The daughters of Zelophechad (Numbers 26ff) challenged the systems of power and inheritance that left them invisible and vulnerable. The Book of Numbers tells us that they understood that movements for social change often take generations. They planted seeds for the patriarchal tribal system to evolve into systems where women could dream of equity. The women’s and civil rights movements of the 1960s are still struggling to bring about a transformation that will lead to equity for all people.
The killing of Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed teenager, by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014, and the response to seeing his body bleed out for 4½ hours in the street with his mother watching, was a wake-up call for America. The uprising in Ferguson pulled many of us out of our comfort zones, onto the streets, hoping that this would bring an opportunity to have courageous conversations about race and class to our community and across America. Jews of color showed up because this was personal for them and they were looking for their Jewish family to stand with them.
The Jewish community of St. Louis, for the most part, was silent. A few showed up for protests, donated to the neighborhood children who were out of school, listened to black mothers talk about their fear for their children and deepened their understanding of whiteness. Although there were individual Jews who showed up, we did not use our communal resources, our privilege and our power to demand justice for those suffering from the systemic racism that lead to Mike Brown’s death.
Instead I heard many Jews write his death off as another “hoodlum” or “thug” who got what he deserved. I heard many Jews criticize those of us who were out on the streets for siding against the police. Others used the Ferguson-to-Palestine connection that was made between the youth in Ferguson and the youth in Gaza as an excuse not to engage. Many in the Jewish community did not know what to do and watched from the sidelines.
Five years later as the Movement for Black Lives is challenging the country to pay attention and to respond to systemic racism, our Jewish community is transforming as well. More of us are working on the issues of police brutality and accountability and we understand that this is for the sake of the police as well as the people who are profiled. We are working on equity in education, in health care, for living wages, and to reform the systems of bail bonds and mass incarceration that criminalize race and poverty. Jewish professionals have found ways to support the projects outlined in the Ferguson Commission Report, working on access to early childhood education and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. We are understanding that the system of whiteness provides privileges to white people and dehumanizes people of color. We are learning how to make our places of worship welcoming to Jews of all hues.
Maxine Clark and Bob Fox are challenging all of us to cross the Delmar Divide. Washington University’s Jason Purnell has mapped out how to address disparities in health care with his “For the Sake of All” report. We have voted in Wesley Bell and Kim Gardner, who are working to bring about changes in our criminal justice system to bring justice and equity to all.
We are being called to transform a nation that has been built on the backs of slaves to one that truly does see and value the infinite worth and the image of God in absolutely everyone regardless of their gender, their class or the color of their skin.
I continue to hear from people around the country asking what we have learned and what they can do as we move forward. My first response is always to do your inner work. We need to help our communities understand what it means to have white privilege and be part of the system of white supremacy. Not to be guilty or ashamed but to be both humbled and empowered and know that we can and must work together to confront institutionalized racism and the white nationalism that targets Jews and people of color.
Five years later, I have hope because I believe that we are beginning to see where the Jewish community can be part of the solution to the disparities that are causing so much suffering. I believe with all my heart that like the daughters of Zelophechad, we can plant seeds to build relationships of trust and work together to make our streets and our communities safe and prosperous for all of our children.
Rabbi Susan Talve serves Central Reform Congregation.