On April 16th around 4:30am shots rang out in the Newhallville neighborhood in New Haven, just over the Hamden border. Police had pursued a car after receiving a call about an altercation at a gas station. The police had been told that the driver of the car was armed. Without lights or sirens, the police from Hamden, New Haven and Yale surrounded car and immediately started shooting. In total, sixteen shots were fired, and the passenger of the car, Stephanie Washington, was wounded. The driver, Paul Witherspoon, was detained, and further let go without being charged. Both Stephanie and Paul were unarmed. Both are black.
I arrived at a protest that evening at the site of the shooting and was invited to join the clergy behind the podium during a press conference. There was a sense of chaos. The growing crowd demanded swift action from the police while the ministers speaking tried to keep people calm. When tensions flared, I was acutely aware of my white skin and kippa, I felt scared. When the ministers concluded, a group of one hundred people started marching toward Hamden. “No Justice, No peace,” we chanted, “no racist police.” What do we want?” we continued, “justice, what if we don’t get it? Shut it down.” And shut it down we did. At 9pm on that Tuesday evening we shut down Dixwell Ave as we marched to Hamden. When we arrived in Hamden we formed a large circle in the intersection of the street. We sang, we prayed, someone called out “Shalom!” to me as they were passing. People spoke of the pain that police violence has caused them, their families and their community.
I joined these protests because I knew that the best thing I can do in the fight for racial justice is to show up, be present, and stand with my black and brown brothers and sisters. I wasn’t there to lead, I wasn’t there to fix anything, I was there to share their pain, and to show them that I, as a white man, and as a Jew, see them and will fight with them; to fulfill the commandment to love my neighbor.
In the weeks that followed I attended other protests related to the shooting. One protest occurred in front of the police station and successfully pressured the Hamden police to release the body-camera footage from the shooting. The last protest was during the Hamden police commission meeting in May. That meeting brought shame on the citizens of Hamden.
The police commission is a group of residents appointed by the Mayor to provide oversight of the police department. “Hamden’s town charter says that its Police Commission “shall meet and hear, upon written request, the complaint of . . . any citizen of the Town by reason of any alleged misconduct or malfeasance of any member of the
olice [d]epartment.” When someone took the microphone during the public comment period to discuss this incident, the police commission did not listen. Instead the commissioners claimed that they couldn’t comment or listen and they adjourned the meeting early. Their primary job is to listen to concerned citizens, and they failed us that evening.
At the request of one of the leaders of the protests, Pastor Jack Davidson, from Spring Glen church, and I decided to sit down with the Hamden mayor and use our white privilege to fight for justice.
At the meeting, Mayor Leng said that his hands were tied because the town had to wait for the State’s Attorney’s office to first decide if there was any grounds for legal prosecution of the officer involved. I later learned that the reason the town doesn’t fire the officer is because they are afraid of getting sued. The State continues to review the case, while this officer is out on paid leave.
While meeting with the Mayor Leng, I asked that he do something well within his power that could have no legal repercussions – that he convene a meeting of the police commission to listen, just listen to the citizens of Hamden and fulfil the commissions appointed duty. He didn’t reconvene the commission, they took a long summer recess, and the next time that the commission met was on September 11th and their meeting lasted for a grand total of 6 minutes with no mention of the shooting.
We should be horrified that sixteen shots were fired that night and that one innocent person was hit. The videos are readily available online, both from the security cameras of a convenience store as well as the body camera footage from the Hamden Police officer. We can see the evidence for ourselves. There were better ways to contain this situation. We are grateful that Stephanie Washington has fully recovered from her wounds. The bullets hit other cars and shops nearby. It is scary and surprising that no one else was hit.
Surprising that no one else was hit, but not surprising to the residents of Newhallville that there was another act of police violence in their community. Newhallville is a majority black neighborhood. I have heard stories from residents of Newhallville who do not feel safe when a cop drives down their block. Instead they feel afraid because of the history of racism within the police force. The ACLU of Connecticut calls police violence a “pandemic” in our state and nation and notes that often this violence is directed toward people of color, even though white and black people commit the same level of crimes.
I remember the first time that I drove through Newhallville on Winchester Ave. I was admiring the beautiful old buildings when I passed what seemed to be an army bunker, clad with brick and thick translucent block windows. It was clearly built to intimidate. The building was not a friendly police station like I knew in other neighborhoods. Until June of last year– that very police station housed an outdoor shooting range which residents had “said the sound of gunfire could frequently be heard from their homes, a park and nearby schools.” I cannot imagine fearing the police and at the same time hearing constant gunshots coming from the police station near my home. I teach Maggie that the police are here to help us which I know to be true as a white Jew living in Spring Glen, and we are grateful for the police men and women who are protecting us here tonight.
The police departments are trying – since the shooting the police chiefs from all three departments recommitted themselves to community policing efforts to get officers out of their cars and onto the streets and we should commend them for these efforts. But undoing decades of police violence and racial bias toward people of color is going to require more than community policing – it is going to require us to confront racial disparities in schools, neighborhoods, access to basic services such as grocery stores, and examine our own racial biases.
According to the ACLU, “Ending police violence requires a fundamental change in how Connecticut defines and understands public safety. Public safety [does not mean] policing. Public safety [means] healthy, strong communities, and it requires investing in and protecting marginalized communities from violence and harm… There is no single solution, because a wholesale system change is required.” We must hold everyone accountable for their actions – our elected officials, the police, the police commission, and us, as citizens because we hold the power, especially at the local level, to affect real change.
I want and feel obligated to be part of that change. After the police commission meeting I sat down with the leader of these protests, Kerri Ellington, and asked what I can do to help. “We need the white churches to speak out against this,” she told me, “we need to know that you are with us.”
I hesitated when she called CMI a white church. Not because she erroneously used the word church, but because she said that we are white. Many of our members at CMI do have white skin but we also have members who are black, brown, Asian, Hispanic, and others who do not identify as white. We are proud of our diversity, we celebrate our diversity and we know that our community is stronger because of it. More than skin color, race is a complicated issue for Jews.
While my skin is white, white nationalists and other anti-Semitic groups do not see me as white. They see a Jew, a lesser than, just like when they look with their hate filled eyes at someone who is black or Hispanic. Discussing Judaism and race is important and I know that we will have the opportunity to discuss this as we explore antisemitism with our Education Task Force this year. We will learn together and we will educate others about the threats facing the Jewish community, but we cannot focus only on ourselves. At the end of the day I can take off my kippa and appear in public without people knowing that I am a Jew. People cannot change their skin color. We need to learn to put our internal struggles with Judaism and race on hold when partnering with the black community to confront police violence. Having white skin in the US means that we have white privilege, even when we also feel marginalized as Jews. A tension that we hold as we march.
Robin DiAngelo, wrote a seminal paper about the discomfort that white people feel discussing race in a paper entitled White Fragility. She writes that “white Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” I am guilty of all of these defensive moves.
As I work on my own discomfort, I also believe that we can expand white fragility to include “White Jewish Fragility:” the state in which white Jews perceive that the Jewish experience of oppression causes us to feel as though Jews could never be racist or that we are released from the obligation to fight racism. Neither of which are true. In his email to the social justice action network, Scott Friedman, who was at these protests, wrote about his own feelings: “These protests can be uncomfortable at times…but it is important that we stand together in this moment.” It’s OK if we feel uncomfortable. We can process our discomfort together, yet we cannot let our discomfort cause us to sit idly by while the blood of our neighbors is spilled in the streets and we must hold ourselves accountable for enduring systemic racism.
We came here tonight for that very reason – to hold ourselves accountable. On Yom Kippur we recount all of the ways that we have fallen short during the past year and pledge to do better in the year to come. We engage in teshuvah – a process of returning to be the best that we can be. The first step of teshuvah is admitting that we have erred. We have not done enough to end racism. The second step of teshuvah is making amends and saying that we are sorry for the pain that our actions, and inactions, have caused.
We often use the word ‘sorry’ to show regret for our actions, I’m sorry I interrupted you, for example. The word ‘sorry’ can also indicate that we are feeling distress or sympathy with someone, such as when we seek to comfort a friend in mourning by putting our arm around them and saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” We support each other as a community by showing empathy in times of pain.
An old hassic tale tells of two men sitting in an inn imbibing drink after drink. One was silent for along time while his drunk companion talked and talked and talked. Finally the quiet one spoke up, “Tell me, do you love me or don’t you love me?” His friend replied, “of course I love you.” The other retorted, “You say that you love me, but you don’t know what I need, or what causes me pain. If you loved me, you’d know.”
In order to feel empathy we must work to understand another’s pain, especially pain that we have caused. We go beyond acknowledging that our actions were hurtful in order know why they were hurtful. Sometimes we might need to ask. Only when we know their pain can we engage in the next phase of teshuvah – desisting from actions that cause harm and making restitution. The best way to understand the pain of our neighbor is by building relationships and standing with them. Building relationships has been one of my primary goals since arriving in New Haven.
I have been able to quickly build relationships in part because the title “Rabbi of Mishkan Israel” carries significant weight in this community thanks to those who have held this title before me. Last month I was invited to a clergy lunch at Yale’s police headquarters to learn how they are working to eliminate police violence in New Haven. I was one of two white clergy in a room of twenty. When we went around sharing names, I introduced myself and mentioned that I was the new rabbi at Mishkan Israel following Rabbi Brockman’s retirement. Immediately I was greeted with huge, warm smiles. “Well if you took over for Herb,” someone said, “no wonder you are here.”
Thanks to the legacy of Rabbi Brockman, Rabbi Goldberg, and the work of our community, CMI has a legacy as Jewish congregation committed to standing with our black and brown members and neighbors in the pursuit of equality. As we move into the year 2020 ending racism is going to take more than committed clergy. A handful of our congregants have been showing up to the rallies and protests and I hope that more will join us in the future. Ending police violence and other systematic racism requires that all of us not only learn how to combat our own racism and racial bias, but become active fighters against systems that perpetuate racial disparities.
Dr. King, who we always note spoke from that very pulpit, also said that “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” It is not enough to talk about Dr. King’s legacy – we must also take action.
There are some immediate action steps that we can take. The Hamden police commission will meet next week on October 16th. I plan on going and hope that you will consider joining me. I want people to remember the shooting last April as a catalyst for change. I do not want this issue to simply fade away because people forgot or didn’t have the effort to keep fighting. Even if you cannot attend the meeting, you can email your written complaint or comment to the commission by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Let us raise our voices for justice.
Our civic work will continue this November during local elections. No matter which town you live in, we can reach out to our candidates for mayor and legislative councils and ask them how they intend to eliminate police violence and racial disparities.
Most importantly, we must show up and demonstrate that we are allies. When we held a vigil after Pittsburgh many other community members came to show their support. Their love helped us in the darkest of times, and it we must return that love. There will be more rallies, protests and town hall meetings because the work is far from over.
If we show up we will fulfill our commandment to love our neighbor, to see them, and to know them, creating a better world wherever we stand. I pray that we have the strength and courage to take these actions. May our coming year bring healing to a divided world, and may we work together for a brighter future filled with love, peace, and equality.
Shanah tova and G’mar chatima
tova, may we all be written for blessing in the book of life.
 ACLU Connecticut
 DiAngelo, Robin. White Fraglity. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) (2011) pp 54-70, http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/viewFile/249/116