CRC receives social action award for Ferguson activism

From left, Margaret Phillips, Rabbi Susan Talve and Rev. Melissa Bennett, stand across from the Ferguson police station Monday night, about an hour after tear gas had been released to disperse protesters. Photo: Philip Deitch 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Normally, receiving an award is a happy affair but as Maryland’s largest city descended into violence Monday night, one might forgive Rabbi Susan Talve for striking a somber tone.

“Tomorrow, I’m hoping to take a group of clergy to Baltimore in solidarity with the people who have been marching in protest after the killing of Freddie Gray,” said Talve during a phone interview with the Light. She was in Washington D.C. where she was attending the Consultation on Conscience event.

By ironic coincidence, she was also in the nation’s capital to accept a Fain Award from the Religious Action Center on behalf of her congregation for its work in social justice during the tumult in Ferguson last year. That mix of protests and violence was reminiscent of what is now plaguing Baltimore.

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Central Reform Congregation won the recognition for a variety of programs and activities related to supporting the protestors and working for social change in the troubled St. Louis suburb. According to congregational spokeswoman Jennifer Bernstein, the temple is set to host upcoming events on “truthtelling” and “reconciliation” featuring panelists from marginalized communities.

“Our rabbis have served as ambassadors to the community as part of the movement,” she said. “We’ve kind of become a go-to congregation when people want to hear about Jewish perspectives on Ferguson.”

Bernstein said CRC has received a Fain Award, named for social justice advocate Irving Fain, before for its work on various issues.

“We’re just really honored and humbled,” she said.

Rachel Laser, deputy director of the RAC, which is Reform Judaism’s social action arm, said CRC’s program of keeping its doors open all night as a sanctuary for the public during the evening of the Michael Brown grand jury decision last year was among the reasons the congregation was chosen.

“They really felt moved and our hearts broke around the Michael Brown death,” she said. “They have been actively involved in everything from de-escalation training for clergy throughout the whole St. Louis area to this wonderful thing they are doing by gathering a coalition of Jewish community and business leaders in order to create a community resource center for jobs.”

But Laser said that CRC wasn’t alone. She noted that many different congregations were seeking ways to partner with the African-American community across the nation for more than just the usual joint Martin Luther King Day celebrations. Instead, they really wanted to work on issues.

“It is really emblematic of what’s going on right now with our rabbis and synagogues across the country,” she said.

Laser said a number of workshops at the conference were on racial justice – and Talve was leading a couple of them herself.

“These sessions are just on fire and bringing in more rabbis than ever,” Laser said.

Meanwhile, Talve said she feels that the U.S. Department of Justice’s recent report on Ferguson shows the need for action.

“As people of faith and especially as Jewish congregations that are cited by the Torah, every life matters,” she said. “When we live in a region or a society where black and brown lives don’t matter as much we have to do something about it.

“It is not just about being allies,” she added. “We have people of color in our congregation.”

Talve said that her congregation works to be a part of the solution rather than the problem and hopes to find ways to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they patrol.

As for the Fain Award, she said CRC is honored to receive it. “It is an affirmation that they appreciate that we are not just standing idly by but are trying to do our part to stand on the right side of history,” said Talve.