Culture, Global, Identity, Justice, Politics, Religion

From the depths I call to you

Editor’s Note: This post is the fourth in Jewschool’s series of reflections on Judaism, Jewish identity, race and the events in Ferguson. 
Maharat Rori Picker Neiss serves as the Director of Programming, Education, and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation in University City, MO. She is one of the first graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, a pioneering institution training Orthodox Jewish women to be spiritual leaders and halakhic (Jewish legal) authorities. 


I didn’t know who to call.


That was the thought that kept coming back to my mind. 
The world seemed to be going crazy around me. The war in Gaza had been raging in Israel, and as I struggled to find the words, to find the actions, to offer comfort to all those who were touched, and to offer solace to myself, the Jewish community mobilized. Statements came out from organizations across the political and religious spectrums. Rallies popped up in communities across the United States. Jewish organizations invited in speakers, created dialogue spaces, wrote op eds, and engaged in conversation in a public sphere.


And then, a young African American male was killed in Ferguson, MO by a police officer. Details of the events that had transpired were murky. Did Michael Brown have a gun? Did Officer Darren Wilson use excessive force? Was Michael Brown the victim of an institutional racism that pervaded our country, and pervaded the Ferguson police department? Was Darren Wilson going to become a victim of a media frenzy? All eyes seemed to turn to the St Louis area. Protesters took to the streets and remained there for months. People flowed in from other parts of the country to join in the actions. Some protests turned violent. People were injured. People were arrested. The police used pepper spray and tear gas. Images of broken glass and police in riot gear flooded the television screens.


I didn’t know who to call.


I wanted the Jewish community to mobilize. I wanted the Jewish community to respond. I wanted the Jewish community to stand up and say that we would not stand idly by as the blood of our brothers spilled into the streets. I wanted the Jewish community to say that we would not oppress the stranger, because we ourselves had been strangers. I wanted the Jewish community to say that we know what it means to be vilified in newspapers and in mass media and we would not allow others to endure the same fate. I wanted the Jewish community to say that whatever the particular details of what may have or may not have transpired between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, there is suffering in our community and we will work to help end that suffering.


I wanted the Jewish community to respond, but I realized I was the Jewish community. We were the Jewish community. It was my job to respond. It was our job to respond. But my voice alone is not the voice of the community. And I didn’t know who else to call.


I got into my car and I drove the six miles from my house to Ferguson. I did not know where to go when I got there. I drove through the streets. I saw schools and businesses, fast-food restaurants and libraries. I saw people driving home from work. I went to the local community center to see what I could offer, to meet the people, to listen to their stories. It was closed, reappropriated for the Red Cross and United Way to set up command centers. I drove back home, watching the neighborhood change over the course of the fifteen minutes in the car.


I spoke about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson from the pulpit. I said their names out loud. I talked about race. I wrote an op ed for a national Jewish newspaper. I went back to Ferguson when clergy called for peaceful protests. I linked arms with rabbis, pastors, priests and imams. Someone started to chant, “This is what democracy looks like!” and I joined in. Someone started to chant, “This is what theology looks like!” and I joined in. Someone started to chant, “Put the killer cop in jail!” and I remained silent.


People shared my op ed on Facebook. I was interviewed for a few news articles. Friends and colleagues called to thank me for my work. I felt disingenuous. I received more attention for a few actions than those who had been sitting on the streets for months trying to be heard. Without intending it, my voice was louder. But it still was not loud enough. And something was still broken.


And I am still not sure who to call.

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