Jewish leaders, clergy rally behind Ferguson

Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation (center) talks to Rev. Traci D. Blackmon (left) of Christ the King United Church of Christ during a march in Ferguson on Aug. 14 organized by the St. Louis Clergy Coalition.  Photo: Mike Sherwin 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

For much of the world, West Florissant Avenue has become synonymous with rubber bullets and tear gas. But as Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation walks it with hundreds of other demonstrators, she notes that it isn’t her first time here – and it won’t be her last.

“I’ll keep showing up,” she said. “This is really personal. It is about all of our kids, and we all have to show up.”

Talve was among a small rabbinic contingent to march in an event organized by the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition in response to the deadly shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown by a white Ferguson police officer named Darren Wilson. The incident Aug. 9 has ignited peaceful protest and violent actions that brought massive international attention to a stunned suburb, which has been the scene of firebombs, looting and gunplay for more than a week. 

Now under a state of emergency, Ferguson is under the control of multiple police agencies and the National Guard.

Meanwhile, Brown’s death remains under investigation by both St. Louis County and federal authorities, who continue to gather facts on the differing accounts of the shooting. No charges had  been filed by press time.

Within the Jewish community, reaction to the shooting, the protest and the violence has varied.

A letter signed by more than 60 Jewish community leaders was released Tuesday by Jewish Federation of St. Louis. It mourns Brown’s death, condemns the looting in its aftermath and calls for “thoughtful approaches” to law enforcement.

“Ultimately, the situation in Ferguson is much broader than the tragic events that we are now witnessing,” the letter says. “We all must redouble our efforts to combat racism, poverty and economic inequality, so that every individual, no matter the circum stances of his or her birth, has a chance to live a decent, meaningful life.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) offered condolences to the Brown family and the city of Ferguson.

“The Jewish community is committed to working with our fellow St. Louisans in efforts to productively respond to the current crisis while at the same time continuing our ongoing commitment to make our region one that encourages the bridging of our differences and that provides opportunity for all of its citizens,” a JCRC statement says.

Some congregations are working to help in more active ways. CRC is collecting donations for the Ferguson Food Pantry, which has been affected by the looting of stores in the area.

An email message from Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg to members of United Hebrew Congregation also recommends giving food as well as donating supplies to families in the riot area who often find themselves trapped in their homes. The message also suggests supporting programs such as Cultural Leadership, which brings together Jewish and African-American youth.

“While Ferguson may seem far from most of our homes, it is still part of our St. Louis neighborhood,” Rosenberg wrote. “When one neighbor hurts, we all hurt. This is not just their problem to solve but one which we can all work on together.” 

‘Disappointed at the silence’

Yet, some people don’t feel Jews are working hard enough on the issue. In an opinion piece critical of the Jewish community’s response to the tragedy, Andria Danine Simckes, an African-American Jewish businesswoman from Creve Coeur, says Jewish sentiment had seemed lackluster.

“I was amazed and disappointed at the silence,” she wrote in an Op-Ed published in the Light last week.  “I have been so encouraged by the dialogue in the black community surrounding the situation between Israelis and Hamas, and that many more blacks get Israel’s right to defend itself. Yet, where is the Jewish outcry at an unarmed 18-year-old young man being shot multiple times, right here in St. Louis?”

A visibly emotional Simckes also spoke about her feelings during a meeting of St. Louis County’s Human Relations Commission on Friday, expressing disappointment in St. Louis’ inability to bridge its racial gaps.

“When I moved here over 21 years ago, I was amazed at how racially segregated St. Louis is,” she said. “After 21 years, I’m still amazed at how racially segregated St. Louis is. Every day, I say I need to get my kids out of here. I need to show them a different world than what I’m seeing here.”

However, Simckes said, she also felt some hope from her experiences at a downtown vigil last week.

“I can tell you for the first time, I saw true diversity,” she said. “I saw all walks of life talking with one another. For the first time, I felt like the gloom or the heaviness of St. Louis had been lifted. I felt like, for once, we were truly a community.”

‘An ignited burn’

Rabbi James Stone Goodman of Neve Shalom said he took some hope from an earlier meeting at a Florissant church where community leaders, residents and politicians spoke.

“There was an ignited burn in the room that we need to get something done here,” he said. “Everybody said pretty much the same thing. They started out with ‘listen.’ Everybody said that. I came here to listen. Everybody followed that with ‘I came here to learn.’ ”

Goodman said he felt a lack of media in the building for the beginning of the session helped. People were instructed to not even post to social media.

“They said, ‘That could have been my son.’ A lot of people said that,” he recalled. “There were a lot of people in that room who said, ‘That could have been my kid.’ It wasn’t theoretical. There was a seriousness about it.”

Philip Deitch, who also attended  the Human Relations Commission meeting, said he believed the police response had been too militaristic and felt that law enforcement should follow the model of St. Louis’ handling of  Occupy protestors.

“The city police chief had his officers show up in uniform,” he said of the Occupy response. “It was never any hard push, no riot gear, no vehicles surrounding them at any point.”

Talve, who also attended the meeting, criticized the police response but focused most of her remarks on racial profiling and racial inequalities in the city that she believes this incident has stripped bare.

“If this didn’t pull the truth off what we’ve been allowing for so long, I don’t know what will,”   Talve said. “This has to stop.”

Batya Abramson-Goldstein of the JCRC said her organization is working to keep the community abreast of events as they occur and let people know how they can help. She said she has spoken with Timothy O’Leary of Opera Theatre of St. Louis and several other groups that might plan a concert event of some type in Ferguson.

‘Hard to comprehend’

Abramson-Goldstein also talked of the depth of difficulties the metropolitan area faces on the topic of race. 

“I think all of us were not surprised by what has been going on because what we have is a festering sore from which the Band-Aid was ripped off,” she said.

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois, often deals with law enforcement through ADL anti-bias advocacy efforts.

“This may be a moment in time like we haven’t had, and to let it pass without some substantive follow-up is going to be a shame,” she said.

James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth expressed profound sadness and sympathy for the Brown family.

“I believe we are witnessing the birth pangs of a new era in the civil rights movement in this country and an awareness of and struggle for racial justice, economic justice, peace, equality and fairness,” he said.

Bennett called it a “watershed moment” in the nation’s history.

“It demands our attention and commands our participation,” he said. “I really believe we have to do everything in our power to respond with empathy, energy, commitment and all the resources we can muster.”

At Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, Rabbi Ze’ev Smason expressed deep condolences for the Brown family and said that discrimination should not be tolerated. Yet he also noted that the investigation into the incident remains ongoing.

“I’m keeping an open mind as to what it was that occurred until such time as the investigations have concluded and the facts of what it was that occurred are known,” he said, adding that he agrees with the JCRC’s statement.

At the rally on West Florissant, Rabbi Educator Deana Sussman of CRC can barely be heard over chants of “No justice, no peace” and “Hands up, don’t shoot” and the honking of car horns in support.

“It is heartbreaking. It is really tragic when any person dies,” she said. “My heart goes out to the family and to this community, and I hope that we can figure out how to heal together.” 

Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad on Campus said he is eager to join the West Florissant march to support his fellow citizens. He said hopes to see the advancement of the region as a whole.

“It is imperative that all residents of the region can feel safe and secure. One step forward is to ensure that this episode is thoroughly investigated in a fair and unbiased manner,” he said.  “The tone on the ground seems to have shifted, and I am guardedly optimistic that we are seeing a shift away from emotional reactions to more forward-looking approaches.”

Rabbi Randy Fleisher of CRC, who has participated in rallies in Ferguson several times since the Brown shooting, expressed similar sentiments. 

“I think that people just have to come together like this in their sorrow and their outrage and know that people care,” he said. “You’ve just got to show up sometimes when things are difficult and challenging and it is hard to comprehend.”