[Ferguson, Missouri — We are honored to share with you a close-in report and spiritual assessment of events there by Rabbi Susan Talve, who has been taking part in marches and healings in Ferguson. She is the spiritual leader of Central Reform Congregation in the City of St Louis . CRC is the only synagogue that has chosen to stay in the city to face and respond to all its problems of poverty, despair, racism, oppression — and to help ferment the bubbling-up of hope against all reasonable expectation. When Roman Catholic women sought a sacred space to be ordained as priests despite the official rules, Rabbi Talve and her synagogue stood with them. In 2013 T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights honored her as a Human Rights Hero. — AW, Editor]
Standing on the steps of the Old Court House in St Louis the night before the funeral of Michael Brown, many who have been on the front line of the protests stopped marching and chanting, and prayed quietly for his family and for the families of so many black men who have been shot by police.
In that very place where Dred Scott sued for his freedom and was denied his citizenship and his humanity by our legal system in 1857, we remembered that the next morning, Michael would not be a cause, but the son of a family who would have to bury their child.
We stood in silence standing on the very ground that witnessed the Dred Scott case, feeling the legacy of slavery and wondering if the exposure of the disparities of Ferguson had to happen here to redeem the shame of that decision so many generations ago.
Standing with Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy, I thought of how the story of Abraham, Sara and Hagar tried to teach us that if we were willing to sacrifice the child of Hagar, (Ha-ger, the “other,” in Hebrew) then, in the next moment we would find ourselves sacrificing our own children.
Michael Brown’s death and his mother’s grief touched the nerve that shot across the racial geographic and economic divides of our region. Enough of us got the message that a threat to our children anywhere is a threat to our children everywhere. The gun violence was crossing the divide, and it was time for us to do more than talk.
At one of the first community services after the shooting, I was asked to give a prayer for the Brown family. I offered up the story of Nachshon who at the Red Sea wearied of listening to Moses pray for God’s assistance. — So Nachshon jumped into the Sea, to part the waters that would open the road to freedom and bring the promise of a new paradigm of equality that would level the playing field for all.
I added that what really parted the waters was all the people jumping in to save him. Not just his parents and those who knew him, but all of the people risking their lives for that one child.
We have been living under the illusion of separation in America. Two Americas, two St. Louis-es, two Fergusons. We are divided by gender, race, and class. Driving while black, shopping while black, just walking in the street while black, is a crime in many municipalities across the country. Talk to any parent of a black male and they will tell you about the “talk.” everyone has with their child. “Keep your head down, be polite, don’t run from the police and lose the attitude.”
It will take all of us to change this culture, all of us to challenge racial profiling and the poison of racism and economic disparities that sicken all of us.
And there is but one fragile degree of separation between us. On Shabbat afternoon I marched in Ferguson to lift up the voice of the wonderful young people who have emerged to keep the peace on the streets as only they can.
I marched with a tall black 16-year-old who lives in Ferguson and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah and confirmation at our synagogue, Central Reform Congregation.
As we were marching together, I heard a shout-out from the side of the road. It was a white ex-marine St. Louis City police officer who had come to help keep the peace. For a moment I thought, what had I done?
“Rabbi Talve! Don’t you remember me? You did my Bar Mitzvah!”
So there I was marching between two young men who shared common ground in Torah, one a kid of color from Ferguson who just wants to get back to school and the other a police officer whose job it is to keep him safe. These relationships are what blurs the lines of separation and will eventually help us to change the culture of profiling and militarized policing.
Every week the Torah portions have been guiding us. The Shabbat of the shooting, V’etchanan, we read about Moses pleading to enter the land. “Rav lach, It’s plenty for you, enough already!” God tells Moses.
“Don’t think about what you don’t have but what you have. It is enough!” Let go of the illusion of scarcity. In the land there will be enough for everyone if we remember to “Shema,” to listen to the Unity within the diversity. Just as Moses readied us to turn the leadership over to Joshua and the next generation, just so we supported the black youth who shaped the protest.
They did their best to keep the peace, to keep us safe on the streets with the protests by directing traffic and giving out water — and now they are focused on registering everyone they can to vote. They have been awakened, and we pray that their empowerment will bring a change to business as usual.
The next week we studied the portion “Ekev” and were challenged to be warned that when we enter the land we will depend too much on her plenty. We will forget that true satisfaction comes from within and from remembering where we came from, and that the way to peace is through gratitude and service to others.
The text is worried that the wheat, the barley, the pomegranate, figs, olive oil, and date honey will spoil us — but the answer is not to deny us these wonderful delights. The answer is to bless them, because without the blessing, without remembering they all come from a Unity of which we are a part but only a part, there is no chance for the ultimate “savata,” the ultimate filling up inside so that we are ready to overflow love and kindness and compassion whenever we possibly can. We learn we can be satisfied without being complacent.
“Ekev” is a strange term, it can mean “when” but comes from the root for “heel” suggesting that something is coming soon. Live this way because you may be the generation that is on the heels of the messiah, that may bring the age of peace. Everything you do matters, even the little things that fall under your heel that you don’t think are important. Showing up to be one more body to march, to bring food, to read to the children in the library, to mentor.
We vowed on that Shabbat that we would go to Ferguson, to frequent the businesses that have been struggling through the riots. One of our members who is in a wheel chair said that she couldn’t march but she could go and eat each lunch at a restaurant struggling to stay open. Another woman found a hair salon in Ferguson to get her hair cut, and was the only customer that day. These acts matter and may tip the scales. The teachings of Torah pushed us out of the synagogue and out of our comfort zones, to pray with our legs.
And we were ready for the next portion that challenged us to “Re-eh,” to see without our vision being obscured by false assumptions, stereotypes and beliefs — to see that we can have the vision to choose the blessing over the curse. In St. Louis the truth has been stripped bare and we are seeing beyond the illusions of the worlds of separation and being called to experience the world of unity, as Rabbi Heschel says, the radical monism where we realize that the world of separation abides within the world of unity.
Then we remember that these children being profiled and endangered by the ravages of poverty and discrimination are — all of them — our children. And we realize that we all have an opportunity to do something extraordinary with this challenge.
And as we pray for a just trial of course the portion is Shoftim, the call to appoint judges who will deal fairly with all people. We meet the words “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, — Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Reminding us that there must not be two Fergusons, or two Americas any longer.
And so we will continue to take on the challenge of racism and antisemitism and all the ism’s that plague us –
and use what we have to be part of the solution. We will use the energy unleashed as an opportunity to pass the legislation needed to stop the profiling, to train police, to control the guns and welcome the immigrants, to raise the minimum wage and provide jobs and job training and do all the things we know we need to do to heal the divide.
And we here in St. Louis challenge all of America to find YOUR Ferguson, find that sleepy suburb that is ready to erupt, and jump in together to save all our children.