The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
How often does your rabbi say in his or her High Holy Day sermon, “Take out your phones and make a call?” Over the holiday season, that’s exactly what rabbis across California did. Governor Brown heard those calls, and he responded with a clear step forward for racial justice.
In my synagogue, Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, I taught the ancient midrash that the shofar’s cry is supposed to remind us of the crying of Sarah, the first Jewish mom, who wept when she heard about Abraham taking leave of his senses and binding their son Isaac for sacrifice. Of course, she wept only because she feared her son would die. The loved ones of Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sam DuBose, and Sandra Bland were not so fortunate. Nor were the loved ones of the nine souls killed while studying Bible together in Charleston. As part of Reform California’s B’Yachad campaign, I urged my congregation not to let this awful year of bloodshed confuse us. Every mom of every black child is Sarah… crying the shofar’s cry, fearful that her child will die. As Jews, we cannot hear that cry and not be moved. As Americans, we cannot hear that cry and not feel responsible.
There were powerful sermons from Sacramento to San Diego, and one thousand calls and emails, one thousand shofar blasts directed at Governor Jerry Brown. We wanted to rouse his soul and convince him to sign AB 953, a bill that would require all police officers in California to report basic information on all law enforcement stops, in a comprehensive effort to see the truth about racial profiling by the police in the state of California.
We are thrilled to announce that Governor Brown responded to the call with the legislative version of “hineini” (here I am)—he signed the bill into law on October 3, 2015.
The leaders of Reform California launched our campaign in May, calling it “B’yachad: In This Together.” We wanted a campaign that would give voice to the pain so many of us felt as we looked upon the horrifying images of one person of color after another dying in interactions with the police. We wanted a campaign that would enable us to create deeper relationships across lines of class, race and faith. We wanted a campaign that wouldn’t demonize the police, who do a difficult and honorable job, but would bring us all a step closer to the Californians we aspire to be.
With the support of our organizers, Lee Winkelman and Rabbi Jessica Oleon Kirschner, and in coalition with the bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Dr. Shirley Weber (D, San Diego) and our partners at the ACLU-CA, PICO-CA, Asian-Americans Advancing Justice, Dignity & Power Now, and the Youth Justice Coalition, we shepherded AB 953 through various committees in both houses of the California Legislature. Reform California leaders, rabbis and lay people called and emailed their representatives, met with them in their district offices, and met with the governor’s staff in Sacramento. We fought off challenges and attempts to water down the bill, and we are proud that the bill that finally made it to the governor’s desk is the strongest in the country.
In our home congregations, through Tisha b’Av events in Northern and Southern California, at house meetings and in congregational programs on Selichot, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, we challenged ourselves to reflect al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha bishgaga—on the sin we have sinned without even noticing… feeling certain it wasn’t coming from us. We challenged ourselves to abandon the color-blind ideal that locks our country into an endless loop of injustice. This work of challenge and reflection must continue, among individual Jews and within the Reform Jewish community broadly.
We know there is no law we can pass to change what a white person sees when an African-American is walking toward them on the street at night, nor can any law change what an African-American person sees when walking toward someone who is white. We can, however, push for every law that prevents whatever assumptions or fears we may carry around with us from turning into legalized injustice. With the passage of AB 953, Reform California is proud share our success in this work. Hazak hazak v’nitchazek…may we all go from strength to strength!
Ken Chasen is Senior Rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles. He serves on the adjunct faculty of the Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, and he is a nationally-recognized composer whose original liturgical and educational works are regularly heard in synagogues, religious schools, Jewish camps and sanctuaries across North America and in Israel.