Local rabbis join other faith leaders to condemn racism on Juneteenth
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Local rabbis join other faith leaders to condemn racism on Juneteenth

Public demonstration brings area clergy and community members together to call for change

Dee and Walt Kochirka, of the South Hills, traveled to Hazelwood to celebrate Juneteenth. Photo by Adam Reinherz
Dee and Walt Kochirka, of the South Hills, traveled to Hazelwood to celebrate Juneteenth. Photo by Adam Reinherz

Local clergy and community members gathered at Hazelwood Green, on the corner of Second and Hazelwood Ave, to decry systemic racism, acknowledge Juneteenth and promote activism.

The June 19 event was organized by Rev. Tim Smith, CEO of the community empowerment organization Center of Life, and featured speakers from diverse backgrounds who collectively signaled the need to support Black lives.

“We come together today as the community of faith in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of four police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and to encourage people of faith everywhere to step forward to speak out and take action,” said Smith. “Today we stand together to say unequivocally that Black lives matter.”

“I'm here to stand together with Tim and the community to say that Black lives matter,” echoed Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director of the Aleph Institute – North East Region. “Every human being is important. We're all made in the image of God, and when a human being is killed it is a part of God that's taken. Therefore, we've got to do whatever we can to give everyone the resources, and especially at a time like this when we're all mourning Mr. Floyd who was taken, we're here to say, ‘Black lives matter.’"

Pastor June Jeffries addresses attendees. Photo by Adam Reinherz

“The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh stands unequivocally in solidarity with the Black community against police brutality and all forms of systemic, structural racism,” said Josh Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council.

“I’m proud to stand here as a representative of the Jewish community with faith partners and law enforcement officials on the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth.”

First celebrated in Texas in 1865, Juneteenth is a holiday that commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the United States.

“When I lived in Texas more than two decades, ago I learned that Juneteenth is a really big deal in Texas,” said Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom. “I'm glad that it's a big deal now on the national stage. Emancipation, like revelation, is also an ongoing thing. We have to continue to work toward that. We have to continue to try to fulfill the words that Pastor Tim mentioned earlier, the quotation from Leviticus, ‘v'ahavta l'reacha kamocha, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah at Beth Shalom, noted that in recent weeks, through dialogue and participation in other demonstrations, his understanding of racism has evolved.

“There was a pastor who spoke at the interfaith clergy gathering at Freedom Square, maybe two weeks ago and he spoke about his experience going for a run,” recalled Markiz.

The speaker’s comments didn’t merely address what it feels like to run as a Black person, but all of the thoughts that must be entertained prior to going to exercise, continued Markiz.

The speaker went through a whole checklist of “whether or not he should bring his children, whether he should wear headphones, whether or not he should run versus walk, whether or not he should wave to his neighbors.” Hearing all of the “trauma that that constantly is triggering was something I hadn't heard so viscerally and it impacted me very deeply.”

Rabbi Seth Adelson addresses attendees. Photo by Adam Reinherz

In recent weeks, there has been a recognizable shift in understanding on a collective and personal level, explained Pastor June Jeffries of New Life Baptist Church.

While driving to the June 19 event, Jeffries began thinking differently about racism and came to the conclusion that “racism is a sickness,” she said. “It's a sickness that has been so long hidden that when it became exposed many people [became] uncomfortable.” There were some who said, “I will remain sick and die sick before I admit that I've been sick or that I've been wrong,’” and there are others who will say, “‘Wow, that's revelation. It is sick to have no good reason to dislike other people by the faces of the color of their skin. It is sick to say that you have better rights and entitlements than other people by the nature of the color of their skin. It is sick to be raised up in a house where you are taught that you have entitlement and privilege based on the nature of the color of your skin.’”

“You can't legislate love but there's times people have a heart and do the right things,” said Smith, before introducing Commander Daniel Hermann of Pittsburgh Police Zone 4.

“Commander Hermann has demonstrated here in our community that he wants to see the right thing happen. He doesn't come with all the answers but he comes to support, and he keeps his promise, and this has been so important to us.”

Hermann told the attendees that he was merely there to observe, but noted, “We do what our community asks, and we do it in the best and most professional and humane way possible.”

Rabbi Ron Symons, of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Center for Loving Kindness, said that he was humbled to join with others “in the quest to identify, address, abolish and reform the systems at work in Pittsburgh that cause the continued discrimination and marginalization of Black people. I stand in optimistic hope that this moment is a moment that will bring the ultimate change that we all know needs to happen.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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