Local Jewish leaders reflect on the death of George Floyd
Fighting RacismCommunity voices

Local Jewish leaders reflect on the death of George Floyd

Reflections and suggestions on how to move forward

Marchers at the front of an interfaith demonstration in Chicago remembering George Floyd and protesting systemic racism, June 2, 2020. (Courtesy of Ari Hart)
Marchers at the front of an interfaith demonstration in Chicago remembering George Floyd and protesting systemic racism, June 2, 2020. (Courtesy of Ari Hart)

George Floyd’s death has animated the fight against racism across the globe — including in our own community. In the wake of Floyd’s killing while being arrested in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, there have been protests and demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, calls for defunding police and a range of directives from national and international voices on how best to show allyship with people of color.

The Chronicle checked in with some leaders of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and asked them to share their reflections and suggestions on race relations and how to move forward.

Rabbi Amy Bardack, director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh
I believe that each of us who feels committed to combatting systemic racism should take the time to reflect on how to be an effective ally. For some, protesting feels right, while for others, that may not be possible due to COVID-19 or other concerns. Action can take many forms, such as writing letters to local officials, supporting black-owned businesses or donating to nonprofits that address inequities. For me personally, learning as much as I can about the issues, and then speaking with friends and family about what I have learned, is a top priority.

Rabbi Amy Bardack
Rabbi Amy Bardack (File photo)

I have found the following resources to be an important part of my education on systemic racism:
● The documentary film “13th” by Ava DuVernay;
● “Eloquent Rage” by Brittney Cooper;
● The episode “American Police” on NPR’s Throughline podcast;
● “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander;
● “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates;
● The episode “A Decade of Watching Black People Die” on the podcast Code Switch.

I have been part of a group of Pittsburgh-based African-American and Jewish leaders who meet together to find common ground. From these colleagues, I have learned about some effective programs in our city such as Voices Against Violence, a nonprofit which supports community-based conflict mediation and street intervention to prevent violence among youth in Pittsburgh. Programs like that give me hope that we can envision new, restorative ways to create safety and peace in all communities.

Zack Block, outgoing executive director of Repair the World Pittsburgh
In the past two weeks, we watched police officers snuff George Floyd’s breath and life away and a white woman report Christian Cooper to the police simply for asking her to put her dog on a leash in an area where dogs were required to be on leashes. Just weeks before these most recent events, Ahmaud Arbery’s murder by two vigilantes while jogging in plain daylight rose to national awareness.

Zack Block
Zack Block (File photo)

It is my status as a white Ashkenhazi Jew that requires me to confront my privilege, my white fragility and continue to build my empathy beyond my own lived experiences. According to the Torah, we are all created in G-d’s image. Therefore, we have a shared humanity regardless of race, class, sex, or any other identity. We must work to be an authentic ally and in solidarity with all communities, and at this moment, the black community is at the forefront of our work.

Authentic allyship and the commitment to anti-racism is very hard work, but it is the work we must do to help usher in the change that our society so desperately needs. What’s more, this hard work must be incorporated into all of the other work we do as professionals, parents, partners, children, community members and friends. For those of us who are entrusted to represent others through our work, the task feels that much more difficult. We cannot back away from this work, especially now.

To begin to truly understand what it means to be anti-racist, we must first understand that it is OK to feel uncomfortable. It is OK to make mistakes. We will say something wrong or post something inappropriate. And when we do, we must be open to the possibility that we have more work to do to understand how to get it right. We must recognize the error of our ways, make amends and try again to do and be better.

As for me, I make a lot of mistakes as I grow to understand how to be an ally to our black communities, including black Jews. My work is not close to being done, and I commit to keep working. As author and civil rights activist James Baldwin stated, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Will you take this journey to face racism with me? I urge us to call on our legislators to arrest and prosecute all people, including police officers, responsible for crimes against black people. I urge all of us to donate to bail funds in our communities. I urge us to work toward criminal justice reform. I urge us to work to build authentic relationships with people who have different identities than we do. Please do not settle for the status quo. Join me in facing racism and making the changes we need to become an equitable society.

Andi Fischhoff, long-time member of the social action committee at Congregation Dor Hadash
Reflecting on these last weeks, I ask how we in the Jewish community can reach out to leaders and activists in the African American community to work together to amplify their voices, to create just, equitable systems — in employment, education, health, housing — that benefit everyone. The steady increase in hate crimes across the country makes it clear that none of us — African Americans, immigrants and refugees, Muslims, Jews — is safe unless we are all safe, and we must all look out for one another.

Andi Fischhoff (Photo provided by Andi Fischhoff)

I’ve had an opportunity over the last eight years to volunteer with Center of Life, an economic empowerment organization, in Hazelwood. Engaging with staff at Center of Life has challenged my thinking and deepened my understanding of what it means to be African American in this country. I’d recommend that people seek opportunities like this, leaving their neighborhood and engaging in a sustained way with an organization in another community.

Dor Hadash has joined Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network. Organizations like PIIN bring diverse constituencies together to effect change. Finally, finding ways to show up to support one another at very distressing times like these is hugely meaningful – thinking of how the African American, Muslim, and refugee communities came together to support the Jewish community after the attack at Tree of Life. The Jewish community, including Dor Hadash, was invited to participate in memorial services in Larimer and the Hill last year to honor a police officer who was killed in Homewood while trying to calm a neighborhood fight. These are examples of how we can change the way we think about one another.

Keshira haLev Fife, founder and leader of Kesher Pittsburgh
The word on my mind these days is “paradox” because I’m seeing it everywhere. Staying home is a sacred act of love and it is incumbent upon us to take to the streets. Some people are outraged by recent events and others shake their heads because this is nothing new. People say that “change is slow” and change is happening before our eyes. Folks are realizing their fragility and folks are realizing their strength. We are remembering that we can be bold and courageous in our messages and we can speak with love and care.

Keshira haLev Fife (Photo by Tiger Webb, Australian Broadcast Corporation)

Sarah Yehudit Schneider teaches that when we feel the tension of paradox, it’s an invitation to look more deeply for the truth. For a little word, the “and” holds so much.

The paradox that I am holding as true right now is that we are deeply broken and we are entirely whole. The truth inside this is that the world is not binary and that we are capable of being with nuance. And it is our sacred duty to be with it, even when it’s uncomfortable or hard.

Actions I’m taking:
As a Jew of color, I occupy a particular space in which I’m simultaneously working in solidarity and supporting black beloveds and I’m also experiencing racism in real and palpable ways. My voice is being marginalized and centered. What I’m doing can’t be summarized easily – but I’ll highlight three things:

First, I’m taking care of myself and I’m encouraging my friends of color to do the same. Caring for ourselves is an act of resistance which says “my body matters and it’s worth caring for” in a culture that acts otherwise.

Secondly, I’m listening deeply to black leadership, doing my best to amplify the messages that I’m hearing and continuing to take action even when I know it’s not perfect.

Third, I’m reminding myself and anyone who will listen: Someday those yet unborn will ask, “Did you know what was happening? What did you do?” And I’m holding this prayer: May it be that we can honestly respond “We knew that we’d never be able to do enough, but that didn’t stop us from trying.”

Sara Stock Mayo (File photo)
Sara Stock Mayo, member of Bend the Arc: Pittsburgh
The Jewish community of Pittsburgh needs to reach out to Jews of color in a meaningful way. Their voices need to be at the center of this conversation. If we want to do this work going forward, we must address this issue from within our own community in addition to just looking outward. This work is about dismantling white supremacy and other systems of oppression, which we Ashkenazi, white-passing Jews benefit from. We can be leaders from within our own community by decentering ourselves and building real, lasting relationships of care, concern and action beyond the protests. We must become accomplices rather than simply allies.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers (Photo by Mike Weiss)
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, rabbi at Tree of Life
I think that it is crucial to listen to the black community, and not dare to suggest what we should be doing. While my faith has always impelled me to help all people, the loving response of the black community to the massacre at the Tree of Life demands an even more loving and active response.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, rabbi at New Light Congregation
The Jewish community needs to educate itself on racism. They need to understand how black people became the underclass after 256 years of slavery and how that condition persists today even after many government attempts to provide for increased civil rights. The community needs to replicate more twinning programs like we have done at New Light with the Rodman Baptist Church.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman is working with the support of JF&CS to establish a community chaplaincy program.	Photo by Toby Tabachnick
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

I believe that as Jews, we have prophetic call against injustice. I found my voice long ago in attending Peabody High School in East Liberty and rubbing shoulders with African American students. I am color blind in a way that generations before me were not. My most favorite recent memory was learning the Book of Proverbs with my shul members and Rodman Baptist Church for nearly two years. We have a lot in common. They call me “our rabbi.”

My response to our current crisis: More police reform and community alliances with police.

Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, director of the Lubavitch Center of Pittsburgh
In the aftermath of the racial tensions, following the death of George Floyd, I have, perhaps more than ever before, found myself asking “What would the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson o.b.m. say?”

The good news is, I don’t have to guess.

Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld
Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld (File photo)

Two recurring themes that the Rebbe spoke about at many of his large televised gatherings were: a) the critical importance of establishing a “moment of silence” in every public school to contemplate the basic reality of G-d’s existence; and b) the importance of sharing with the gentile world “the seven laws of Noah,” G-d’s moral code for all humanity as delineated in the Torah.

The Rebbe maintained that we cannot expect to raise a G-dless generation to be good, decent, upstanding citizens. We need to introduce G-d to our children and our families so that they will live lives of meaning, purpose, and morality. As the Rebbe so often said: They’ll behave decently and honestly not because of policemen who they can outsmart, but because “There’s an Eye that Sees, and an Ear that Hears…” G-d is in charge, and He expects all of us to conform to His code of decent, moral behavior. All 7 billion of us!

During the past two centuries, society had taken giant leaps of progress in terms of science and technology. We’ve done extraordinary things in our role as “partners” with our Creator.

But sadly, we have not protected G-d’s timeless moral truths.

Let these most recent unfortunate events be a wake-up call to each of us, and through us to those around us, that we need more G-d in our lives, not less. We should unapologetically share with our neighbors about God’s expectations of us: that we live up to the Divinely mandated standards of morality, decency, honesty and respect for all people as truly created equal in His Divine image.

Josh Sayles, director of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh
In connecting with black friends, colleagues, and community partners over the last several weeks, I’ve noticed a striking parallel between their emotional states during the protests over police brutality and my emotional state shortly after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. When trying to be a friend or ally, I approach with the mindset: “What were my needs and what were the Jewish community’s needs in the weeks after the shooting?” And I adjust from there.

Josh Sayles (Photo by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh)

Two weeks ago several colleagues and I published an op-ed in the Forward titled, “Dear Jewish Community: Here’s What to Do Now.” We offered four ways in which the Jewish community should step up. I’d like to emphasize the first two:
● Follow the lead of black organizers. Just as our Jewish community gets to determine how we understand anti-Semitism and how we want our partners to respond, so too those who are most impacted by these (police brutality) policies must have our support in defining the response.
● Listen to and lift up the voices of Jews of color. The Jewish community is not separate from the fight for racial equity because the fight for racial equity includes cherished members of our Jewish community.

Beyond that, the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has been very busy. We issued a statement condemning police brutality and the death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. We launched a public campaign for the 412 Black Jewish Collaborative, which has existed since February 2019 and whose mission is to “catalyze and elevate Black and Jewish relations” in our region. We are regularly in touch with our black community partners and are standing with them in solidarity and working to get their organizations resources they need. And we have compiled a list of resources to help interested members of the Jewish community learn how to be allies.

Rabbi Barbara Symons, rabbi at Temple David
What happened to George Floyd is tragic but sadly in these times not unexpected. Perhaps now, finally, all of our eyes will be opened to the systemic racism that exists, and, hopefully, deniability will become not only unacceptable but pointless.

Rabbi Barbara Symons (File photo)

Through guidance from our Reform Movement and collaboration with the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium, we are trying to hear the voices of black Americans and follow their lead — especially those with whom we have already built relationships — and are working toward: an anti-racist curriculum; reading “White Fragility; conversations based on black Jews’ voices; inviting candidates for office to share what they will do to fight racism (and other -isms); a panel discussion on religious reactions to racism and more. PJC

Kayla Steinberg can be reached at ksteinberg@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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