When local congregational rabbis wrote or spoke in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, with the nation around them aroused, several thought of the America’s promise, or the notion that everybody counts.
These two themes in local rabbinic statements emerged from a place of horror and passion. Rabbi Joel Alter wrote of Floyd’s death in a June 1 letter to his congregation, Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid in Mequon: “When a man wearing the uniform of service and a badge promising integrity, a person armed by the state to protect others, an officer trained to leverage power for calm and safety – when such a man presses the life out of another already cuffed with a knee upon his neck for nearly nine murderous minutes, toleration expires.”
When toleration expired, local congregational rabbis of different streams of Jewish thought had something to say.
As thousands of Americans turned out to protest, Rabbi Wes Kalmar of the Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah congregation in Glendale, was drawn to the teachings of a great rabbi who had just died.
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm served as president and chancellor of Yeshiva University and was rosh hayeshiva (head of school) at the university’s renowned theological seminary for rabbinical training. Lamm died May 31 at 92.
Days later, in Kalmar’s June 5 letter to congregants, he noted that Lamm wrote and spoke repeatedly about the evils of racism. Kalmar quoted a 1964 sermon by Lamm, labeling racism “one of the most pernicious and idolatrous doctrines in the memory of living man.”
Through quoting that 1964 sermon, and in other ways, several local congregational rabbis noted that, sadly, some things have not changed. In some sense, we keep having the same conversations about these issues.
Kalmar added that in memory of Lamm we must recognize “that each and every one of us has value – every human being needs to be treated as a child of God and as one who was created with the tzelem elokiim – the image of God in them.”
Rabbi David Cohen of Congregation Sinai in Fox Point offered a prayer on behalf of local religious leaders on Saturday, June 6, in Atwater Park in Shorewood. He spoke against systemic racism to a crowd of more than 1,500, just before a march called “North Shore Justice for George Floyd Peaceful Protest.”
Cohen tendered a call and response: “Say it with me: I am my brother’s keeper.”
The pandemic, he told the assembled, “stunningly reminds us just how exquisitely interconnected and interdependent we are.”
In a June 5 letter to congregants at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in River Hills, Rabbi Marc E. Berkson writes of the Torah’s call to “take a census” or “lift up every head.”
“In the end, it is not about counting people; it is all about ensuring that each and every person counts,” he writes. We are each a child of God.
To injure one another is to break faith with God, said Rabbi Joel Alter at the start of his Shabbat morning sermon on June 6. “The Torah is saying that we cannot be right with God if we are out of balance with one another, as our relationship with God is a reflection of our interpersonal relationships. This is what it means for all of us to have been created in God’s image, and for a single God to have created us all,” he said.
On May 30, just five days after Floyd’s death, Rabbi Noah Chertkoff of Congregation Shalom wrote a letter to his congregation: “When you see the images of protesters think of them as your beloved brothers, when you see the scared police officer attempting to maintain order amidst a riot, think of her as your beloved sister.”
Congregational rabbis took note not only of tzelem elokiim, the notion that all have the image of God in them, but also of America’s relationship with its own people.
Berkson brought up some of America’s founding wording: “all … are created equal … with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as “we, the people” seek “to form a more perfect Union.”
Chertkoff wrote to his congregation of the violation of this promise: “While people of color have raised their voices, protested, been murdered, marched, and engaged in civil disobedience for their rights, too often we have been content to view this as ‘their pursuit of justice.’”
Alter said, “the promise of this country is too great, and our failure to uphold our ideals too glaring, to permit complacency.”
Rabbis sometimes cited America’s checkered past.
We stand on the shoulders of Milwaukeeans who fought in the 1960’s for civil rights, voting rights and housing rights, according to Cohen, who spoke at Atwater Park. He ended his message there with: “And may this generation have the merit to fulfill the Torah’s sacred promise inscribed on the Liberty Bell: ‘you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all of its inhabitants.’”