] the Jewish community. Our interests are aligned.”