On Monday night, Feb. 6, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum gathered a group of rabbis together to make sure we were emotionally and spiritually ready for arrest. We were preparing for a holy and humble offering in the face of injustice. We would be putting our bodies onto the street in front of one of the Trump branded properties in New York City as an act of civil disobedience to protest the executive order that resulted in the Muslim ban.
With hundreds of rabbis and friends, we marched over 30 blocks to the cheers of the beautifully diverse faces of New Yorkers mouthing “thank you,” and joining in our chants, songs and prayers. The staff of T’ruah, a social justice organization that was hosting a conference for rabbis called, “No time for Neutrality,” prepared the marchers, and the message, and worked with the police who accompanied us and were ready for the crowds and the arrests. This organization of which I am a proud board member, also had lawyers who volunteered their services and were ready to help if the arrests occurred.
Once we arrived in front of our destination, 19 rabbis in kippot and tallitot walked into the street with a blue cloth representing the crossing of the sea timed perfectly with this week’s Torah portion. We sang the words that Moses and Miriam and the people of Israel sang as we sat and linked arms in prayer. We sang for those who risked everything for us, for those who could not sing for themselves, for those who were sent back because they had no one to sing for them.
The police warned that we would be arrested if we did not move. One by one our hands were tied behind our backs with stiff plastic. I was the last to be taken away. As I left I heard a woman’s voice, “That’s my rabbi!” And then many voices, “That’s my rabbi!” The marchers were chanting for all of us.
I found myself thinking about one of my childhood rabbis, Rabbi Michael Robinson, of blessed memory, who was one of the 17 rabbis arrested in St. Augustine, Fla. because they were part of a demonstration to defy segregation with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1964. I remember learning then that fighting for civil rights is what it meant not just to be a rabbi but what it meant to be a Jew.
As we were all waiting to get on a bus to the 33rd precinct the officers took our I.D.s and we waited. I asked one young officer where he was from. “Colombia,” he answered with an accent. “Do you know why we are here,” I asked? “Because we want to make sure that America is open and welcoming to immigrants and refugees.” He smiled and said, “We are all immigrants.”
I told him that when I was a child, over 60 years ago, my father’s first big job was to bring bullet proof vests to the police officers of Colombia. He smiled again. I saw that beneath his shirt there was a vest and I thought about Jack Rudin of blessed memory who bought state of the art bullet proof vests for all of the New York City Police Department. At his funeral just a few months ago at I mentioned that as his grandchildren were going out to protest for the Black Lives Matter marches of last year, Jack reminded them to compliment the police officers on their vests.
This arrest was different from those. Of course both come from acts of nonviolent civil disobedience but most of the arrests, especially of people of color, were not planned, and were not always without violence on the part of the police. Just days before this action in New York I had the privilege of being invited to participate in a training for our St Louis police on fair and impartial policing. This is a transformative training that helps us all become more aware of our implicit bias, the bias we bring to every situation because we are human. It teaches us to see the humanity in each other, and to build bridges instead of walls.
When we were let out of the jail early the next morning, I felt that I had been part of something bigger than myself. I was part of a movement that began long ago at the shores of another sea when we rejected a world where some were seen as more human than others and believed that if we kept marching, one day we would reach a time and a place where all would be free.