Just as we were celebrating Shavuot in May, a virtual volcano erupted with the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. In order to craft a message as quickly as possible after the holiday, I was grateful for postings of many wonderful Jewish organizations addressing the situation, including Truah and the Religious Action Center among others, whose resources are quoted or referenced here.
May 31, 2020

Our community just completed an uplifting, inspiring and soulful two-and-a-half days of Shavuot. In the midst of so much stress from pandemic isolation, loss and fear, we needed the prayer, song, learning and most importantly — community that Shavuot offered. Just as our people stood at Sinai and proclaimed as one, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8), we received and accepted Torah once again. These holy days redirected our hearts and minds to the path of Torah, teaching us what it means to be fully human, in the image of the Divine.

These past few weeks and months have inescapably reminded us of the structural racism in our society — in how law enforcement may unfairly treat people of color, and the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus.

Over the course of our Shavuot observances, our country was in deep, dark despair once again over the murder of a black man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police officers. Surely, the divine image has been diminished. We express our condolences to the family of George Floyd, and to their community. We share the pain of people of color across the country who experience profiling and harassment, as one Burlington activist said, “Why must I walk around, each and every day, with black trauma on my back? Why must my days be filled with guilt, grief and walking cautiously?” Edosomwan said…“I’m jealous there are folks walking the same earth as me and they don’t have a target on their backs.”

No one should live in fear of being assaulted, wrongfully imprisoned, or killed by law enforcement. Yet, African Americans live this reality every day. “This is yet one more tragic example of racist violence too often perpetuated by police officers, who are charged with protecting all of us–not only some of us.”

“How were the Ten Commandments arranged? Five on one tablet and five on the other. On one tablet it was written: I am the Eternal your God, and opposite to it, on the other tablet, was written: You shall not murder. This means that one who sheds blood is considered as having diminished the divine image.” Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Tractate Bachodesh

This has indeed been a traumatic and painful week. Sadly, none of us should be surprised. Since the first African slaves were brought to Virginia’s shores four hundred years ago, the seeds of racism were planted in our society which has sinfully treated blacks as lesser human beings. After two hundred and fifty years of slavery, the unfulfilled promise of freedom after the Civil War was followed by decades of hateful segregation, lynchings and Jim Crow laws. Mass incarceration continues the racist stain on our society. Our nation has yet to come to terms with the consequences and ongoing impact of this history.

As Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism wrote,
“The national rage expressed about the murder of Mr. Floyd reflects the depth of pain over the injustice that People of Color – and particularly Black men – have been subjected to throughout the generations. In recent months we have seen, yet again, too many devastating examples of persistent systemic racism, leading to the deaths not only of Mr. Floyd but of other precious souls, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.”

We remember others before them: Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Oscar Grant. Philando Castile. Walter Scott. Terrence Crutcher. Samuel Dubose. Michael Brown. The list feels endless, and so too is our despair. But as we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for them all, we say now, again: We will not sit idly by.

Our country simply cannot achieve the values of “justice for all” to which it aspires until we address ongoing racism in all sectors and at all levels of society.”

We pray for the families of Mr. Floyd, Ms. Taylor, Mr. Arbery, and all those whose lives have been so cruelly and violently taken, and we renew our commitment to working to achieve a nation that exemplifies compassion and justice for all.”

As we struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic, we are deeply troubled that the virus disproportionately impacts People of Color. We must all take responsibility for repairing this tear in God’s creation.

“When the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: I will go to my home and I will eat and drink, and peace be upon you, my soul.” (Talmud Taanit 11a)

We cannot, we must not turn our heads away, hoping to not notice. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As Ohavei Tzedek , Lovers of Justice, we are commanded to pursue justice for all peoples. This is our cause and our purpose. We can realize God’s vision by joining with other faith communities to make it happen.

This is a very distressing, sad and frightening time. For years now, our Ohavi Zedek community has been walking the path of education and ongoing activism to address systemic racism, locally and nationally. We are committed to continuing to work with our interfaith partners and communal leaders to uncover unconscious bias and condemn racism and hate. As Nelson Mandela taught, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Finally, a word about our local police. In my four-and-a-half years in this community, I have cultivated close and collaborative relationships with our law enforcement officials who have actively sought collaboration with clergy. We need each other — indeed as our community has struggled with how to best protect our synagogue and ourselves from hateful antisemites, we have been grateful for the ready advice and support from Burlington Police and VT State Police and the VT Attorney General’s office. Clergy meetings at the Burlington Police Dept. have delved in issues of unconscious bias and racism. We all know that there is yet much work to be done to overcome the stain of racism and to continue to work to properly train and supervise law enforcement officers. But I know good people who are working on this at the leadership level and I appreciate their partnership.

I pray that the all-too-well-known pattern of delayed justice in the wake of police violence will cease. I pray that the courts will hold law-enforcement’s bad actors responsible for their crimes. I pray that the recruitment, training and culture of law enforcement all across this country will address use-of-force culture and racism.

And I pray that the protests around the country, and here in our community, will heed the call of Dr. King for peaceful protests. Even as we may understand the causes for the the rage that has sparked rioting (see a powerful YouTube video by Trevor Noah explaining this) we can advocate for a different way. Dr. Bernice King, MLK’s daughter, on Saturday condemned the violence of the protests around the country. She said, “As I stand here in this moment and look at my journey, I have to make an appeal to my brothers and sisters, because I realized that the only way to get constructive change is through nonviolent means,” she said, before reminding everyone that her late father once said, “Riots are the language of the unheard.”

None of us will be free until all of us will be free. We commit to working in our community and our world to heal and to realize this vision of a world repaired.
In sadness, sympathy and solidarity,
Rabbi Amy Joy Small
Senior Rabbi, Ohavi Zedek Synagogue

“Martin Luther King’s Daughter Says ‘Only Way to Get Constructive Change Is Through Nonviolent Means’” MSN News