Since Freddie Gray’s death on April 12, Baltimore has been churning. We witnessed the first civil insurrection since the 1968 riots. Since Freddie Gray died while in the custody of Baltimore Police, 39 people have been murdered, almost all in drug killings. During the same time period, arrests have gone done by half compared to this time last year. The police in the Western District, the area that contains Sandtown-Winchester, are engaging in a Baltimore version of an “Italian strike,” meaning they show up for work but don’t respond to calls in a timely manner. Police complain that neighborhood residents surround them and record everything they do, not allowing them to do their jobs. Residents claim the police cannot be trusted to do their job without proper oversight. What this indicates is that trust between police and residents in the Western District has completely broken down. The City’s political leadership has neither a vision nor a comprehensive plan to deal with the Westside. What happens if the six police officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death are not convicted? What happens if the prosecutors lose the case? City authorities do not have a plan to deal with the riots that will inevitably follow.
So, dear friends, my question is, “Why do we care so much?” None of us live on the Westside or anywhere near the Westside. Few of us were seriously impacted by the riots and the ensuing destruction. My neighbor’s athletic shoe store was looted. He is heartbroken but will recover due to having insurance coverage. Why do we care so much about what happens in Baltimore City?
Baltimore is our home. Many of us were born and raised in the City and are the product of City schools. We work in the City and depend upon it for our livelihoods. Baltimore is the economic and cultural center around which we revolve. We understand that without a healthy city, all of us will suffer. The name of our synagogue is Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City. We have been located in the City of Baltimore for 162 years and have no plans to leave. We, as Jews, have a vested stake in a vigorous and strong Baltimore.
I think, however, that there is even more to this answer than that. Tomorrow night we join with Jews around the world as we begin our celebration of Shavuot, when we mark Mattan HaTorah, the giving of Torah to the Jewish people. God chose what had been an insignificant people and gave us the Torah. “On the first day of Shavuot, we read in Exodus 19 that God declares to the Israelites assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai: “If you obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples…. you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation… the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that God has spoken we will do.’”
To this very day, before reading the Torah, we bless God “who chose us from among all the nations.” God entered into a brit, a covenant with us which, no matter how much we violate it, is eternal and indestructible. “Chosenness is not about merit; it is about responsibility. Jews live with the ever-present and inescapable discomfort caused by the conscience of a people expected by God – or by whatever inner force drives us – to be at the creative and moral vanguard of humankind (Aron Hirt-Mannheimer, 10 Minutes of Torah, May 22, 2015).” Dear friends, the reason we care so much about our City is because the City, and all who live in it, are our responsibility. While we cannot make life better for each individual, we must ceaselessly work for systemic change, to break the cycle of poverty, of drug use, of joblessness, and especially of hopelessness. That is our obligation as Jewish human beings. To be Jewish is to care, and to act, in a positive manner, upon our feelings. Chosenness yields no special privileges, only responsibility. We continually live with the guilt that we could do more.
As part of the BUILD clergy, I met yesterday with the team of US attorneys from the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Division. This team from the Civil Rights Division is investigating the Baltimore Police Department for misconduct, for the systematic violation of citizens’ Constitutional rights. They will look at the department’s training, hiring, promotion, equipment and leadership structure. They will interview hundreds of citizens in Baltimore as well as hundreds of police and, in the next year to two years, make recommendations on the reform of the Baltimore Police Department. We heard yesterday from the residents of Sandtown that police abuses are neither black nor white. Officers of both races engage in mistreatment of residents. These Department of Justice attorneys want to hear directly from those who have personally experienced mistreatment by police. If you know of anyone who has, please let me know and I will give you the necessary contact information.
Changing the culture of the Baltimore Police Department is crucial, but it is only the first step. The residents of Sandtown, Oliver, Cherry Hill, Park Heights, and other city neighborhoods need jobs and the opportunity to improve their lives. Delegate Dr. Dan Morheim wrote in today’s Baltimore Sun that a necessary ingredient for peace in our cities is reform of our drug laws. We need to treat drug addiction not as a crime, but as a disease. We need to do away with mandatory drug sentencing for users and get them into drug treatment. While we will never completely do away with drug abuse, by reforming the system we can make a huge difference.
That is the key- making a difference. As Jews, our obligation is to leave the world better than we found it. Let us work together to make Baltimore a healthier and stronger city. This is what God requires of us.
Amen- Shabbat shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach