Days after Michael Brown’s shooting, Jewish Missourians were looking to help ease tensions and build community in the troubled town of Ferguson. The Jewish Federation of St. Louis, for example, organized a special food drive for Ferguson with The Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. Residents, their normal routines disrupted, are in need of basics like food and diapers, said Phyllis Weiss, spokesperson for the pantry.
Many people “can’t get out of their homes because they may have limited mobility to begin with and, because of the protests and the tension, they have felt even less able to get out,” said the local federation’s president and CEO, Andrew Rehfeld. For the past three weeks, Weiss said that shipments to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ferguson have been delivered weekly.
The donations amount to four pallet trucks and one minivan full of items. Weiss emphasized that groceries and toiletries from the St. Louis pantry are not being diverted from its 7,000 regular clients. “We only send donations that are earmarked for Ferguson to Ferguson,” she said.
While food pantry donations provide people with a backstage opportunity, Weiss noted that “some people want to go over and do things physically.” And that’s exactly what congregants at Central Reform Synagogue in St. Louis did by participating in a national moment of silence and a “peaceful prayer walk” with other synagogues on Aug. 14.
The walk led through the Canfield Green Apartment Complex, where Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by a police officer. Jennifer Bernstein, director of advocacy and communications at Central Reform, said that they have a number of members of color, like Rebecca Frazier who organized and led a drum circle outside the Ferguson Police Department on Aug. 15. “It was completely peaceful,” Bernstein noted, “people had signs, but nothing inciting.”
Another Central Reform member , who wanted to help Ferguson’s children, accepting 100 kids to his summer camp for free. “It’s important that they can have s’mores and go swimming and do camp stuff,” Bernstein said. She noted that opportunities like these provide a platform to fight the “underlying current and natural segregation” felt throughout the county. The “underlying current” is exactly what the Cultural Leadership Program hopes to eradicate.
Cultural Leadership was designed originally to bring together black and Jewish students to revive the historic black-Jewish alliance, which was particularly strong during the civil rights movement. It has since been expanded to include students of all faiths and backgrounds, though a significant number continue to be black and Jewish.
The group visits the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and meets with legislators. The group learns about cultural identity and how it relates to freedom and oppression – chords that resonate in both African American and Jewish history.
The program is modeled after a similar initiative, Operation Understanding, in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. “Our students are trained to be what we call ‘troublemakers of the very best kind,’ ” said Holly Ingraham, the executive director of Cultural Leadership. “They have been taking action, standing up and speaking out before, during and after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson.”
JTA contributed to this report