“Now is the time for people of conscience to come together to transform our justice system into one that is actually just. That means reimagining community safety, working to demilitarize and divest from police departments, and to dedicating significant resources to social services, restorative justice initiatives and alternatives to incarceration. This time of upheaval demands a real heshbon hanefesh — a national reckoning.”
This is an excerpt from Rabbi Sharon Brous’s piece, Why I Have Come to Support Defunding the Police, published in The Forward on June 12, 2020. Here we are, nearly a year later, 12 days into the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd, and our country has seen another killing of an unarmed young Black man, Daunte Wright, by a police officer in Minnesota, and the killing of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old here in Chicago. If Rabbi Brous’s words rang true last year, this year they ring with urgency.
The troubling irony, of course, is that this urgency is also not new — in fact, it’s ancient. In a 2017 Eli Talk, The Rod and the Whip: Accountability for Law Enforcement, my brother-in-law and friend Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein offers insight dating back to the Torah itself, into this long-standing Jewish imperative of accountability for criminal justice systems. His entire talk is well worth a listen, but I’m struck by this particular synthesis:
“Our Torah says police can be trusted to do their work properly only if they operate under heightened scrutiny and oversight, chastened by the fear of punishment… For the Rabbis heightened responsibility requires heightened accountability. What happens if the rabbinic vision for police accountability is not put into effect?”
Unfortunately we have been shown time and again what happens when this “rabbinic vision for police accountability” is not seen through: disproportionate violence and murder against Black people by police.
This week, we invite you to join us for a Friday Night Shabbat focused on public safety. Rabbi Deena Cowans will offer a drash about the Empowering Communities for Public Safety Ordinance going through Chicago’s City Council, the result of years of sustained effort and work by grassroots leadership across the city that many Mishkanites have also devoted countless hours toward in our work with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. The ECPS ordinance (or The People’s Ordinance) will “fundamentally transform policing and public safety in Chicago by (1) creating a Community Commission on Public Safety, (2) creating District Councils, and (3) creating an opportunity for additional democratic reform.”
If you, like me, see this moment as a desperate call for change, I encourage you to join services this Friday to learn more — and to join an open community discussion over Zoom afterwards, to share questions and deeper discussion. If you are looking to take action today, you can use this form to send a message to your alderperson in support of the ordinance. If you’d like to read about the relationship between police accountability and public safety, click here for an article from the ACLU.
Let us not only offer thoughts and prayers in the face of lives tragically lost at the hands of law enforcement. May we honor them by pursuing our tradition’s vision of justice: accountability in service of what is and systemic change in service of what could be.
May we hold each other with sensitivity and love in these painful times. As always, Rabbi Deena and I are available to talk – just reach out.
Bivrakha v’ahavah – with blessings and love,
The direct source for Rabbi Bernstein’s teaching is Midrash Devarim Rabbah 5. Here’s a link: https://www.sefaria.org/Devarim_Rabbah.5.8-11?ven=Sefaria_Community_Translation&vhe=Daat_Devarim_Rabbah&lang=bi