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What the Movement for Black Lives Means to Jews

“We need and deserve to be heard,” 18-year-old Erykah Gaston, who is black and Jewish, said. “We deserve to fight for a change."

Erin is the Digital Content Manager at the Jewish Journal. She also covers Jewish art, entertainment and culture.

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Erin Ben-Moche
Erin is the Digital Content Manager at the Jewish Journal. She also covers Jewish art, entertainment and culture.

The Torah and Talmud teach the importance of justice, repairing the world, to not stand idly by and the value of a human life.

It’s why Jews across the country said they gathered, marched, donated and spoke out against police brutality in honor of all black people who died at the hands of police, including George Floyd, who died after a police officer knelt on the back of his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, people in almost every major city left the comfort of their homes to stand up for what they felt was right. L.A. resident Marnina Schon Wirtschafter, 26, felt it was her duty to show up for others because it’s the Jewish thing to do.

“Pikuach nefesh (saving a life). Tikkun olam (repairing the world). Tzedek, tezdek tirdof (justice, justice, shall you pursue). If these are the things I’m teaching to my b’nai mitzvah students, how could I not show up in some capacity this weekend?” Schon Wirtschafter, who attended a march near Griffith Park, said. “We need to continue to read and uplift black voices and black Jews. We need to let them know and let your own community know that you are no longer willing to be complacent in racism.”

Kelsey Goldberg, 31, participated in the May 30 march at Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles. Goldberg has been involved with social justice activism for several years, attending many marches including the Black Lives Matter march for Michael Brown in 2014. This time around, she was surprised to see the diverse turnout including the number of white allies.

“The sheer size of the crowd and how interracial it was, I had never seen that before in those numbers,” she said. “This one seemed to have a lot more white allies out .… I know a lot of my friends showed up to this one. I’m not sure why this one struck a chord but I’m glad we’re finally here.”

She added volunteers were handing out face masks, visors, hand sanitizer, food and water. Local stores and restaurants including Canter’s Deli also were offering water from the sidelines at a march in West Hollywood. For the most part, protesters said it was organized, peaceful and powerful.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – MAY 30: Protestors march during a demonstration organized by Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd on May 30, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, those peaceful protests later turned violent. Police and military enforcement were called in to quell looting. Protestors reportedly were attacked, tear gassed and arrested.

“It was also horrifying to see firsthand how violent and insecure the cops are, and how that insecurity fuels their violence,” said 33-year-old Benjamin-Shalom Rodriguez, who attended the protest at Pan Pacific Park. “As a white-passing queer Latinx Jew, anyone who passes as white — Jewish or Gentile — has inherent privilege in the U.S.A. And we must first accept that privilege, not shame it, and definitely not excuse it away before we can be a true, committed ally for Jews of color and all people of color.”

“We need and deserve to be heard,” 18-year-old Erykah Gaston, who is black and Jewish, said. “We deserve to fight for a change. There’s no reason that after 400 years, we are still fighting for the same life that we were fighting for when we were taken from our native lands .… Our own protest is being taken from us and is being used to silence us, as it always has been.”

Of the many local business damaged by the looting, a few Los Angeles synagogues were vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. California Rapper Westside Gravy said this news hurt him as a black Jew because hate groups tied to the graffiti and other looting during the protests were moving the conversation away from the main point of the movement and attacking his identity in multiple ways.

“I think a lot of people felt like ‘I don’t have a place in standing up for this movement because there is this active vandalism taking place against a place of worship.’ There are so many different white supremacist and far-left anarchists who are trying to co-opt the black struggle right now that we can’t point fingers and say this entire movement to fight for justice for black Americans is tainted by anti-Semitism,” the rapper said. “I think it’s important to recognize that and not flush a whole movement down the toilet because of the actions of people who are harming not only the Jewish community but the black community.”

“There is a painful, difficult process by which we are making ourselves something new and that to me is the American promise that we have been working toward for hundreds of years.” — Ginna Green

Naomi Ackerman, executive director of the Advot Project, took her daughters to Fairfax Avenue on the morning of May 31 to clean up before attending a protest in Santa Monica, which also turned violent.

“Cleaning up Fairfax was a very bipolar experience. I think we need to take responsibility for a lot of things and what we can do is help cleanup,” Ackerman, 56, said. “People are mad and they are hurt and there are reasons these things are happening. I work with people every day where this is their reality. Police brutality has to stop.”

In response to the violence, L.A. Jews for Black Lives released a petition demanding a “People’s Budget,” opposing the proposed city budget allocating half of its general funds for a police force that “terrorizes Black communities as well as the unhoused, undocumented, and other marginalized communities,” the letter stated. “We call on our Jewish community and allies to honor our common humanity — B’Tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), and affirm that Black Lives Matter,” the letter written to Mayor Eric Garcetti said.

Political strategist and co-author of JOCsCount Campaign Ginna Green noted that the country is going through a painful time right now but it’s necessary to make change.

“I think about how lobsters molt, like they basically lose their exoskeleton and it’s a really painful process of basically getting a new body,” Green said. “That’s what it feels like America is going through right now. There is a painful, difficult process by which we are making ourselves something new and that to me is the American promise that we have been working toward for hundreds of years.”

Additional reporting by Ariel Sobel.

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