On Thursday night, the high-profile Upper West Side synagogue B’nai Jeshurun led a protest after the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York Police Department. A pre-scheduled event at BJ honored liberal Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, where attendees included Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Congressman Jerry Nadler and others. As B’nai Jeshurun’s Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon said in leading protestors, “…. we have to make serious change in our justice system and in our society to eradicate racism.” The protestors then recited the Kaddish prayer at the protest, and Rabbi Matalon noted “It’s a prayer about the vision of the world redeemed. It was a desire to express in Jewish terms our outrage, our concern and also our vision for a brighter future.” Multiple rabbis were arrested in acts of civil disobedience in non-violent protest.
In times of injustice, spiritual leaders—and people of conscience of all races and religions—should speak out. They should lead, and it is the right thing to do.
But, why is it that these Jewish leaders are deafeningly silent when it comes to Jewish victims?
Author Norman Podhoretz wrote in Why Are Jews Liberal that “To most American Jews, then, liberalism is not, as has often been said, merely a necessary component of Jewishness: it is the very essence of being a Jew. Nor is it a ‘substitute for religion’: it is a religion in its own right, complete with its own catechism and its own dogmas and, Tertullian-like, obdurately resistant to facts that undermine its claims and promises.” He adds “where the Torah of contemporary liberalism conflicts with the Torah of Judaism, it is the Torah of liberalism that prevails and the Torah of Judaism that must give way.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss—the foremost Jewish activist of this generation—has noted, “It is easy to love everyone; it is far more difficult to love someone. The test of how one loves all people is the way one loves one’s own people.”
Rabbi Weiss—who has protested and been arrested for Jewish and non-Jewish issues—noted in his book “Principles of Spiritual Activism” that he feels the “pain of Jewish victims of plane crashes more than of non-Jewish victims. And it’s natural, isn’t it, to love your own family at least as much as others?”
Along these lines, it’s interesting to review the actions of B’nai Jeshurun. In 2012, this congregation issued a statement “enthusiastically supporting the vote by the United Nations to upgrade Palestine to a nonmember observer state.” As the email, signed by B’nai Jeshurun’s three rabbis, cantor, board of directors and executive director, noted at the time: “The vote at the UN yesterday is a great moment for us as citizens of the world. This is an opportunity to celebrate the process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition. Having gained independence ourselves in this way, we are especially conscious of this.” A New York Times story entitled “Cheering U.N. Palestine Vote, Synagogue Tests Its Members” quoted a member of the synagogue, “It is like a high-five to the PLO, and that has left us numb.”
Yes, “Black Lives Matter”—and they must. But should not Jewish lives also matter? Particularly for Jewish leaders?
The Bolshevik revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, herself a Jew, once said, “I have no room in my heart for Jewish suffering – Why do you pester me with Jewish troubles?” It’s a question that Jewish leaders who are so outspoken on every issue—except Jewish ones—should ask themselves.
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, one of the 25 largest PR firms in America. He is a life-long New Yorker.