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High Holiday Safety for Jews of Color in NYC

As systemic racial injustices continue to plague black Americans, non-White Jews should attend shul with their eyes wide open

September 11, 2015
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
An Orthodox Jewish man blows the shofar during the ritual of Tashlich in Ashdod, September 29, 2011. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
An Orthodox Jewish man blows the shofar during the ritual of Tashlich in Ashdod, September 29, 2011. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

“Don’t break the law and you can breathe easy.”­

“Keep your hands where police can see them and you’ll have no problem.”

“Don’t be disrespectful to cops, otherwise you’re just asking for trouble.”

“Just follow the law and you won’t get shot.”

“If you’re not guilty, then you don’t have to run.”

This is the victim-blaming narrative—examples of which I’ve read about on social media, heard on TV, or via people who respond to manifestations of systemic racial prejudices with #AllLivesMatter—that has arisen in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and its critique of disproportionate amount of police force, the effects of which far too often result in the deaths of black Americans.

It is a narrative which persists despite having been thoroughly demolished last month with the arrest of a still-unnamed white woman who led police on a high speed chase through Los Angeles in a stolen vehicle, before being brought to a halt by a spike strip. In the video, the young woman commits the very kind of arrest faux-pas—exiting a car without direction from the authorities and taunting them by dancing, waving her hands in the air and repeatedly touching her hands to her waistband, where a weapon could have been—that have landed far too many black American in the morgue. This woman even re-entered the stolen vehicle where she continued her jig.

Eventually, the woman is removed from the vehicle, brought to the ground, and arrested without a single warning or shot fired. It was white privilege of the highest order. Don’t believe me? Consider this world—a world in which Sandra Bland was arrested this summer in Texas after being pulled over for making a wrongful stop, and refusing to extinguish her cigarette. Or a world in which these black men were pulled over for making “direct eye contact” with the police. Or a world in which a young brown person in a hoodie is a suspicious thug. Consider these instances in light of evidence from the Department of Justice showing that white Americans are killed by other white Americans 84% of the time.

Into this world step, with trepidation, many Jews of color. And as the High Holidays season is upon us, we are often wrought with uneasiness as a result of the heightened police presence around many synagogues during this time of the year—a presence that is supposed to protect us, not heighten our anxieties. Instead, Jews of color, well aware of the systemic racial discrimination that plagues our society, can find themselves being followed into synagogues by police or at the wrong end of several a cops’ gun just for being the “wrong” color of Jewish.

And so, in these increasingly hair-trigger times, I decided to seek out answers, to find out how to navigate the holiday season as a Jew of color. An active veteran NYPD police detective, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, gave me the rundown of what Jews of color should keep in mind during the Jewish High Holidays:

“Firstly, let’s hope that no one is accosted for any reason,” the officer told me. “Secondly, every New Yorker, be they Muslim, Christian, or an African American/Caribbean Jew, needs to always walk around with some form of state or city-issued lawful ID while outside their home. Will carrying ID automatically keep you from being arrested? No. But a petty or minor violation ticket can turn into an arrest simply because you didn’t have ID.”

“What about Orthodox African American/Caribbean Jews who would be prohibited from carrying wallets or ID or the like because of religious stipulations?” I asked.

“I guess it’s a gamble they have to take.”

From there I cited a 2008 incident when an African American Jewish reader of mine found himself removed from Friday night services at a Reform temple by congregants who had summoned police to do so simply because they didn’t know who he was. It turned out they were startled by his black face. I asked the NYPD officer for some perspective on that situation.

“While [houses of worship are] often thought of as open to the public, [they’re] technically privately-owned property and should be treated as such,” the detective continued. “The landlord, caretaker, or spiritual leader has the right to bar entry or remove anyone they so choose. An African American/Caribbean Jew may wish to secure, in writing from the Rabbi, some document that expresses their right to enter said premises.”

This smacked to me of shades of “freedom papers.” The officer then provided me with slightly more hopeful counsel about how to interact with the police.

“Don’t be hostile if you are stopped,” he said. “Try to be polite even if you don’t feel this is being reciprocated. If an officer of the NYPD is ever disrespectful or abuses their authority, you as a citizen have every right to make any and all complaints known to either the Civilian Complaint Review BoardInternal Affairs, the NYC Inspector General, or even the District Attorney’s Office, depending on how grievous the behavior.”

Yet the detective was quick to note that there were no scenarios in which he would advocate the use of one’s constitutional right of freedom of religion to stand your ground in opposition to an officer barring entrance to, or removing you, from a synagogue. He cautioned: “It is always better to comply with an officer’s request at the time of the incident and then find redress in the courts at a later time, although I’m unsure who you would notify if the members of a certain house of worship are less than brotherly and decent.”

I understood many of my detective’s suggestions from a pragmatic, law and order point of view, yet they nonetheless left me troubled, prompting me to share these thoughts with Rabbi Ari Hart, co-founder of the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek. He was quick to reject the notion that Jews of color should have to “call ahead” as it were, to any synagogue.

“The responsibility to create welcoming a synagogue doesn’t fall on those who are looking to be made welcome—it falls on synagogue leadership: Rabbis, boards, members, etc., ” he said. “Whatever security is employed on the High Holidays needs to be employed with sensitivity, and those helping secure synagogue spaces should be made aware that, thank God, Jews come in all different colors. [There are] kinds of behaviors that should be on [security’s] radar. Skin color is not one of them.”

As for the course of action that should be undertaken should a Jew of color find themselves victims of an incident of prejudice at the hands of a synagogue, Rabbi Hart suggested sending a letter to synagogue leadership, as well as publicly sharing the experience on blogs, newsletters, or other venues to help raise awareness. “The Jewish community must be made aware of the profound spiritual suffering and anguish that is caused when we allow racism to fester in our community,” he said.

This High Holiday season, remember that there are Jews of color—Jews who are part of your community—who have to walk to synagogue shrouded in a feeling of worry over what might happen on the way to, or inside of, their own shul, when they interact with the very people their taxes pay to help protect their way of life, rather than focusing on prayer and family.

This holiday season, remember that black lives—including the lives of black Jews—matter. Shana Tova.

MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.