Tag Archive | social justice

Do Not Stand Idly By…

For me, this was most definitely a first: a protest chant anchored in daf gemara (a page of Talmud). Rabbi Marcus Rubenstein, of Temple Sinai, Middletown, New York had gathered two hundred Jews and allies from the Orange County Hispanic community to protest inhumane conditions for incarcerated undocumented immigrants throughout the United States.


The Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Sanhedrin 73a asks, “From where is it derived that one who sees another drowning in a river or being dragged away by a wild animal or being attacked by bandits is obligated to save him? We learn it from: ‘You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother.’ (Vayikra 19:16).” Now Rabbi Rubenstein led us in chanting, “Lo Ta’amod” – “Do not stand.” Do not stand idly by. Do not stand for it!
With police protection and a designated area in which to meet, we stood at the edge of a field, up the road from the Orange County Detention Center which glowed eerily in the evening sunset. A volunteer protest band held our attention and kept us motivated. Rabbi Rubenstein had reached out to the Rockland community to invite us to join the protest. Four carloads of my congregants answered the call.


Why were we there?
For me, the answer is best provided in a famous quotation from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who asked, “What is a sin?” Heschel’s answer was, “The abuse of freedom. A failure to respond to God‘s challenge.”
This time in which we are living presents just such a challenge from God. How are we responding?
If all of us indeed are created in God’s image, then how can we bear to see children separated from parents and suffering alone? How can we read about overcrowded, hopeless conditions for incarcerated individuals? How can we hear that people are detained without representation and languish, with no clear path forward? We can no longer read the news and just turn the page with a sip of our coffee.
The inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants in our country is not about political party. It is not about ideology. It is about basic decency.
Anonymous emails and several comments on our synagogue Facebook page focus only on the political quagmire that surrounds the questions of immigrants, asylum seekers and borders. It is easy to use immigration issues for political posturing. American leaders on both sides of the aisle have been doing that for years. Meanwhile, human beings are suffering, human beings created in the image of God. While they keep talking, people in custody are languishing in untenable conditions.
I did not go to Goshen, New York to speak against Republicans or Democrats because this is an American problem. I did not go to speak against ICE who are charged with a problem they have no power to fix because this is a mess created by our government. I did not go to speak about a brand new problem because this situation has been building for more than a decade.
Heschel said that few are guilty, but all are responsible. I feel responsible. And so I went to the protest and brought my congregation along.
I went to the protest because it is time to stop wringing our hands. It is time to stop copying and re-posting to the echo chambers of our Facebook pages, waiting to count the “likes.”
I went to the protest because we are American citizens who have rights that are also obligations. In order to change impossible situations, every individual must exercise his and her right to claim a voice in our government.
I went to the protest to tell everyone that it is time to write and call our representatives as our consciences dictate and to do so in a non-stop persevering manner. We must demand that Congress act quickly and responsibly to address the crisis in the conditions of incarcerated undocumented immigrants.
In the Torah we read, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him… You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And in case we have any doubt, this statement is punctuated with: “I am the Lord your God.” (Vayikra 19:33 – 34)


Our leaders can disagree and debate about immigrants, borders, the asylum process. While they are busy talking, however, human beings are languishing. We must write letters. We must make phone calls. We must do so without stopping. We must make a loud noise, loud enough for our elected officials to stop posturing and start acting. Our noise must be loud enough for God to know that we are responding to God’s challenge.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

Marching Together, Alone

I’ve seen a couple movies recently that have moved me profoundly, so much so that they were sitting on my heart and in my head yesterday afternoon as I sat in the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Nyack, celebrating the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both films address the history of race relations, questions of identity, challenges to morality, and the ways in which American politics and society reflect these ongoing struggles.

Green Book and BlacKkKlansman tell the stories of two African Americans who confront racism, and who wrestle with the degree to which they will draw their own lines in the sand in pursuit of attaining their own personal goals. But in each story there is a white protagonist (one Italian, the other Jewish) who serves as a complementary role, but who undergoes an identity crisis and transformation of his own.

Most importantly, the fight against hatred, ignorance, oppression and marginalization has the potential to bring out the best in good people who share certain values. It is those shared values that enable them to overcome their other natural and nurtured differences, to march side by side, to learn from one another, to sympathize and empathize, to conquer biases and assumptions, to pursue shared goals despite approaching from different angles.

In advance of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, organizer Vanessa Wruble, a Jewish journalist, invited Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez (two activist women of color, for gun control and criminal justice reform, respectively) to be part of the leadership team that would organize the march. That first march, which was fueled by the response to the Election Day results, was a symbol of unity among women of all colors, the LGBTQ community, advocates of other social justice causes, and voices of progressive values in general.


In the wake of that first event, however, a rift developed within the leadership team. Mallory and Perez, along with Linda Sarsour (former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York), felt that Wruble could not be an effective leader of the march going forward given her status of white privilege and power, and that women of color would create a stronger coalition of voices from marginalized communities. At the same time, Wruble felt that she was a victim of anti-Semitism, being pushed out of the leadership because she was Jewish, and that the ties that Mallory, Perez and Sarsour had with pro-Palestinian causes, along with their connections to Louis Farrakhan, were strongly influencing the character of the coalitions they were seeking to establish.

Martin Luther King, Jr. seized upon the story of the Israelite journey from slavery to the Promised Land, which we read this weekend in synagogue, as a shared narrative between the Jewish and African American communities. He was vociferous in his support and admiration for the State of Israel. He did not marginalize the Jewish experience as one of privilege or power. “When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism,” he said, recognizing the tendency to label Israel advocates as oppressors. He saw the struggle for social and racial justice as a goal he shared with the Jewish leaders who marched at his side.
The rift within the Women’s March movement is, unfortunately, emblematic of the deteriorating state of relations between the Jewish non-Orthodox community and the larger progressive community.


As a rabbi and community leader, I have advocated for certain causes side by side and shoulder to shoulder with communal leaders who have shared my passion for those particular causes, though we may have stood opposite one another over other issues. I could overlook our differences, sometimes as admittedly with great difficulty and discomfort, for the sake of our shared goals and alliance in faith. I felt that sense of common purpose yesterday, sitting in a Nyack church, listening as pastors recited words of Torah.


There comes a point, however, where I cannot ally with those who subscribe to the opinions of haters. Holocaust deniers, conspiracy theorists and other dehumanizing anti-Semites, and those who offer a platform for their views, are beyond partnership. Marching side by side with disseminators of hate would be a denial of my identity, and an insult to those I consider my constituents and to the legacy of Dr. King, no matter the cause.

I will continue to work for change from within, to influence opinions from a place of engagement. But when social justice leaders and organizers succumb to ignorance and hate, forgetting the human dignity inherent in each of us beyond the narrow labels that may be assigned to us, I will choose to march separate and apart. And, if necessary, alone.

Rabbi Craig Scheff
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