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Congregation Beth Am rabbi still marching for justice

Published Jul. 22, 2016

In August 2015, Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, leader at Congregation Beth Am in Tampa, joined the Journey for Justice.

The 40-day 860-mile march organized by the NAACP brought to the forefront issues of inequality and police brutality.

Rosenberg participated in the walk from Atlanta to Athens, Ga., following in the footsteps of Jewish civil rights activists, including Rabbi Uri Miller, who recited the opening prayer at the 1963 March on Washington.

Last week, after the shootings of law enforcement officials in Dallas and the police shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, I asked a local pastor how religious leaders should respond to such events.

This week, now following the shooting of officers in Baton Rouge, I caught up with Rosenberg who below shares his perspective.

What role can/should religious organizations, synagogues, churches and religious leaders play in efforts against injustice?

Thousands of years ago, the prophets called us to justice and made it clear that God isn't interested in expressions of piety if they come from someone who ignores the suffering of the weak and the innocent. I think that those prophets are still a model for what a religious leader can and must do to sound the alarm, to make it clear that we have to continue to fight for those who are suffering and to seek justice for those who have none.

Another way to say that is that one of the primary jobs of religious leaders, or of religious people in general, is to be the alarm trying our best to wake us up to what is really happening in the world and how unacceptable it is. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we have to constantly remind ourselves that, in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible. We have to remember that we are responsible for the suffering of others, even if we didn't cause it.

How can religious leaders help their congregations find hope and healing in the wake of tragedy?

That's tricky. Part of me wants to say that we don't actually want to offer too much comfort because that will work against the prophetic voice. If we're soothed, then we might not be so motivated to fight and work for change. It's been said many times that the job of religion is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable (although Wikipedia tells me that was originally directed at newspapers, not religion, so we share that imperative, I guess). There's a danger in being too comfortable when the world needs us.

But that's really only part of my answer, because I do think that we need comfort in scary times. Part of how we do that is by helping to keep our eyes on the big picture, by reminding ourselves that, despite how it looks when we focus on whatever the most recent tragedy is, most of us are safe and most of us can feel secure.

As someone who actively participated in the walk to raise awareness about inequalities, how did you personally react to recent events? Are such efforts (Journey to Justice) wasted?

Not at all. Not in the least bit. To the contrary, it makes that march seem all the more urgent and all the more valuable. That march wasn't intended to solve problems but to raise awareness. It was to get people to pay attention to the ongoing scourge of racism in this country and to make it again a part of the national conversation.

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I think that the march was a small piece of a larger effort which has been succeeding in doing just that. Last summer, I knew that racial inequality and racism were a serious, deep-seated problem in our society. This summer, it's all the more apparent that that is true. The first step in solving any problem is acknowledging that we have one, and I'm proud to think that I played a very small role in a larger effort to get all of us to admit that there's a problem and to start addressing it.

As MLK said, the moral arc of the universe bends slowly but it bends inexorably towards justice. Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Tarfon said that we aren't required to finish the work but we aren't allowed to ignore it either. Playing a small role in a larger sacred effort was, and continues to be, an important part of how I try to serve God and our society.

Contact Sarah Whitman at sarahrothwhitman@gmail.com.

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