Rabbis and organizational leaders in St. Louis have been working to tame tempers and lead spiritual healing after the city erupted upon learning that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the death of Michael Brown.
The maelstrom of activity seemingly never ends for Rabbi Susan Talve. Rarely has that been more apparent than early this week as the story of Michael Brown, Officer Darren Wilson and the city of Ferguson entered its latest chapter.
The spiritual leader of Central Reform Congregation was in a bit of a rush late Tuesday afternoon. She had just returned from a downtown protest with 350 others, marching from Kiener Plaza to the federal courthouse, and needed to be back at her congregation for a 7 p.m. prayer service at the shul. In between, she was officiating a wedding service and had to change clothes fast.
All this on no sleep, following the 8:15 p.m. announcement Monday that the St. Louis County grand jury decided not to seek criminal charges against Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting death of Brown. She had spent the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday morning being interviewed by several Israeli radio stations about the decision and the civil unrest that followed.
“There have to be real systematic changes or the noise isn’t going to stop,” she said, pointing to the need to implement measures such as civilian review boards, body cameras for police, strengthening racial profiling laws and a reorganization of St. Louis area municipalities.
“The other thing is that the St. Louis Jewish community has work to do,” she continued. “It needs to remember that 50 years ago, we were some of the leaders of the civil rights movement. This is our fight as American Jews not only because it’s our core values not to let people be judged by color of skin or their ethnicity or religion, but also because we have Jews of color growing up in our community.
“We have to dig deep and dismantle the racism so that we are not part of the problem but rather the solution. We have an opportunity to change the system locally, statewide and nationally. That’s really what this is about.”
Jewish Federation of St. Louis President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld amplified those sentiments. “Jewish clergy have a long history of engagement in civil rights and social justice,” he said.
Noting that clergy and congregations must decide for themselves their roles in events like those in Ferguson, Rehfeld, like Talve, refers back to previous movements.
“We recall the role of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King and have a story of the community’s support of the civil rights movement that today we take pride in,” Rehfeld said.
“At the time, many in our community did not engage. So in retrospect (with Ferguson), it may look like those involved were leaders even if right now it’s not clear what the community response might be in general.”
The goal of social change was also reflected by Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois. She said the ADL plans to continue its efforts to combat bias as it pertains to law enforcement, the economy and other factors.
“I am optimistic that there are some very smart people in the community who think outside the box, and that all of us concerned with this issue will respect the stated wishes of Michael Brown’s family to respect his memory by working together to prevent such tragedies from tearing apart our community,” Aroesty said.
Talve and fellow CRC rabbi Randy Fleisher offered the congregation as a spiritual sanctuary to anyone in the community, Jew or non-Jew, who needed a “rabbinic presence,” and vowed to stay open for 24 hours following the grand jury announcement.
They invited the community to join them Tuesday evening to talk and pray about the events that unfolded during the long hours early in the week. Fleisher said they also planned to assemble “goodie bags” of nut-free granola bars, juice boxes, and activity books to give out to children who will be spending their days at the Ferguson Public Library while their schools are closed.
Other groups also stepped forward to help on the heels of the grand jury announcement. Rehfeld referred to both Jewish Family & Children’s Services and the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Batya Abramson-Goldstein, JCRC’s executive director, stressed the need to help the community cope with the hurt associated with the events in Ferguson.
“We want to respond to that pain, and so we are reaching out to the Jewish community of St. Louis to encourage messages of support for the people of Ferguson, and for the healing of the St. Louis region be sent using #Fergusonifnotuswho,” she said.
In addition to social action advocacy and helping hands, members of the clergy were present to simply offer places to gather and ways to feel connected.
Before the grand jury announcement, members of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association held a special prayer meeting at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School.
“As long as I’ve been here, which is over 30 years, there’s never been a special session of the rabbinical association called,” said Rabbi James Stone Goodman, the group’s president and spiritual leader of Congregation Neve Shalom. “I’ve never experienced anything like this.
“The whole part of watching this happening on television was maddening to me. I couldn’t do that,” Goodman added. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get together and do something here. It felt like the right thing to do.”
Rabbi Jim Bennett of Shaare Emeth said he was concerned that people were “revving themselves up” in response to the grand jury. “I’m worried that people won’t take all these events seriously enough. And I’m also worried that people will take them too seriously.”
He also felt larger issues were at play.
“It’s clear to me that our society has to come to grips once and for all with this endemic problem of injustice that shows its face in so many different ways – the racial injustice that exists in our society, the economic injustice, the deep seated prejudices and fears that separate us from one another,” Bennett said. “I don’t know whether this event itself is the seminal moment but it is a moment for us in St. Louis to take stock.”
Cantor Ron Eichaker of United Hebrew Congregation said that he felt it was unfortunate that the issues involved seemed to be dominated by the individuals who shouted most forcefully.
Rabbi Ari Kaiman of Congregation B’nai Amoona said that while anxieties over possible trouble and violence abound, he thought only of one fear — fear of God.
“What that means to me is that God is always the force that is giving us the best possible choices,” he said. “What we really need to be afraid of is making wrong choices.”
Kaiman struck an optimistic note, saying that Americans have long worked for equality, justice and peace. “That’s what it means to be American and live among one another,” he said. “I’m praying for a future where it is easier for every American to see one another as human beings and citizens.”
Meanwhile, across town at CRC Monday night, about three dozen had gathered to sing and pray prior to settling in before a television with a glitchy cable signal as the clock ticked down the minutes to the grand jury announcement.
“Begin with the silent heart of grief, which precedes the ‘what it means’ question,” intoned Talve during a prayer. “The world is still cracked. Remember that hate corrupts but love repairs.
“We continue to squeeze this story for more of what it means,” she continued. “It is a good question but not the only question.”
Once the grand jury announcement came, the CRC group betrayed little emotion. A feeling of melancholy appeared to sweep over the room.
Talve spoke again to the group. “We want to turn all of this energy and noise into something that really honors the memory of Michael Brown and all of the other black and brown children who for whatever reason have been killed by violence,” she said.
She then spoke about Brown.
“He doesn’t get a second chance at 18,” she added, her voice dropping to a near whisper as the group held a moment of silence. Outside in the temple atrium, an African-American woman began weeping and was comforted by two other women.
“I’ve got to go to Ferguson!” she exclaimed. “I’ve got to go right now!”
“We’re going to go together,” said Talve, who quickly headed from the room.
David Baugher and Robert A. Cohn contributed to this report.