Standing on the corner of West Baltimore’s Presbury and North Mount streets in front of a mural of Freddie Gray, local community activist PFK Boom addressed a group of 45 white Reform women rabbis on June 6.

“Right now, you’re in the flames of a black Holocaust — a war zone,” he said. “Some say Freddie Gray died. We say he was murdered. We have a lot of Freddie Grays. This is just the one that made the news.”

The rabbis, who traveled here from all over the United States and Israel, are members of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a constituent group of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the oldest and largest rabbinic organization in North America. Their annual convention was held in Baltimore from June 4-7.

Led by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen and community activist J.C. Faulk, the rabbis visited the economically devastated Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Gray lived and was arrested on April 12, 2015.

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Gray, 25, died from injuries sustained while in police custody a week later. His death incited an uprising that included marches, looting, peaceful and violent protests and community activism in Baltimore and across the country.

Rabbi Sachs-Kohen said she arranged the hourlong tour because she wanted conference attendees to have an opportunity to contemplate some tough societal issues. Like many others who watched the televised coverage of the Baltimore uprising, she said she was moved to action.

“I saw my city going up in flames and said, ‘I don’t have connections [to the African-American community] and I need that to be different,’” Rabbi Sachs-Kohen said. Her relationship with Faulk, whom she met through a mutual friend about 18 months ago, has helped her to bridge the gap.

“What I love is that our relationship is two-directional,” the rabbi said. “We are learning about each other. Some of our conversations are about why the Jewish community and the African-American community find ourselves at odds. We should be natural allies.”

Faulk said he also is motivated to strengthen bonds between the Jewish and African-American communities.

“It’s important for us to heal the rifts,” he told the rabbis. “It’s so important that you are here. People expect that if they come to Sandtown, five minutes in they’re going to get murdered. Coming here, having your bodies here, is so important.”

Attendees like Rabbi Susan Silverman, who traveled to the conference from Jerusalem, agreed that seeing the neighborhood up close made a difference.

“Of course, I know about Freddie Gray. But it’s different to be here … to realize this was a real person, a real street,” she said. “We have to take the theoretical out of violence. You can talk about violence and poverty, but sometimes you have to show up, face to face. [Watching it] on TV is not the same.”

Simone Schicker, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, said standing on the corner of Gray’s arrest felt “a little surreal. I spent a lot of time in front of the TV [during the uprising]. [The neighborhood] makes me think about food deserts and corporate America and how they point the way the CVS [Pharmacy in West Baltimore] went up in flames and say, ‘This is why we don’t build here.’ I grew up in the suburbs. This isn’t the America most of us are used to. It’s so very different.”

Rabbi Dr. Ayala Samuels, who came to the conference from the Israeli coastal town of Caesarea, called the Sandtown-Winchester tour “amazing. I’m very glad to have gotten a picture of the real issues. These are the most important issues facing American society.”

Rabbi Sachs-Kohen said she was gratified by the deep impression the tour made on her colleagues. “Jews and African-Americans in Baltimore need to know and understand one another in a deep way,” she said. “It’s our Jewish responsibility to care for and about everyone in our community, particularly those who are disenfranchised.

“It’s my hope that the tour will inspire the rabbis from around the country to go back to their communities and seek out their own relationships.”

Go to our YouTube channel to view a video from the tour.

Top photo: Visiting female rabbis and community activists tour Sandtown-Winchester 

All photos by Solomon Swerling, Jmore


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