BROOKLINE – When African-American clergy members held a memorial service for George Floyd on Sunday, June 7, the participants included Rav Tiferet Berenbaum, director of congregational learning at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline.
Wearing a mask, Berenbaum, who is an African-American Jew, gave a teaching based on Leviticus 19:16, which the website Sefaria translates as, “Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am the Lord.”
The service was held following the death of Floyd, an African-American man. Floyd died after his neck was pinned to the ground by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh, another black man was murdered,’” Berenbaum told The Jewish Journal about learning of Floyd’s death. “It was no surprise. I’m at the point where I have to numb myself to it. It hurts all the time.”
The deaths have come with tragically increasing frequency. In Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery died after being confronted while jogging by a white father and son. In Kentucky, Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by police during an unannounced nighttime search. Then there was Floyd’s death at the end of last month. Berenbaum said that any of them could have been herself or someone in her family.
Yet, she said, what has been unexpected is the protests that have occurred nationwide since Floyd’s death, including in Boston.
“Like those [that happened] before, they had video [of Floyd’s death] and nothing happened, so this was an unusual and welcome surprise,” Berenbaum said of the protests.
Citing concerns about her family, Berenbaum has not gone to the protests. “I have a young daughter,” she explained. “Being in a multiracial marriage, I have to keep myself safe for her sake. I need to teach her about her black heritage, give her pride in her African-American identity.”
She did go to the interfaith clergy event, which was held at the Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain.
“It was very, very powerful,” she said. “For me, it was my first time in a room of all-black clergy. It felt very healing. All of us were from different faith traditions per se, but we all still worship one God, however we call our God. We took a moment to stand up and speak out. We have to make God’s will known in the world – the will of justice, righteousness, whatever way [it’s conveyed] in the Torah, the Koran, the Christian scriptures … I think I’m going to take that ruach, that energy, and hold it close.”
A Boston Jew who is also in a multiracial marriage, Tali Puterman, decided to go to a protest in Boston the previous Sunday. A social justice educator and community organizer at Temple Israel in Boston, Puterman is white and grew up in South Africa in the post-apartheid years, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her spouse, Jessica Puterman, is a biracial Jew, with one side of her family descended from Eastern European Jews and one side of her family descended from African-American slaves.
On the last Sunday in May, the Putermans went to a protest in Boston, marching from Roxbury to Government Center.
“It felt really, really important to go,” Tali Puterman said. “My wife is a person of color. She’s biracial.
She has a black father and brothers.”
“As soon as I got there, I knew it was the right decision,” she added. “It was very powerful and moving, a group of people coming together against hatred, violence, racism.”
Puterman estimated that the crowd was predominantly African-American but that white participants were appreciated, including by a woman on the sidewalk who thanked white people for being there.
“It was scary for everyone out and about during a pandemic,” Puterman said, adding that COVID-19 “hits black people harder.”
“Almost everybody was in masks, including us,” Puterman said. “Water, sanitizer and water bottles were very, very readily available. It was a well-organized protest.”
She said that “it was possible to kind of socially distance on really large, wide-open streets,” although it was harder in the middle of the street than on the edges.
“It felt like one could still be really mindful, be safe, in a pandemic while being in a protest,” Puterman said.
The marchers stopped at multiple health care centers to cheer on front-line medical staff working on the coronavirus response, according to Puterman.
“There was a lot of love to the health care professionals, and a lot of love [from] health care professionals back to the protestors,” Puterman said. She also said that that there was no animosity from police toward protestors, and no animosity from protestors to police.
However, after Puterman left the protest and got back home, she saw images of looting and violence reported from the scene.
“It was very hard to think it had anything to do with the protest I was part of, any of the people,” she said. “I do not know, I do not have answers, about who was leading the looting … It’s hard to think it was connected at all. I went to a very powerful, well-organized, peaceful [protest] that I was proud to be part of.”
On the Shabbat evening after the first protest in Boston, Temple Israel honored lives lost to racist violence and to COVID-19 with a Kabbalat Shabbat of Mourning and Healing. That Sunday, local African-American clergy members held the memorial service for Floyd.
When Rabbi Berenbaum of Temple Beth Zion was asked about how fairly the media are covering the protests, she said that it depends upon the media one is consuming. “Certain media outlets are definitely reporting the truth about what’s happening, with a balanced evaluation. Some are not,” she said. “It’s up to the individual to consume balanced information – not make assumptions based on hearing one thing, but sort of understand all sides, to challenge themselves, find out what’s really happening.”
Berenbaum wonders whether the protests represent American teshuva or tikkun or a mix of both.
“Coming off the coronavirus pandemic, we see things are just not fair,” she said. “I continue to be grateful to be part of the Jewish community at Temple Beth Zion. Even before recent events, we have been asking what’s our role as Jews in the fight for racial justice. I’m feeling hopeful. God willing, we will soon see Moshiach.”