Clergy, students and young professionals alike turned out for the Center City protest.
Adi Goldberg moved to Philadelphia from Baltimore last year to begin her studies at Temple University, where she is majoring in social work and sociology. Watching the mass rioting in her hometown on TV the last couple of days has been “really hard,” but perhaps even more shocking, she said, has been people’s response to the events unfolding just a short drive down I-95.
“Watching a lot of Jewish people’s reactions” to the rioting “and being so racist — it just hurts because they should just be looking at it through a different lens with our Jewish values and our whole history and the Torah,” Goldberg, 19, said, while standing near a "Philly is Baltimore" rally at City Hall on Thursday.
“Social justice is a really big part of being Jewish,” continued Goldberg, who has been affiliated with the Habonim Dror youth movement since 2006 when she began attending the group’s summer camps. The fact that Jews have experienced oppression in the past but enjoy relative tranquility in America “means we need to be here to show our support and solidarity — we can’t just play the oppressed card, we need to show our support for other people.”
The rally was put together by Philly Coalition for REAL Justice, a local branch of the national group, #Blacklivesmatter, that was formed in 2012 in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, a black youth, by George Zimmerman, a white neighborhood watch volunteer, in Florida. While details of the shooting remain unclear depending who you ask, Zimmerman’s acquittal of any wrongdoing after the incident sparked national unrest by those concerned with what they see as excessive police brutality. Subsequent incidents like the slaying of Michael Brown, a black man, by a white cop, in Ferguson, Mo., have sparked rioting and protests.
This week, the mysterious death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, while in police custody, led to mass rioting in Baltimore to such an extent that the National Guard was brought in to restore order.
Though there has been widespread condemnation of the rioting, which has been violent and destructive, many have also contended that the protests are the result of an untenable social and economical inequity that has become the status quo in the United States, and solidarity protests have popped up around the country.
Goldberg was one of several Jews in the region — clergy, students and young professionals alike — who attended the rally outside City Hall that drew a few thousand people.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom in Manayunk stood next to two black pastors with whom he is acquainted through his participation in Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild, an interfaith coalition more popularly known by the acronym POWER.
“We wanted to be in solidarity with what’s going on in Baltimore, we also wanted to be here as a Jewish community in solidarity with our black brothers and sisters and to fight violence and poverty and systemic injustice altogether,” Zevit said. “Particularly for me, it’s important to be here with fellow clergy.”
Pastor Gregory Holston of New Vision United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, added that the City of Brotherly Love, where he has lived his entire life, is fortunate not to be going through the same unrest as in Baltimore.
“All the conditions — the abject poverty, the lack of jobs, the lack of opportunity, the poor education — that was present in West Baltimore, is present in various parts of Philadelphia,” Holston, who is black, said, noting that Philadelphia has an even higher poverty rate than Baltimore. When asked about the importance of clergy of all faiths coming out to show their support, he responded, “To love our neighbors means we stand for justice.”
While there were reports of some tense moments of shoving matches between police and protesters as the rally moved away from City Hall, the rally itself was carried out peacefully, without any incidents. Police squads gathered at various intersections of the city center stood around without much to do.
Also present was an unofficial contingent from the Philadelphia chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that, according to its website, “advocates for a lasting peace that recognizes the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians for security and self-determination.” The Anti-Defamation League has termed the group the "largest and most influential Jewish anti-Zionist group in the United States" and says it has "assumed a particularly visible role in the renewed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel."
Many Baltimore public school students were at the front lines of the rioting there, and the education system in major cities around the United States has been a hot talking point.
Matt Berkman, a steering committee member of the group, referred to the flailing education system in Philadelphia in recent years, by way of explaining his attendance at the rally.
“I don’t want to live in a country where millions of dollars are taken away from inner city public schools and other important social services for underserved people,” Berkman said. “We need to reorient our economic priorities.”
Standing nearby was Simone Zelitch, a professor of English at the Community College of Philadelphia, who recently published an historical fiction novel, Waveland, which revolves around the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign in the United States that attempted to increase the number of African-American voters in Mississippi, which had historically excluded blacks from voting.
Calling herself a “free agent” of the Jewish community, she discussed the historical aspect of the riots and protests that have been breaking out around America.
“These are live issues, everybody knows they’re not going away,” said Zelitch. “This is not just all a bunch of folks of a single age and of a single ethnicity — it’s white folks, it’s black folks, it’s people of a range of ages and I find that really exciting.”
To view more photos from the rally, click on the media icon at the top right of the screen.