In Atlanta, in the cradle of the civil rights movement, there is a history of the Jewish community praying, with their voices and their feet, speaking up and marching in support of African Americans seeking equality under the law and in the application of justice.
Over the decades, there also have been points of friction between the communities, differences of opinion over issues international and local, and times when the Jewish community might have done more to assuage their neighbors’ pain.
In the aftermath of the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Ga., segments of Atlanta’s Jewish community decried violence against African Americans and called for greater efforts to counter racism at the individual and institutional levels. The statements they issued struck common themes as well as differences reflecting how each views its mission.
“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16) was the first line of a joint statement issued by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta, the Anti-Defamation League Southeast region, the American Jewish Committee regional office in Atlanta, and the Atlanta Rabbinical Association.
Citing the deaths of Floyd, Taylor, and Arbery, the statement said, “These crimes, in the name of law enforcement, by police and citizens, are horrific. These slayings are part of a pattern of systemic violence against Black Americans that cannot continue. We cannot stand idly by these and countless other transgressions against our Black brothers and sisters.”
Harkening back to the “history of Black-Jewish solidarity during the Civil Rights movement,” the statement went on to say, “our tradition compels us to actively fight racism and systemic injustice. As our sages taught, ‘It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.’ Segments of our community have been active in this fight, and the entire Jewish community is called to re-engage in this effort.”
The Atlanta JCRC also issued a separate statement, extending condolences to include “countless, Black Americans who have been killed in a wanton and senseless manner and whose deaths spotlight the lack of equal rights and treatment under the law” and pledging to “join the fight against institutional and acts of individual racism, which continue to traumatize, terrorize, and devalue the lives of black and brown people in America.”
Leslie Anderson, executive director of Atlanta JCRC, said that the organization “felt it was important to include a call for action given the work we have done in criminal justice and based on the input from the Jews of color and black partners we spoke with.” JCRC’s statement also included a call for passage of the hate crimes bill that currently sits before a state Senate committee and called for repeal of Georgia’s law permitting citizen’s arrests. The latter “was the cornerstone of Jim Crow-era harassment and discrimination against minority communities and does not represent the due process of law enshrined in our Constitution,” the JCRC statement said.
As president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, the name of Rabbi Ron Segal of Temple Sinai appeared at the bottom of a statement issued by the CCAR.
“Once again, the lethal reality of systemic racism has shown its evil face . . . Racist extra-judicial executions are an American epidemic, a blight that has continued because, time and again, perpetrators have not been brought to justice,” said the CCAR statement signed by Segal and Rabbi Hara Person, the group’s CEO.
The CCAR statement included a call by Reform rabbis to demonstrate solidarity by “Reaching out to African-American friends who are in pain, frightened, or angry to offer support and to demonstrate our enduring presence,” as well as patronizing black-owned businesses, supporting community organizations “that work to empower African-Americans” and “joining efforts to change policies that perpetuate systemic racism.”
Congregants of The Temple, a Reform congregation, received a letter signed by current and former clergy. “As we lay awake at night, listening to the sirens and wondering how we will explain the headlines to our children, considering all the of the terrible suffering heaped upon suffering already brought about by COVID-19, we recognize that this is a time of deep hurt,” read the letter whose signatories included Rabbis Alvin Sugarman and Peter Berg, the former and current senior rabbi.
In noting its “historic and close relationships with our African-American brothers and sisters,” the letter said, “this is an inflection point in America. On no other issue does the mandate lo ta’amod al dam reyecha, you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, speak more clearly to us. How we respond shall be a test of our collective humanity and moral maturity. Our Temple, as we have always been, is committed to working for a better world for our children and for our neighbors’ children.” Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal is both senior rabbi at Ahavath Achim Synagogue and president of the rabbinical association, a signatory to the community letter.
Rosenthal wrote to his congregants: “We all want peace, but it cannot come without justice. Our nation is at the same crossroads we have been at for many years, standing idle, unable to decide the path to take. I wish I could say that it was simply a lack of courage or resolve, but it is not. There is a sickness deep in the soul of our country that will take more than courage to heal. It is a sickness that leads an armed, trained, officer of the law to kneel on the neck of an unarmed, handcuffed man, extinguishing his life, while his partners look on, all hearing his cries, ignoring his pleas for breath.”
The rabbi related a conversation he had with “one of our AA family members, a police officer here in Atlanta,” who told Rosenthal that “nobody hates a bad cop more than a good cop.”
Among his recommendations, Rosenthal said, “We need to be better listeners. There are large groups of people in America who cry out for justice and fairness in our systems of government, law, business, healthcare, and education, but their claims are dismissed as nonsense. They are not speaking nonsense. They are speaking from their truth, their reality and we must be open to hearing it, regardless of how uncomfortable it feels to shake our own consciousness.”
Listening is at the heart of a current effort by the Black-Jewish Coalition of the AJC’s Atlanta office, a project that grew out of a joint push in 1982 to support renewal of the Voting Rights Act. The AJC is fostering what regional director Dov Wilker called “small conversations” among groupings of coalition members “to educate, to talk about what’s going on. We can create venues for the Jewish community to hear what people in the black community are doing.”
Rabbi Ari Leubitz, head of school at the Atlanta Jewish Academy, wrote to the AJA community that he headed into Shavuot on May 28 “feeling hopeful, energized and celebratory,” but emerged after Shabbat “feeling the collective pain and hurt for our school community, city, and country and a heavy heart” as he watched the news.
“One of our core values as Jews in Pikuach Nefesh (the preservation of human life). We place immeasurable value on this – as we are created in the image of G-d. We value justice (Justice, justice you shall pursue) and we are committed to teaching our students to understand and respect our common humanity across our communities,” Leubitz wrote.
“We are frustrated. We are angry. We are sad. We are devastated. We stand in solidarity with communities of color across the country as they are yet again subject to unnecessary pain and suffering. They are not alone. We are with them,” he concluded.