BEVERLY – The death of George Floyd and other high-profile instances of police brutality against people of color sparked months of Black Lives Matter protests nationwide and a conversation about racial injustice in America.
They also sparked a reckoning within some North Shore synagogues with two – Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly and Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott – making concerted efforts to reconcile attitudes within their congregations about race.
Temple B’nai Abraham congregants are reading the bestselling book, “Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Isabel Wilkerson, in a book club format with a half dozen Sunday discussions on Zoom, according to Tim Averill, a member of the temple’s Social Action Committee.
Shirat Hayam’s Tzedek LaKol: Justice for All initiative, which is cochaired by Alan and Barbara Sidman of Salem, is planning a speaker series that kicks off April 7 at 7:30 p.m. with a talk between former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Representative Lori Ehrlich, a Jewish member of the state Legislature from Marblehead. A Zoom link will be available on the synagogue’s website.
“With a resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism and racism in recent years, this series is well-timed,” said Ehrlich, a Democrat whose district includes Marblehead, Swampscott, and portions of Lynn. “It’s an especially good opportunity to turn down the heat and try to learn from each other.”
Temple B’nai Abraham Rabbi Alison Adler said the book “Caste” looks at America and its inequities from the perspective of an invisible caste system, rather than from the perspective of race. The book looks at caste systems in Nazi Germany, India, “and the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States,” Wilkerson writes.
Tim Averill and Bonnie Shelkrot are helping to facilitate the book discussions in smaller breakout groups. Averill, 73, is a debate coach at the Waring School in Beverly and a non-Jewish member of B’nai Abraham.
Averill said the temple’s Social Action Committee has been active for several years and “We have looked for ways to be supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as LGBTQ, [and] dealing with issues of poverty and systematic racism.”
Averill said they came up with the idea of a temple book club, with “Caste” being read as a congregation so everyone could be on the same page.
“‘Caste,’ is an incredible book. It should be required reading in every high school. You won’t think of race the same way after you read this book,” said Congregation Shirat Hayam member Barbara Sidman, 72.
She, along with her husband, Alan, 73, are cochairs of the Tzedek LaKol: Justice for All initiative.
They got the idea for the initiative from watching the news and seeing what was going on with the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others, and “injustices the Black community has to put up with” locally, Barbara Sidman said.
They didn’t want to just to educate themselves, though they said they are learning about where their own prejudices lie.
“Like we use to say to the kids: ‘Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk,” Barbara Sidman said. The couple drew their inspiration from the Yom Kippur sermon given by Shirat Hayam’s Rabbi Michael Ragozin.
“Alan and I just looked at each other and said ‘now is the time,’ Barbara Sidman said.
In addition to Patrick speaking on April 7, the second speaker on April 18, at 4 p.m., is Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, who will be interviewed by Amy Gold, head of school of Epstein Hillel in Marblehead.
The final speaker will be the Rev. Andre Bennett, the youth and young adults pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Lynn, on April 27, at 7:30 p.m. Jerry Kreitzer, a former member of the Vermont House of Representatives, will moderate the discussion.
Sidman said a synagogue-wide meeting is planned sometime after the series ends so the community can process what it learned.
“As Jews, we have a responsibility to care for each other,” said Barbara Sidman, who retired last year after teaching kindergarten for 30 years at Epstein Hillel School. With Passover upon us, she noted that “We were slaves in Egypt.”
Some other North Shore temples have ongoing social action initiatives, including:
• Temple Tiferet Shalom of Peabody plans to hold a Social Action Service with a virtual Immigration Shabbat on Friday, April 2, at 7:30 p.m., the seventh day of Passover. Congregants can share their family’s immigration story by sending one or two paragraphs to email@example.com by March 26.
• At Temple Sinai in Marblehead, the Social Action Committee has been making lunches for My Brother’s Table soup kitchen in Lynn, said the temple’s president, Ira Dinnes. The temple held a large collection of food for Pesach and of personal hygiene supplies in February.
• Marcy Bernstein, co-chair of Temple Emanu-El’s Tikkun Olam/Social Action Neighborhood, said the Marblehead temple is going to participate in the faith-based Essex County Community Organization’s first regional team meeting, which is meant “to form a strategy for racial and economic justice in our region.”
• Elliot Wyner, social action chair at Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, said the temple is working with Haven from Hunger – Citizens Inn in the city. “Our Maot Chitim, selling the chametz collection, includes MAZON, which is a Jewish response to hunger in the U.S. and Israel.”
• On March 21, Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester held an event on Zoom called “American Passover and Racial Justice: Reflections from Bill Fonvielle.”