In an extraordinary display of unity, a broad cross-section of American Jewish organizations have joined to declare this coming Shabbat, beginning the evening of Friday, June 26 and ending the evening of June 27, to be a “Shabbat of solidarity with the African-American community.” In light of the horrific act of violence in Charleston, South Carolina, leaders across the North American Jewish community are asking their members to participate in this Sabbath of solidarity.
Among the suggested actions for rabbis, congregations and organizations, are to speak out in synagogues this coming Shabbat on the issue of racism in society and to express rejection of hateful extremism. All rabbis and congregations are encouraged to reach out to AME churches in their communities with expressions and demonstrations of support.
So would it surprise you to learn that our synagogue is not participating?
Solidarity is defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group.” It would indeed be important for our own synagogue community to come together in a feeling of unity about our rejection of hateful extremism. And it certainly is nice that a large cross-section of the Jewish community is showing displaying unity about something! The solidarity we sorely need, however (and especially here in Rockland County), is the solidarity between our communities. This solidarity can only happen beyond the walls of our synagogue – not on a Sabbath, when we are far less likely to extend an open invitation to our brothers and sisters from across the spectrum of religions to a 2- or 3-hour service. It must happen during the week, in the synagogues, churches, mosques and streets. It must happen in places where we can all speak the languages of our own prayers at the same time, wear our particularity, share our melodies, join hands in a unified chorus, be identified clearly for who we are, and be seen just as clearly for what we advocate.
On Sunday night, at the First Baptist Church of Spring Valley, nearly a quarter of the crowd of 200 who came together to pray for the victims and their families was Jewish. We stood, we held hands, we watched people sway and cry out in devotion, and we cried ourselves (okay, at least Nancy and I did) at the sight of gratitude trumping hatred and God’s love overcoming retribution. The four rabbis sitting in the congregation were asked to rise, be acknowledged and join the ministers and choir on the stage. And the largely African-American crowd cheered when Rabbi Ariel Russo was invited as a female rabbi – something many of the Spring Valley residents had never seen – to offer words of blessing. I was grateful that my sons experienced something so transformative in their teens; it was so apparent how moved they were. They learned the true meaning of solidarity, and I believe they will never be the same for the experience.
On Monday night, at Spring Valley’s Memorial Park, hundreds gathered to demand a vote on legislation that would bring state oversight to the embattled school district of East Ramapo. One of our congregants consciously chose to wear his kippah. He wanted to be certain he would be identified in the crowd as a Jew standing for the values we cherish as Jews. We marched through the streets of Spring Valley – young and old, black and white, Christian and Jewish. It was so apparent how moved his thirteen year-old son was to be a part of the experience, and to be acknowledged by so many for being a Jewish person willing to step up for a cause.
Whether our prayer vigil effected change or our legislative efforts in the short run are successful, I believe we have established a new framework for future community relations. We have expressed our shared values in more than words. We have stood together for consideration, deliberation, transparency, education and tolerance. We have stood together against discrimination, extremism, and political favoritism. And at least in the minds of some, we have shattered stereotypes that have supported ignorance, suspicion and hatred.
Solidarity Shabbat? I say Solidarity Sunday to Friday. And on Shabbat, all will be One.
Rabbi Craig Scheff