Category Archives: Community Engagement

Empathy & Justice: Thoughts on The Ruling in Ferguson

This piece was jointly authored by Malkie Schwartz and Rabbi Jeremy Simons, reflecting on last night’s grand jury ruling in Ferguson, Missouri and sharing their insights and responses.

A powerful image from this summer: Howard University Students "Hands Up, Don't Shoot"

A powerful image from this summer: Howard University Students “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

In light of the grand jury findings released last night, we may never know what actually happened on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. Some believe Michael Brown was shot without cause, while others—including the grand jury—believe the available evidence demonstrates Officer Darren Wilson felt his life was in danger and acted accordingly. We cannot know what happened in those 90 seconds, but we know what happened next:

Michael Brown’s body lay exposed on the pavement for more than four hours in full view of the public, including his family. We also know that later that night, a Ferguson police officer allowed his dog to urinate on the very spot. Lesley McSpadden, Michael’s mother, watched as police cars intentionally ran over the flowers she placed at the spot where her son was killed.

We also know residents of Ferguson began gathering and demanding justice. Had they not gathered, none of us would today know the name Michael Brown or be able to locate the town of Ferguson. Since August 9, hardly a week has gone by without news of another instance of police brutality. This is not because police brutality has increased dramatically these past five months; it’s because we’re finally being exposed to it.

Exodus teaches that we should not oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt. According to the Talmud, the Torah repeats this commandment in various forms 36 times. Commandments involving the stranger often include mention of the widow and the orphan. These three categories represent those who are most vulnerable in society; those most likely to be abused. We can add to this list the impoverished and the historically oppressed. The town of Ferguson, where more than two-thirds of residents are African American and more than one in four children live below the poverty line, falls into this category.

The incredible repetition of this commandment signals more than just emphasis. The Torah is telling us something here: it’s acknowledging that our own inclination may be to ignore those who we do not know. It’s also telling us—thirty six times—that we cannot ignore them. It’s screaming for our attention because it knows our nature. Our Jewish tradition demands we join those across this country advocating for greater transparency and reform in our law enforcement communities. Just as our tradition recognized our own inclination may be to stand on the sidelines, it also warns of the consequence: the Mishnah teaches that the sword enters our world on account of justice delayed, and justice denied.

Justice is too often delayed, but it cannot be denied.

Yesterday, President Obama honored the lives of James Chaney, Michael Henry Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, three civil rights workers who were killed in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964. The three men were honored along with 15 civilians who, the President said, “made the world stronger, wiser, more beautiful, and more humane.” It felt strange to see the families of people who lost their lives in pursuit of civil rights being honored alongside, well, Meryl Streep. But in his introduction of Ms. Streep, the President said “She inhabits her characters so fully and compassionately… It is the greatest gift of human beings that we have this power of empathy.”

Empathy. Empathy is what motivated civil rights workers to risk their lives and volunteer in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. After all, they weren’t going to sit by and feel badly for voters who were denied their right to vote. They felt connected to the reality faced by African American citizens in Mississippi and, together, they worked toward justice for all.

Only hours after the award ceremony, we learned that the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri found that there was no probable cause to indict Officer Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Regardless of what we think about the outcome, this is a time to exercise that power of empathy. To try and imagine the anguish being felt by Michael Brown’s mother, his father, his family, friends and neighbors. To try and imagine what it must feel like to be a young African American living in one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country, and in a city where 63% of the residents are African American and only approximately 5%[1] of the police force is African American.  To be a young African American, and know your demographic makes up more than 85% of people stopped and more than 90% of the people searched in 2013[2] in your hometown. To be African American and keeping hearing about young, unarmed African Americans killed—by the people committed to “serve and protect.”

We are two white Jews, authoring this post; we know we cannot truly understand what it feels like to be Black in Ferguson, or America. But our power of empathy can help us try to do our part to make things better. Let us send an alternative message to all young people, particularly young African Americans, in our communities: We know that there is work to be done and we are willing to follow the lead of those who have historically been most disenfranchised, to do what it takes to make sure that all members of our community are cherished and respected. Justice may be delayed, but it cannot be denied.

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[1] http://www.ksdk.com/story/news/local/2014/08/12/ferguson-police-department-diversity-questioned-officers/13976879/

[2] http://ago.mo.gov/VehicleStops/2013/reports/161.pdf

Posted on November 25, 2014

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An Unexpected Veterans Day

Today is Veteran’s Day. A rainy November Tuesday. I began my day at my computer, appreciating the Facebook statuses honoring veterans, noting the lovely Google Doodle honoring veterans, chuckling at an email from my eight-year old-cousin wherein she thanked various family members for their service and also “for getting me today off of schooooooool!”

L-R: Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman

L-R: Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman

Then I got an email from The Andrew Goodman Foundation, and learned that the President has named James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner as recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom— commemorating the lives they lost 50 years ago in an effort to bring justice and equality to Americans in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

The email stopped me in my tracks. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner are names to which I feel so personally connected. I have written about attending their annual memorial in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The ISJL spearheaded Jewish activists track in conjunction with this summer’s Freedom Summer 50. To be honest, I was surprised that this wasn’t an honor already bestowed on these heroes decades earlier.

Here is an excerpt of the statement from the White House: “James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were civil rights activists and participants in “Freedom Summer,” an historic voter registration drive in 1964.  As African Americans were systematically being blocked from voter rolls, Mr. Chaney, Mr. Goodman, and Mr. Schwerner joined hundreds of others working to register black voters in Mississippi. They were murdered at the outset of Freedom Summer. Their deaths shocked the nation and their efforts helped to inspire many of the landmark civil rights advancements that followed.”

I thought about the word we used to describe the individuals who journeyed back to Mississippi this summer to share their stories of fighting for civil rights: veterans of the movement.

I thought about what I did one week ago, last Tuesday: I voted. I exercised the very right Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner, and all of the civil rights volunteers—the veterans, and the victims—were working to ensure all citizens had.

I wish that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were in the news today being honored as veterans. But their Medal of Freedom comes posthumously. They are not veterans, but their memory is honored today—and there are many veterans of the movement still living and teaching us today. I think we should honor these veterans today, as well. Because while these three men, so tragically killed, have become public faces of the civil rights movement, they worked alongside many others.

So, while I honor all of those who served as soldiers and survived battles for our nation’s freedom, I have also been reminded to honor those who fought battles here at home, to extend that freedom to all. To that end, I wanted to share this video that my colleagues Rachel and Malkie sent my way. It will give you a small taste of the large impact made by the veterans who spoke to an audience in Jackson this past summer.

To all who fight for freedom, then, now, and always, you have our gratitude. This Veteran’s Day will also serve as a memorial day, and a reminder—this nation has been strengthened through the service and sacrifice of so many, and we honor that commitment to freedom.

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Posted on November 11, 2014

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Can Daylight Savings Shed Light on Energy Poverty?

For many, the end of Daylight Savings Time is associated with an extra luxurious hour of sleep. Since modern electricity mitigates our lighting experience throughout the day, I don’t really consider the fact that it also means that it will get dark earlier in the evenings and lighter earlier in the mornings. I can switch on a light and read while it is dark outside, and I can close my blinds in the morning if I want my apartment to get darker.

EG

Image courtesy Empower Generation

But this year, I’m wondering what it would be like if at sunset, I could no longer read, no longer maneuver around my crowded apartment without candlelight, and I could no longer see someone while I am talking to them.

This is in large part because I listened to this TEDx Zurich Talk still in rough form given by Anya Cherneff, Executive Director of Empower Generation. (Anya’s talk is about 52 minutes into the unedited clip.) I met Anya through her father, Peter Cherneff, the founding board chair of Footsteps. As Executive Director of Footsteps, I was often inspired by the Cherneff family’s commitment to social justice. Most inspiring to me was that when it comes to social justice, the Cherneffs’ vision is global, transcending their own personal experiences.

Personal experience influences how we see the world. Years ago, I co-founded and championed Footsteps, an organization that supports the choices of people who want to enter or explore the world outside of the insular ultra-orthodox communities in which they were raised. Like many founders, I was inspired by my personal experiences and the challenges I faced and witnessed around this life transition. Peter did not share the same background, but his support of Footsteps members has been unwavering. For some, working with people from such a drastically different background would have been a Herculean task. But not for Peter, who with compassion and curiosity became one of the most effective drivers of change on behalf of the Footsteps community.

It should not—and did not—surprise me then when Anya and her husband Bennett Cohen founded Empower Generation in 2011. Empower Generation is an organization that seeds and supports women-led enterprises addressing energy poverty. The vision of this organization is “a world where women living at the base of the economic pyramid are empowered to lead their communities out of energy poverty, where human dignity for all and environmental sustainability are universal values.”

Empower Generation has been focusing its efforts on Nepal which, as they explain, “is one of the poorest countries in the world, with half the population living below the poverty line and more than half living without access to reliable power.” As she explained in her TEDx Zurich talk, that means that families need to choose between using the limited light they have to do homework or cook.

Nepal is far from where Anya grew up here in the U.S. but, like her dad, she has forged friendships and alliances that have made citizens in Nepal who are impacted by Empower Generation truly valued, engaged, full partners in this endeavor.

Empower Generation is an example of what we can do when we allow ourselves to be moved and when we value the ideas and wisdom that are rooted in experiences outside of our own. It is also the outcome of reflecting on resources we take for granted. Light is one such resource, and as we prepare to lose an hour of light in the evenings, let’s think about those who live without access to reliable power. In a country where power is abundant, let’s think about the impact our energy usage has on our world at large. Instead of just gaining an hour of sleep, let’s also gain some insight.

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Posted on October 31, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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