Beliefs and lifestyles within Judaism vary widely from denomination to denomination. But when it comes to last week's fatal shooting of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Church, a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the American Jewish community is standing united.
This weekend, beginning on Friday evening and ending on Saturday evening, rabbis and Jewish community members across the country will participate in a "Shabbat of Solidarity" with the African-American community. Leaders and congregants can participate in the call to action by reaching out to AME churches with messages of support or by speaking out in synagogue against racism and extremism. They can also attend services at an AME church on Sunday.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, who leads the Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, told The Huffington Post that when he learned of the horrific shooting, he immediately felt that the Jewish community needed to respond. He was reminded of the “dual narratives” of racism and persecution against the Jewish and black communities: Both groups have been historically oppressed, and many rabbis draw a link between the effect of the Holocaust on the Jewish community and the effect of slavery on the African American community.
Weinblatt said he felt that the Charleston shooting was a prime example of Hillul Hashem -- a term in Judaism that means “the desecration of God’s name.”
The rabbi drafted a call to action on Monday and sent it around to all of the country's major American Jewish denominations and organizations. In what he describes as an “unusual” display of “unity in the Jewish community," 14 organizations from across the spectrum of Jewish life signed off on the initiative.
“It was universally accepted by all the branches and denominations of Judaism,” Weinblatt said. “It was quite extraordinary, the universal sense among all spectrums of the community that this was something we had to do.”
The organizations who have endorsed the call to action range from liberal reform groups to more conservative orthodox groups. They include the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Union for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbinical Council of America, Orthodox Union, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Hillel and others.
Weinblatt felt that it was important for the Jewish community to act so that “the members of the black community, and especially the AME church, know that they’re not alone.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, sent the call to action to his organization’s member synagogues and rabbis. He said the response was “overwhelmingly positive" and signals the enduring connection between the black and Jewish communities.
“As a religious minority that has suffered great abuse and oppression and anti-Semitism, whenever another minority is threatened, there’s a very strong Jewish cultural psyche against oppression of any kind,” Wernick explained.
He added that this sense of solidarity with the black community was one reason that the Jewish community supported the civil rights movement in the 1960s. At the historic 1963 March on Washington, he noted, two rabbis -- Rabbi Uri Miller, then the president of the Synagogue Council of America and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, then the president of the American Jewish Congress -- were up on the stage with Martin Luther King Jr., delivering prayers and messages of support.
That connection between the two communities “is still etched in our conscious memory,” Wernick said. He added that many in the Jewish community felt deeply affected by the shooting at Emanuel AME and that the Shabbat of Solidarity was a “natural” response.
Denise Eger, head rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Los Angeles and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, told HuffPost: "I am leading a congregational trip here in Israel. But we will be discussing it at our service and Shabbat dinner here in Jerusalem tomorrow night."
"This Shabbat of solidarity is meant to start a more mindful discussion of the deep racial disparities in our country," Eger added. "It is to let the African-American community know that the healing our nation of racism isn't their battle alone, but people of good faith and fair index Americans of every race and religion will continue to stand with the African-American community to heal the income and class divides that play out around race in our country."
“All human beings are divine and are godly, and that comes with certain responsibilities: to speak out where injustice occurs, to actively work towards a society that’s built on justice, on equality, that’s free of racism and discrimination,” Wernick stressed. “Those values ... lead us to call for the Solidarity Sabbath.”