By Rabbi Andrea Steinberger
Many of us are grieving the death of George Floyd and the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony Robinson, and many others. We are living through a tumultuous time of a worldwide pandemic and also a time of civic engagement and a national protest movement. Some of us might like to participate in protests or vigils, but we also worry about going outside at this extraordinary time. My family and I joined the drive up vigil at Fountain of Life, which is an African American church here in Madison, last Monday night. We thank Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, the Executive Director for Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, for reaching out to rabbis and others in our Jewish community to let us know about the vigil. Here are a few observations:
- Awareness of the Pandemic. Everyone wore a mask. As we entered the parking lot in our car, those who were directing cars wore a mask and repeatedly used the loud speaker, asking people to only come out of their cars if they were wearing one and to keep distance from one another. Organizers were handing out disposable masks to anyone who had come without one. Some people stayed in their cars. Others got out. Everyone kept their distance from one another and stayed with the person or people with whom they came.
- Population. The age varied. We saw young children, folks in their 20s and 30s, and many of the elder generation. There were black people and white people in attendance. Everyone was welcome and felt included.
- The Feeling. All were greeted with so much grace and gratitude. In a time of great anxiety of the pandemic as well as tremendous social unrest, we could feel the sense of community and necessity of being together. We were there for some very serious and urgent reasons, and yet each speaker and singer spoke with such hope and feeling. There were “Amens” and “clapping” and then at some point people began to honk their car horns when they liked what a minister or pastor was saying. There was a feeling of connection, of community, of really coming together. We did some crying. And we laughed too!
- The Message. We were there because we are sad and angry about the murders of so many black women and men. And yet each pastor gave messages of peace. Pastors urged us not to be anxious. The Reverend Dr. Alex Gee asked us to become peace makers. What is a peace maker? One who opens their heart and cries out against injustice. One who seeks justice in our communities and in our country. One who does not stand idly by or look the other way. One who speaks up for another -- In our classrooms. In our boardrooms. On our streets. As we prayed for the families who have lost loved ones, the pastors urged us not to go into despair, but to become peace makers in our neighborhoods, actively pursuing justice and peace, not turning away from an opportunity to help another person.
I encourage each of us not to give up hope. Let us continue to advocate for black lives.
Our Jewish tradition reminds us that each of us is the work of our creator. We are created exactly how we are meant to be, and not one of us is greater than anyone else. Jewish tradition teaches us that we are each partners in healing the brokenness of this world. Let us each take on what we can, in the way that we can, in healing the brokenness of our world today. I know we can make this world better.
Let us carry on, in good health, in safe distance from one another, building an olam chesed, a world built from compassion. And as Pete Seeger says: Hold on, hold on. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
Andrea Steinberger is a rabbi at the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, teaching, learning, questioning and helping students create and expand their Jewish lives and practices during their college years.