Jews search for constructive ways to help in Ferguson

Protesters make their way down Canfield Drive in Ferguson on Thursday during a peaceful demonstration organized by the St. Louis Clergy Coalition. Several hundred protesters took part  in the march, which traveled down West Florissant Avenue from Chambers Road, then east on Canfield to where Michael Brown was killed.  Photo: Mike Sherwin 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A lot of people have descended on Ferguson in the past couple of weeks, from protestors to National Guardsmen to media. All of them had their own mission. 

But it’s a fair bet that only Marc Daniels came to do some gardening. 

“It was to help humanity weed out hate and sow the seeds of peace by literally pulling out weeds,” said Daniels of Springfield, Ill., director of the Weed Out Hate Initiative, an effort that aims to eliminate prejudice and improve society by advocating gardening as both a physical activity and a metaphor.

Daniels is one of a number of Jews in the area trying – sometimes even struggling – to find the right way to help after racial tensions flared into protests and violence along West Florissant Avenue over the fatal shooting by police of Michael Brown, an African-American teenager. 

Advertisement for the J

Daniels took a spiritual view of the issue. He has previously garnered “Weed Out Hate” proclamations from the governors of Illinois and his native Iowa. 

Now, he’s hoping for the same from Gov. Jay Nixon in Missouri. 

Daniels, an adherent of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, often gives out sunflower “peace seeds” to children so they can replace weeds with something more desirable. He said his model is based on teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 

“The root of racial tension is in hatred and, when we work together to weed this out symbolically, we take a great step forward in solving the problem,” said Daniels, who would like to see some type of partnership with the 125 or so community gardens in the St. Louis area.

Other people are choosing direct relief efforts for Ferguson. Phyllis Weiss, spokeswoman for the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, said the pantry has been delivering about two pallets a week of canned goods, fresh produce and personal care items to Ferguson since Brown, 18, was killed Aug. 9. His death triggered demonstrations, marches and nighttime violence in the community.

“People in the community are looking for a way to donate,” she said. “There are a lot of people that wanted to do something.”

Weiss said the food was specifically earmarked for the north St. Louis County suburb by donors and did not affect supplies regular pantry patrons.

“The pantry was grateful that enough people were donating so that they could distribute and still be able to take care of 7,000 families a month,” she said. 

Some Jews are encouraging people to find their own ways to help. VolunTEEN Nation, a group that tries to connect adolescents with volunteer opportunities, is accepting ideas from area youth to support Ferguson in this time of need. The best ones will get small funding grants.

“We realized there was an issue where so many people wanted to do something,” said Simone Bernstein, whose organization helps many Jewish teenagers find bar or bat mitzvah projects. “They wanted to promote peace and do something for the community.”

Bernstein said that within days, her website was flooded with almost 200 applications with ideas ranging from voter registration efforts to teaching nonviolent conflict resolution to children.

“We had one idea to simply have a neighborhood get-together to have a dialogue and a town hall meeting about some of the issues that have taken place,” she said.

Bernstein’s group was already planning to help create and grow a garden at the Jewish Food Pantry but, since the unrest and protests began, they’ve worked to include youth from outside the organization, particularly reaching out to students in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, where the opening of school was delayed. 

Bernstein has also reached out to her temple, Congregation Shaare Emeth, to see whether she can involve children in the Sunday school in a Ferguson-related project.

She said that it was not yet clear how many suggestions from the applications would be chosen or how much cash would be available.

“We’re looking to fund multiple ideas, and we’ve had a lot of organizations and even corporations looking to jump onboard helping us fund these projects,” Bernstein said.

Some Jews want to help but also don’t want to appear as outsiders giving orders in someone else’s community.

“It seemed very important to us that the voice of what we’re doing be the voice of people who are actually from there,” said Susan Balk of HateBrakers, an anti-bias group. “It seemed inappropriate to me to have outsiders saying, ‘Here’s what you should be doing.’ ”

Instead, Balk’s group has partnered with a local organization, Project Take-Back, spearheaded by three African-American Hatebrakers, Morgan Bradley, Jon Alexander and Asha Hornaday. The groups issued a joint statement encouraging people to maintain calm and respect.

In the meantime, HateBrakers is hoping to help arrange an event at the downtown library. The organization is also incorporating Ferguson into its minicourses on moral courage and is working to collect stories of those in the town who exhibit that trait for later nominations as HateBraker Heroes.

“The thing about HateBrakers is that we partner,” Balk said. “We don’t compete with other like-minded organizations.”

Aaron Johnson, 22, an African-American community organizer working in Columbia, Mo., is involved in a voter registration/engagement drive in Ferguson. He is a graduate of Cultural Leadership, an anti-bias initiative that began by pairing Jews and African-Americans to promote understanding. As the unrest was beginning, Johnson was in St. Louis attending the group’s 10-year gala event.

“Both days when I was in town, people talked about wanting to do something,” he said. “People talked about civic engagement-type work and voter registration.”

The Florissant native believes that the program provided him with tools he now needs to use. 

“You learn how to communicate with people and talk to them about issues and have difficult conversations with people, which is what I’m doing right now,” Johnson said.

Holly Ingraham, executive director of Cultural Leadership, said a number of graduates are working on issues related to Ferguson or race relations.

“We’re hopeful that the tools that we have can have ripple effects in the communities and help the greater community in St. Louis process the situation that we’re in right now and come out of it stronger.”

Meanwhile, the group is ready to kick off its 10th class, with 32 young people.

“Almost every student that’s coming into this program is going to want to talk and share and dialogue and explore how they can help this community to heal and be a better, safer place for everyone to live,” Ingraham said.