For some in New York City’s Jewish community, the announcement that a grand jury would not indict the police officer implicated in the death of an unarmed Staten Island man in broad daylight struck such a cord that some were willing to risk arrest in protest.
“I do believe we have a big contribution to make, the Jewish community,” said Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon of New York’s prominent B’nai Jeshurun synagogue. Matalon attended a Dec. 4 rally in which 27 people, including four rabbis, were taken into custody after the group blocked traffic on 96th Street in Manhattan.
The day before, a Staten Island grand jury chose not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer shown on a video holding Eric Garner in a chokehold medical professionals said led to his death. When the video of the July 17 incident was released online, revealing Garner, an African American, audibly begging for air, the case garnered national attention and outrage.
B’nai Jeshurun stresses social justice as one of its operating principles, and its members are active in a number of causes. The events of late, Matalon said, have offered American society an opportunity to address some of its most troublesome and deep-rooted problems.
“I would hope that the Jewish community would want to be part of the conversation, and even more so that we would want to lead the way and we would want to be among the conveners of this conversation,” said Matalon. “People say, ‘Why should Jews lead?’ Because we were there. We know what it is to be excluded, to be discriminated against. We have felt the unfairness of the system more than once.”
The next move for the community, said Matalon, is to work to keep the discussion alive at a time of year when upcoming holidays threaten to overshadow the efforts of protestors.
“Beyond last week and this week and the rallies, I think the real work begins now,” he said. “Last week was a time to express outrage and there was a time for outrage. Now it is the time to get down to the work.”
Bend the Arc Jewish Action, a national advocacy group that has a large New York presence, hopes to help fuel that work.
“We have to think about how we can best serve the young leaders who are doing the country a great service,” said Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, deputy director of Bend the Arc. Nearly two months before the Garner decision was announced, Kimelman-Block traveled to St. Louis to participate in a march of clergy in Ferguson, Mo., angry over the death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, another unarmed black man.
In the coming weeks, Kimmelman-Block, wants his organization to plan a coordinated effort between other social action groups and clergy to help support the movement.
A number of Bend the Arc’s members in the New York area have taken it upon themselves to join the throngs of people marching in the streets of the nation’s largest city, Kimelman-Block said, and he predicts that the protester’s voices will not die down anytime soon.
“It’s primarily the understanding that our country is deeply broken on the issue of race; it has been for a long time,” he said. “The Jewish community in the past has been involved in issues of racial justice and it’s our belief that we should continue to be, not only because it helps make our country a better place, but there are also many Jews of color that this is deeply affecting every day.”
Heather Norris is a staff reporter for WJW’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.