Civil rights discussion provides centerpiece at Hillel gathering here

Rabbi Saul Berman speaks with Nathan Rosin of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel and other students during the Hillel Institute panel discussion at Washington University on Aug. 13. Photo: Jonathan Heisler/Hillel International

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Just days before protests, tear gas and gunfire returned to Ferguson, Hillel hosted a panel discussion on civil rights as part of its international conference at Washington University.

“I am an African-American Jewish woman who lives among you as your sister,” Yavilah McCoy told an auditorium of students during last Thursday’s event, part of the annual Hillel Institute. “You are my sisters and brothers and I need you.”

McCoy, founder of Ayecha, an organization promoting diversity and the interests of Jews of color, was one of three panelists who spoke to the crowd. She was joined by Rabbi Susan Talve, founder of Central Reform Congregation, and Rabbi Saul Berman, associate professor of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University.

Berman described his experiences in Selma, Ala., during civil rights protests in that city five decades ago. He remembered being arrested and led onto a bus where he spoke with a police officer guarding him.

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“He looked like a very pleasant young person and I said to him, ‘I’m sure that you really don’t want to be doing this,’” the rabbi recalled, “to which his response was ‘I would rather kill you and burn in hell than have to listen to your [expletive]’ at which point he swung his baton at me missing my ear — I assume, intentionally — by a fraction of an inch smashing the baton into the back of the seat in front of me knocking that person out of his seat. It was not a pleasant or a safe time for anyone.”

Berman said his group eventually met with leaders of Selma’s small Jewish community and were surprised when they were asked by their fellow Jews to leave town. The visiting rabbis asked why.

“They said, you don’t understand,” he recalled. “There is so much Jewish presence here in Selma that the non-Jewish community is blaming us for all of the riots and demonstrations going on.”

The Selma Jews said their shops were already being boycotted by blacks and now whites were becoming reluctant to shop there as well. Berman said his group responded by invoking earlier events in Europe.

“We, the Jewish community have been saying that the responsibility for the Holocaust lies not only with the Nazis and the SS,” he said. “It lies with the citizens of those countries that refused to stand up against their own leaders and government when there was violence against Jews. So what do you want us to say now? Are we now to say that those people were right?”

Talve said she’d been inspired as a young person by the stories she’d heard from places like Selma. 

“I wonder as we were listening to Rabbi Berman, did you find yourself wondering where you would have been, which side you would have been on because the Jewish community was clearly split as it is today,” she asked the audience. 

Talve then spoke regarding her experiences in Ferguson, where she has active with local clergy in supporting the protestors. 

She said media coverage of events there was inaccurate, explaining she was critical of people she felt focused on stories of looting and destruction.

“We kept saying that if you are more upset about your property damage which is what those other white Jews were saying, then that becomes more important than the taking of lives,” she said. “We call that idolatry in our tradition.”

She said that she was glad to have founded her congregation in the city and was pleased it had long played a role in issues of racial disparity, noting differences in unemployment and the rate of low-birth weight babies just one ZIP code away from Washington University.

She told the assembly that efforts to change things would often be met with resistance.

“That’s what it means to be a Jew,” she said. “It means that you have to be constantly changing the world. People who like the way the world is get annoyed with you.”

McCoy, the only African-American panelist, got the biggest applause lines of the night as she gave an impassioned talk in which she urged the audience to join her in common cause.

 “We are not in a racial justice moment. We are in the middle of a racial justice movement,” she said. “There are lives that are at stake this moment, every single day.”

She said she worries her son might get stopped by police as he walks back from synagogue in a white neighborhood.

“Even though I pay taxes, even though I am a leader, even though I have advocated for justice every day of my life, I still have to wonder, will my sons make it home from shul?” she said. “That is a Jewish cause, my people.”

She said that the next generation is finding it increasingly easy to understand the experiences of black people through social media.

“You can see it by watching YouTube,” she said. “You can see it by reading your Twitter account. You can see it by clicking on your friends on Facebook. I don’t have to testify. You can see it for yourself.”

McCoy compared the experience to the advent of television, which also brought new images home to people during the era of Selma. 

“In those days, those hearts shifted,” she said. “Not all of them. But many hearts shifted because their eyes were opened.”

She asked attendees to consider their own relationships in life and their social circle.

“I want you to think about who you know, who you don’t know and why,” she said.

She said told participants that when an event happens, they shouldn’t “go to the intellectual place” but learn to empathize instead.

“We know how to think,” she said. “Do we know how to feel?”

The event ended with audience questions and Talve and McCoy joining one another in song. Several members of the crowd spontaneously led the auditorium in chants of “Black Lives Matter.”

Sheila Katz, vice-president of social entrepreneurship for Hillel International, said many of the eight-day institute’s themes revolved around inclusion.

“It has really peaked tonight with all the civil rights activists talking about what it means not only for us to embrace students who are Jewish and who are black, but really to embrace people of all backgrounds in our Jewish community,” she said. 

She said about 600 students and staff were on campus for the institute, which wrapped up earlier this week.