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.
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% 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 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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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.
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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My sister, Chanie, and my new brother-in-law, Joel, got married this month. I’m very fortunate to have incredible co-workers who are happy to see pictures of the very special occasion and hear all about the event itself—and of course, I’m also happy to share one of the beautiful pictures here, because that’s what proud sisters do!
But I also want to share with you a thought I had before the wedding—a thought that extended from marriage to the larger community, and also seemed particularly appropriate at this time on the Jewish calendar.
I had the honor of sharing a reading under the chuppah. As I looked at books of readings for weddings, poems, websites with readings and other sources, I came across this reading. I didn’t end up reading it to the happy couple under the chuppah, but it spoke to me.
“Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”—Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
This line is meant to describe the giving and receiving that takes place between partners. In many ways, however, it articulates my feelings about service. There is so much judgment associated with receiving help. Too often, even well -intentioned givers, engaged in the generous act of offering help, make judgments about the people receiving our assistance.
We may find ourselves judging others for “allowing” themselves to get into this situation. We might feel saddened by their vulnerability, their need—or willingness—to rely on others. We may even use those in need to make us feel better about ourselves: hey, at least we are not in their position.
Judgments of these kinds really impede on our ability to give lovingly and completely. Giving with judgment is still giving, and it is better than not giving at all. When someone is hungry, food is essential. Food without judgment is like getting icing on the cake.
But that is not the type of giving and receiving that a couple strives for in a marriage. Nor should it be the giving we strive for as we serve our communities. Rather, community offers us a lot sometimes, without us asking for it. And by receiving the joy given to us by our communities, we can truly give to people who rely on the greater community for things like food, shelter, and so on, without judging them or their situation.
While I have given thought to the relationship between those who conduct and those who receive the benefits of service (a problematic construct), thinking about it in the context of a marriage—particularly the marriage of two people who truly give to each other and the world with all their hearts—gives me a unique appreciation for the special bond that unites us as people who are constantly giving and receiving.
During this time in the Jewish calendar when Jews ask for a lot—forgiveness, health, a sweet new year–let us also ask for the ability to gracefully receive all we are given this year as well as the ability to give gracefully, without negative judgment of those who receive our help.