Leading New York rabbis arrested for protesting death of Eric Garner

Many Jews among thousands who brought Manhattan and Brooklyn to a standstill in protest against police brutality. People of color treated eerily similar to how Jews were treated two generations ago, activists say.
December 5, 2014
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK – Many Jews were among the thousands of people who marched in New York City streets Thursday night protesting the decision by a grand jury not to put a white police officer on trial for causing the death of an unarmed black man. More than two dozen demonstrators, including several leading rabbis, were arrested on the Upper West Side after they sat down in the middle of a major intersection in an act of civil disobedience

Diverse groups of protesters, including some 10,000 in lower Manhattan alone, brought much of Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn to a standstill as they marched through city streets chanting “I’m choking! I can’t breathe!” Eric Garner’s death, which came after he was tackled and put in a chokehold by white police officers for selling loose cigarettes, was ruled a homicide by the New York City Medical Examiner. New York media reported that the police arrested a total of 223 people during the mostly peaceful demonstrations.

While large groups effectively shut down the West Side Highway, Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges and Times Square at different points Thursday night, smaller gatherings — including about 250 students from a prestigious high school — took to city sidewalks and streets in other parts of the city. The announcement that a grand jury Wednesday would not indict the police officer who killed Garner came on the heels of the decision last week not to try the white Ferguson, MO police officer who shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American, in August. The decisions have galvanized Americans of all religions and ethnicities in cities across the country.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of New York City’s gay and lesbian synagogue, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, was one of the rabbis arrested Thursday night. She was honored Thursday evening by the group Jews for Racial & Economic Justice at a reception at the Upper West Side synagogue Congregation B’nai Jeshurun for her lifelong work advocating on behalf of LGBTQ Jews.

After the event some 400 Jews organized by JFREJ marched through the neighborhood’s main artery to Broadway and 96th Street, where several dozen sat in the middle of the street. They sang “Oseh Shalom” and the Mourner’s Kaddish while marching, participants said. Officers arrested 27 of them, and a total of 223 protesters throughout the city Thursday night, according to media accounts, during what were mostly peaceful demonstrations.

When they were put in the police van, the rabbis and other Jews arrested sang “Ozi v’zimrat ya,” the Jewish song that says “God is my strength and my song, God is my salvation,” said Kleinbaum who, along with the 26 others arrested with her, spent the night in a jail cell.

Rabbi Shai Held, a co-founder of Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva near Lincoln Center, was also arrested. He marched because “I spend a lot of time teaching my students that a core part of what it means to be religious is to affirm the value of human beings in a world that does not do that.”

Held, Hadar’s dean and chair in Jewish Thought, spoke with Haaretz shortly after being released from jail at 5:30AM along with the other Jewish protestors arrested. They were told to appear in court in February. “It was extremely moving, very emotional for me, to see that an enormous and diverse array of Jews young and old felt like this was a moral and religious imperative to be there, to take a stance. I see it as taking a stand for b’tzelem Elohim,” or that all people are created in the image of God.

“Some people say the system is broken. Actually the system is working exactly the way it’s designed to work – enabling white officers to go free when they kill a person of color,” Marjorie Dove Kent, JFREJ’s executive director, told Haaretz.

JFREJ is part of a coalition called “Communities United for Police Reform,” which includes Jewish, Muslim and Christian member groups, along with representatives of black, Asian and Latino organizations, and advocates for proposed legislation that would help protect New Yorkers against unlawful police searches.

“So many of us were enraged” when grand juries decided not to indict the police officers who killed Brown and Garner, “but there was no shock,” said Dove Kent. “We need to really overhaul our justice system, overhaul our policing system.”

It is an issue Jews should relate to because, “we’re less than three generations removed from when Jewish immigrants were policed in eerily similar ways to how communities of color are being policed now.”

T’ruah is another Jewish organization participating that coalition, and its executive director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, was also arrested Thursday. “There’s something very powerful about saying that Eric Garner was killed and we’re willing to put our bodies on the line to make sure that doesn’t happen to anyone ever again. When human beings are being killed, being out on the street is a religious act,” she told Haaretz.

T’ruah helps its 1,800 member rabbis organize around human rights issues in their own communities, and brought 23 rabbis to Ferguson in October, to march arm-in-arm with black clergy in that troubled town. Now T’ruah is expanding its work around mass incarceration, Jacobs told Haaretz, and will shortly launch a Jewish campaign focusing on the issue.

“It was very moving to be part of a Jewish commitment to justice,” said Kleinbaum, shortly after she got home. Kleinbaum wore a rainbow feather boa over her rainbow-striped tallit during the march, which she held on to through her arrest. “I’m a kind of tough cynical person in many ways, but it was a deeply moving evening and I’m very proud to be part of this community. It was peaceful, respectful, strong and deeply Jewish.”

Atalya Sternoff, who is a 16-year-old 11th Grader at Bard High School in Queens, walked out of school at 1:01 Thursday to commemorate the moment that Michael Brown was shot, to rally in front of the school building, which also houses Laguardia Community College. While the protest was organized by the school’s black student union, it involved everyone at the multi-cultural high school. Students – some of whom neglected to grab their winter coats before walking outside despite the freezing December air — were joined by a handful of faculty members and held aloft signs saying #Black Lives Matter and #All Lives Matter while shouting “I’m choking! I can’t breathe!,” as Eric Garner did just before he died.

About half the school participated, Sternoff told Haaretz. “As a Jew maybe it made me more prone to want to join this protest.”

Initially “I was hesitant to join [the protest] but after we talked a lot about the Eric Garner decision in my cultural anthropology class, that really pushed me to need to join,” said Sternoff, whose mother is Israeli.

She had planned to stay at the Bard protest just half an hour, “but then I realized that this thing is more important to me than zoology lab.”

Participating felt tied into being Jewish, said Sternoff, particularly because Bard celebrated culture day on Wednesday. “It was on my mind being Israeli and being Jewish. I was already feeling very patriotic for Israel,” Sternoff told Haaretz. “There is kind of a lot of pent up emotion about everything going on in Israel too.”

She gave a piece of her rainbow boa to her arresting officer, Kleinbaum said. He put it behind his ear.

Kleinbaum’s rainbow boa shed a lot of feathers Thursday night. In the police van after her arrest, while her hands were cuffed behind her back, it itched her nose, she told Haaretz. “I had to ask the police officer in the van if he wouldn’t mind helping me” move it, she said. “He was so tender and gentle and respectful helping me rearrange my rainbow boa so it wouldn’t bother me. It was quite a sweet moment.’

By the end of their long night at NYPD headquarters, Kleinbaum said, where she and other women arrested with her were crowded into a small holding cell, the colorful feathers of her feather boa littered the floor.

Topics: Eric Garner