Rabbi Amy Eilberg and the Rev. Debra Murray
Rabbi Amy Eilberg, left, with the Rev. Debra Murray, who has been targeted for supporting Black Lives Matter. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Jewish leaders rally around Black Palo Alto pastor facing harassment

Members of the Peninsula Jewish community participated in an interfaith vigil Aug. 29 in solidarity with a Black pastor in Palo Alto who has been threatened for publicly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

Representatives from three nearby congregations (Etz Chayim, Kol Emeth and Beth Am) and staff from Kehillah Jewish High School, along with dozens of leaders and members of other faith communities, showed their support for the Rev. Debra Murray by circumambulating her church, First United Methodist Church, in downtown Palo Alto. Many wore stickers and held signs with the words “Surround the city with light & love.”

“Our hope for today was not to dismantle racism,” Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a friend of Murray’s who helped organize the vigil, told J. “We didn’t have the power to do that in one day. But this was an occasion for the community to stand up and say, no, we do not believe that that’s what our community is about.”

In an email publicizing the vigil, Eilberg wrote that someone claiming to be from the Asian American and Pacific Islander community left posters at Murray’s house blaming BLM for stoking hatred against Asian people and threatening retribution. Also, BLM signs in front of her home have repeatedly been defaced, as have others around the city in recent months, according to Eilberg, who is active with the community organization Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice.

Murray told J. she has reported the incidents to police but has not given interviews because, she said, “I don’t want the hate amplified. I just want this love and these loving relationships amplified.” (Last week, a leader of the Proud Boys extremist group was sentenced to five months in jail for his role in burning a Washington, D.C. church’s Black Lives Matter banner, as well as for carrying high-capacity ammunition magazines.)

In brief remarks during the vigil, Murray said, “I am overwhelmed. I cherish you so much, and I see God in each and every one of you, and I feel the positive spirit of love and light.”

Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills attended the vigil with his 7-year-old son, Ezra. “At my core, I believe that an attack on one community of faith, one person of faith, is an attack on all communities,” he said. “Palo Alto does not have a large Black population. Los Altos doesn’t, either. And so this is why we need to stand up.”

Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit and son Ezra
Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills at the vigil with his 7-year-old son, Ezra. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

He noted that Murray has shown solidarity with the Jewish community during difficult times, such as after the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. “We have this nice, core group of clergy that rally and support one another often,” he said. “This is part of what we do.”

In addition to the vigil, a letter was circulated online and signed by local clergy, including several rabbis who live and work on the Peninsula.

The letter reads in part: “Unfortunately, this attack was not an isolated incident, but one of a series of recent hate crimes, building on a long-standing pattern of racial hate and exclusion directed at people of color in Palo Alto. We unequivocally condemn all acts of emotional, institutional, or physical violence directed at any member of the African American or Asian American communities in Palo Alto. We reject false narratives about the dangers of BLM and all attempts to pit people of color against one another in our ongoing commitment to antiracism.”

One signatory was Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, rabbi emeritus at Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. “There is a dark side, probably, of every community, and to stand up against it resolutely is really important,” he said in an interview at the vigil. Over the years, both Muslims and Jews have been targeted for abuse in the area, he noted. “When there’s something like this, we just have to be vigilant.”

Rabbi Jeremy Morrison, Beth Am’s senior rabbi, said it was cathartic to gather with others after many months of isolation due to the pandemic. Asked about the hesitancy of some members of the Jewish community to back Black Lives Matter due to some vocal pro-Palestinian segments of the movement, he replied, “It’s essentially a label for the civil rights movement, and I think we have a responsibility to respond to structural racism in this country. We as Jews have the capacity to do that, and the power to do that. And I think it’s our responsibility to utilize that power.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.