In the aftermath of the race riots in Newark in the mid-1960s, the New Jersey Coalition of Religious Leaders was formed. Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish clergy, black and white, came together at the state level to take part in ongoing dialogue among communities of faith and open a channel of communication with NJ civic officials.
The coalition continues to seek to be a force for cohesion when inter-group tensions threaten to fragment our polity. Over the past couple of decades, our inclusive objective has been reflected in the expansion of our partnerships with clergy from the Eastern Orthodox, Muslim, and Sikh communities. Dialogue and advocacy have ensued with each governor, NJ senators and Assembly members, and with the chief justice of the NJ Supreme Court. Coalition members have worked steadfastly to establish authentic and effective relationships in all civic and religious directions, so that we can delve into the deepest parts of our society’s needs.
Tragically, national events once again have exposed “fault lines” fracturing our nation. We face simultaneous crises: the vulnerability felt by police officers in serving the public and their exposure to violence, and the anguish of African-Americans who feel that institutional racism prevents them from feeling safe in their own neighborhoods. We have a role to play as it relates to our partners in other faith groups, for sure. But these challenges also call for moderate and unifying responses from synagogues, both collectively and each one within its own community’s context.
As was the case following 9/11, with the peril confronted by the first responders, now is a time to affirm our appreciation for local police forces. Grieving the death of their five colleagues in Dallas who were protecting peaceful protestors, the police are in pain. They merit our solidarity and friendship. They are the ones to whom we turn during times of peril. Dallas Police Chief David Brown stated: “Bravery is not a strong enough word to describe what law enforcement did that day. You won’t see me walking past an officer without grabbing them and hugging them, and shaking their hand and telling them how grateful I am.”
Religious institutions can do the same — and encourage others to.
Simultaneously, we feel the excruciating pain and sense of injustice within the African-American community, whose members are bereaved by deaths connected to or caused by interactions with law enforcement personnel. These tragic episodes must be investigated and adjudicated so that we all feel our justice system works for us all.
As in the past, the NJ Coalition of Religious Leaders, with its multi-faith, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic membership, will engage in dialogue with legislative and law enforcement officials with the aim of putting in place safeguards to prevent fatalities. Indeed, we will do our part to ensure that what we have seen play out in other parts of the country does not happen in our area. More than ever, we need to redouble efforts to ensure that we create a safe space here at home. It is incumbent upon our synagogues to promote acts of social justice and hesed as a tangible sign that we care about the societal ills that rend our communal fabric.
More than ever, we must assist men, women, and children who are struggling to live below the poverty line. Let us intensify engagement with the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which provides housing for the homeless; community food banks to feed the hungry; Habitat for Humanity, building affordable houses for those in need; institutions that aid the working poor such as Valley Settlement House; and groups promoting literacy among low-achieving students from distressed homes.
Let us also guide our youngsters to direct their b’nei mitzva projects into opportunities to assist the impoverished — such as drives for clothing and athletic equipment for needy youngsters and volunteer efforts with social service organizations. Our actions will demonstrate the sincerity of our sentiments and will add powerfully to our voice, loudly and firmly proclaiming our stand against injustice.
In a nonpartisan manner, let us promote healing and the toning down of inciteful rhetoric. We must act upon the feelings expressed by national and local leaders at the memorial service for the fallen Dallas police officers. President Obama said, “I’m here to say that we must reject…despair. I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem.” To these words, President George W. Bush affirmed, “We don’t want the unity of grief nor do we want the unity of fear. We want the unity of hope.”