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Criminal Justice

In response a federal jury's decision today to condemn Boston Marathon bombing perpetrator Dzhokar Tsarnaev to death, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, made the following statement:

On Friday May 1, a number of us boarded the MARC train to Baltimore on our way to a march and rally organized by Jews United for Justice. We were once again disappointed and outraged by the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of the police. Though we were standing up for justice for Freddie Gray, we knew that we were also asking for justice in our broader criminal justice system.

A tragedy in the city of Baltimore and the protests and riots that followed have once again refocused national attention on race, class, and unequal treatment under the law. Even as Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced last Friday that charges would be brought against the police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray, RAC staff were en route to nearby Baltimore to stand with our partners in a peaceful protest calling for accountability and reform in law enforcement.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to deliver the following words before the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism at the RAC's Consultation on Conscience:

by Rabbi Rebekah Stern

I lay in bed one night late last summer, scrolling, as I often do, through my Facebook newsfeed on my phone. As a congregational rabbi and a mother of two young children—a now almost five-year old girl and two-year old boy—these last moments before I fall asleep are the only ones I seem to have to catch up on the lives of my more distant friends.

These were the first painful weeks after Michael Brown’s death. The weeks when we were reminded that there is sometimes a shocking discrepancy between the way that my white family experiences interaction with law enforcement and the way that black families often do.

At the RAC’s Consultation on Conscience April 26-28, 2015, we are thrilled to have Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri and Aaron Jenkins of Operation Understanding DC lead a workshop on how congregations can engage in the important civil rights work of our time. Rabbi Talve will speak about her activism in the St. Louis and Ferguson area in the time since Michael Brown’s death, and the role of congregations and faith leaders in leading this work. Mr. Jenkins will talk about his work as Executive Director of Operation Understanding DC and the importance of dialogue, especially between the black and Jewish communities.

At the RAC’s Consultation on Conscience on April 26-28, Reform rabbis and social action leaders from across the country will gather to hear experts speak about the crucial issues of today – including racial and economic justice. On Monday morning of the Consultation, we have the privilege of hearing from Bryan Stevenson, the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Tune in to the live stream at 9:00 AM on Monday morning to hear Mr. Stevenson share his story and his work.

We mourn the tragic death of Walter Scott this past weekend in North Charleston, South Carolina and send our thoughts and prayers to his family and community. Over the past year, our nation’s consciousness has been raised as we have watched Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many more tragically and unnecessarily lose their lives. We hope that the charges brought against the police officer indicate the seriousness with which this situation will be handled.  

On Tuesday, President Obama commuted the drug sentences of 22 individuals, more than doubling the number of commutations he has issued throughout his entire presidency. The men and women who were granted clemency had been imprisoned under an outdated sentencing regime, and "had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," said White House counsel Neil Eggleston in a statement. In fact, many of these individuals served years, some even more than a decade, longer than they would if convicted of the same crime today.

On Passover, we remember the ten plagues that were put upon the Egyptian people. Thousands of years later, modern-day plagues of inequality should ignite contemporary responses to combat these injustices. Many of the most vulnerable members of our society are disproportionately affected; they cannot be “passed over” or ignored, especially during this important holiday. As we think about the ancient plagues, let us also keep in mind those who still live under the weight of modern plagues.