Heard Round WexWorld: “I can’t breathe”
(Pictured) Rabbi Jill Jacobs (WGFA, Class 11), Rabbi Shai Held (WGFA, Class 7), and Rabbi David Rosenn (WGFA, Class 5) moments before arrest, sitting down on 96th Street and Broadway
Thursday evening, December 4, 2014, Jewish leaders and organizations called for a protest on the Upper West Side of Manhattan “to rectify the structural injustices that give rise to the daily violations of the dignity of our fellow citizens of color” in response to Eric Garner’s death. Here are some of their reflections:
“People have congratulated us for our courage in being arrested. You know, at the end of the day, while it was frightening, it was more inconvenient than anything else. White rabbis with access to lots of powerful people choosing to be arrested on the UWS is not an act of heroism. I couldn’t help but spend the time thinking about how differently I was being treated than Eric Garner and countless others have been. Let’s focus on that.
I had a lot of misgivings about wearing a tallit last night because I wasn’t sure what it meant. In the end, I wore a tallit because I wanted to be there not just as a private citizen but also as a representative of Torah, to stand for and with a vision of religion in general, and of Judaism in particular, that insists upon the dignity of human beings even in a world in which human dignity is so often trodden and trampled upon. I wanted the stand we were taking to be about a vision of Torah and the ways it can bring healing rather than hatred into the world. I hope in some small way we contributed to that. Let’s focus on that.”
— Shai Held
“For me, as a rabbi, joining these protests is a religious act. The very first thing the Torah teaches us about human beings is that we’re all created in the image of God. And, per midrash, anyone who spills blood diminishes the divine presence. It’s unacceptable that the people charged with protecting us sometimes act as though the lives of certain people–most often those of color–are insignificant.
We got a lot of attention because of our arrests. I’m glad that both Jews and non-Jews saw that rabbis view the preservation of human life as a mitzvah for which it’s worth putting our bodies on the line. But it’s important that the story not be about us. While it may have been annoying to spend a night in jail, the experience made me even more aware of my own privilege. I may have lost a night of sleep, but I didn’t risk losing my job, getting deported, getting beat up, getting sent to Rikers Island for months or years awaiting trial, or worst of all getting killed. I’m thinking even more about the men, women, and teens of color who get picked up every night for minor crimes or no crimes, and who don’t have my privileges.”
— Jill Jacobs
“It was important to me to do this because I think we need to affirm through words and actions that all lives matter; it can’t pass without a strong reaction when the systems we rely on for safety and justice seem badly broken. As a rabbi, I see it as part of my calling to help keep people’s hearts and moral imagination engaged, especially around difficult issues. Sometimes that means praying and preaching; sometimes that means taking to the streets.
I have long thought that most of what people think about God and religion is a result of what they see rather than what they hear. We pushed back last night on people thinking that God is absent or irrelevant in the wake of injustice.”
— David Rosenn
Rabbi Shai Held, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 7), is Co-Founder, Dean and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar. Shai has also taught for the Wexner Heritage Program and at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He also served as Director of Education at Harvard Hillel. Shai is a 2011 recipient of the Covenant Award for excellence in Jewish education and has been named multiple times to Newsweek’s list of the top 50 rabbis in America. Shai holds a doctorate in religion from Harvard; his book, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence was published by Indiana University Press in 2013. Shai can be reached at email@example.com.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumna (Class 11) is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1,800 rabbis and cantors and tens of thousands of American Jews to protect human rights in North America and Israel. She is the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (2011) and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition (2009). Jill has been named three times to the Forward’s list of 50 influential American Jews, to Newsweek’s list of the 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America every year since 2009, and to the Jerusalem Post’s 2013 list of “Women to Watch.” She holds rabbinic ordination and an MA in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary, an MS in Urban Affairs from Hunter College, and a BA from Columbia University. She lives in New York with her husband, Guy Austrian, and their daughters Lior and Dvir. Jill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi David Rosenn, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 5), is Executive Vice President at the New Israel Fund, leads NIF’s operations in North America and works with NIF’s Board and senior staff to set and execute strategy for the organization overall. Prior to joining NIF, David served for 13 years as the founder and Executive Director at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. David was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1997. He believes social change is inspired and sustained when people feel themselves to be members of communities of moral courage and spiritual strength, and his work is centered around efforts to build, encourage and sustain Jewish participation in such communities. David is married to Rabbi Jennie Rosenn (WGFA, Class 4). David can be reached at email@example.com.