I have often wondered if we really believe what we preach. For thousands of years we have proclaimed the importance of human life. Our sages have proclaimed the importance of every individual. They went so far as to say that if one life is prematurely ended an entire world is destroyed. The rabbis tell us we can violate almost every commandment for Pikuach Nefesh, the saving of a life. Nothing, our Tradition, teaches us, is more sacrosanct than human life.
We teach that a spark of God resides in each human being, that we are all created in God’s image, and that each person is precious to God. While God has an eternal covenant with the Jewish people, all of us, regardless of race or religion, gender or ethnicity, are God’s children. Yet do we really believe this?
What makes me ask this question? A simple statistic. In May, 42 people were murdered in Baltimore. In June, another 31 were killed. Has an enraged Jewish community demanded change in the Baltimore Police Department? Have we pressured the Mayor to replace the police commissioner? Have we done anything but shake our heads and said, “This is really terrible?” No, we have not. We rationalize that most of these victims were involved in the drug trade, that they were selling the drugs stolen from looted pharmacies in April’s riot, and that the world is better off without them. Let me let you in on an ugly secret. All of these murder victims were black. I sincerely believe that if 73 white citizens of Baltimore were murdered in this same period the police commissioner would have been fired long ago, the mayor would have been recalled, and the governor would have sent in the National Guard and declared martial law. The truth is that we do not value the lives of inner city black residents. Perhaps I am being unfair. Yet where are the Jewish voices calling for change? Why are we not on the barricades demanding that the police crackdown on crime? Frankly, I am very disappointed in us.
Are there reasons for our apathy? Of course there are. In the 1968 riots, the Jewish community was devastated. Many of our people owned small businesses in the City that were destroyed by rioters. Livelihoods and lives were snuffed out. Jews fled to the County and, with the exception of those who have moved to the trendy neighborhoods of Roland Park, Canton, and Federal Hill, we have practically abandoned the City. Our lives are now suburban- and so are our concerns. Many of us have so little contact with Baltimore City that, as far as we are concerned, the recent Baltimore riot could have taken place in another country.
So why am I speaking of this tonight? There are three very important reasons why we must be involved in the life of Baltimore City and work to improve the lives of its impoverished residents. The first is purely selfish: When Baltimore grows, the entire metropolitan region grows with it. Baltimore is the economic engine of Maryland. When lives improve in Baltimore, when more kids graduate from school, when more people are working, when more neighborhoods are safe, we are all better off. People need decent jobs in which they can earn enough to buy a house and support a family. We should be working with BUILD and every other organization, institution, and company to create meaningful jobs in Baltimore. Two: If we are to be true to ourselves, true to our raison de’tre as Jews, we need to actually put our words into action. Is Judaism a string of meaningless cliches’ or do our beliefs stir us to make our community a better place? Does our sacred Tradition motivate us towards Tikun Olam, repair of the world, or does it simply call for holiday and life cycle celebrations? What does God want of Jewish people? While God has not recently spoken to me, I know that God wants us to work on behalf of those who are in need. Three: Before there were Jews, before Avram and Sarai, there was Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel. When Cain murdered his brother Abel, God said to him (Genesis 4:9), “Cain, where is your brother Abel?” And Cain replied, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” God did not need to answer the rhetorical question because the answer is obvious- we are our brothers and sisters keepers! We are responsible for the wellbeing of others in addition to our own. God does not care if people are white, black or purple. To ignore our responsibility for the welfare of others is to ignore what it means to be a human being created in the image of God.
So what do I want of us? I want us to not just care more, but to work harder. I want us to work with other like minded people to make Baltimore a healthier, safer, and more productive city. We, as individuals, cannot do this alone. We need to be part of something greater than ourselves that advocates for change.
Give me a few moments to educate our Har Sinai friends. Oheb Shalom is the only synagogue in Baltimore to belong to BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development is a broad-based community power organization, rooted in Baltimore’s neighborhoods and congregations. BUILD is a non-partisan, interfaith, multiracial organization dedicated to making our city a better place for all Baltimoreans thrive. For more than 38 years, BUILD has worked to improve housing, increase job opportunities, and rebuild schools. BUILD is composed of more than forty congregations who listen to their members and discover their concerns. In March of 2014, BUILD completed the largest listening campaign in its history. Through individual and small group conversations with over 5,240 people who live, work, and worship in Baltimore, BUILD identified four top issues that will guide our work in the coming years:
- Jobs and Employment
- Crime and Safety
- Youth Opportunities
- Schools and Education
What I find so interesting is that last March, our BUILD committee listened to 150 Oheb Shalom members. Our concerns were exactly the same as those of other congregations.
Months ago, BUILD called for the Mayor and Police Commissioner Batts to meet with residents of Sandtown-Winchester to learn about their concerns and to generate relationships. They refused. They never walked the neighborhood. Trust between the Baltimore police and the residents of West Baltimore broke down as there was an absence of relationship. For the last several years, the Western District has only had interim commanders, none of whom stayed around long enough to create a relationship with the community. Have you ever wondered why the April riot was concentrated on Baltimore’s West Side, with little spilling over to the rest of the City? It is not only because that is the neighborhood where Freddie Gray was arrested and died. It is because residents in other parts of the City have a hard earned relationship with the police. The trust each other and work together to help keep their neighborhoods safe. BUILD recently called for Commissioner Batts to issue his plan to reduce violence in Baltimore. When he did not, BUILD was the first to call for his resignation, the first time in its existence it has called for the resignation of a police commissioner. Batts is a good man, a smart and articulate person whose heart is in the right place, but he was a leader without a constituency. He lost the trust of his police officers and the trust of the people. After BUILD called for his resignation, the Fraternal Order of Police issued its critical report of the commissioner. Only then did the Mayor fire him.
I would like Har Sinai, and other progressive synagogues, to join BUILD and work with us to make life better for us all. We will then fulfill our mission as Jews and human beings. Are we our brother’s keeper? Yes. We are responsible not just for our fellow Jews, but for all human beings. Let us be consistent in both word- and deed.
Amen and Shabbat shalom