Chizuk Amuno, one of the Baltimore metropolitan area’s oldest and most prominent Jewish congregations, recently placed banners on its Pikesville campus reading “Black Lives Matter” and “If Not Now, When?” to demonstrate solidarity with the new civil rights movement.
The banners were placed July 10 at the synagogue’s northern entrance on Stevenson Road.
Chizuk Amuno’s Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg told Jmore the decision to post the banners was reached in the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy, and following discussions with the synagogue’s executive board and clergy team. He said there was no “pushback” from the shul’s leadership, but he has received some expressions of concern from congregants since a letter about the matter was emailed to synagogue members on July 10.
“We just wanted to do something meaningful,” Rabbi Gruenberg said. “Chizuk Amuno has an historical connection to the civil rights movement, and we live in Baltimore. Even if you live in suburban Baltimore, you can’t really avoid systemic racism.”
The letter, authored by Rabbi Gruenberg and Dr. Stephen M. Pomerantz, Chizuk Amuno’s president, stated, in regard to the banners, “We are aware that this message may come with some controversy. We acknowledge that the Black Lives Matter movement has had members who have made antisemitic or anti-Israel statements. However, as other major Jewish leaders and organizations have stated, we cannot allow this unrepresentative litmus test be an excuse not to do the right thing, to prevent us from supporting what is clearly today’s civil rights movement.”
In the letter, Rabbi Greenberg and Dr. Pomerantz wrote that the synagogue “cannot desist from supporting the Jewish ideal that every life is important. We cannot miss this moment in our history. Unfortunately, right now it needs to be said specifically that Black lives do matter, because Black lives have specifically been diminished.
“These banners are an important gesture of support, a literal stake in the ground representing our values. Further, we hope that the banners will inspire healthy communal discussion. We also invite any of you with questions to please reach out to us directly.”
The letter stated that the installation of the banners will be consistent with other measures taken by the 149-year-old Conservative congregation of 1,100 families and individuals “at this watershed moment in history.”
These measures include Rabbi Gruenberg’s contributions recently to a national Black Lives Matter public service announcement; recent sermons by spiritual and lay leaders about social justice issues; and a letter signed by Chizuk Amuno along with other national Jewish organizations and congregations supporting Black Lives Matter.
“We cannot rest until we are a community that is committed to engage in conversation and learning on systemic racism,” the letter read, noting that the synagogue will “look inward and review our own internal synagogue and school policies to ensure we are promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in all that we do.”
In addition, Chizuk Amuno’s social justice and advocacy group is preparing a guest speaker series focusing on such themes as Jews of color, systemic racism in the United States, and the Black Lives Matter movement and its relationship with the Jewish community.
Also, the letter stated that Chizuk Amuno is reaching out to city African-American churches “to try and understand their Baltimore life experience and how we might be of assistance to them, as they have done for us. We will never forget how members of the Black community showed up in solidarity at our Shir Shabbat and Shabbat morning service after the [Oct. 2018] shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue. …
“We know that our community stands for what is right and just. We know that we do this even when it is hard. Most importantly, we know that we are the kind of community that truly wants to be a beacon of light. We look forward to growing and learning together in the weeks and months ahead.”
Rabbi Gruenberg said he expects some criticism from congregants and members of the community about the decision to put up the banners.
“But my hope is it will lead to constructive and productive dialogue,” he said. “We live in politically charged times. But I think when you take the politics out of it, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community supports the modern-day civil rights movement. Of course, all lives matter. The problem is that for too long, institutionally, Black lives mattered less.
“As Jews, we know the other side of all of this,” Rabbi Gruenberg said. “This is the right thing to do. We just hope to be part of a broader effort, and that this is the beginning of some difficult conversations as a community.”
Dr. Pomerantz noted that he has seen Black Lives Matter signs popping up on lawns throughout the local Jewish community.
“We said to ourselves, ‘As a Jewish institution, we need to be a voice of support.’ As a synagogue, we should be a moral force,” he said. “If you want to be a relevant institution, this is the right thing to do. We can’t sit back and desist from this. Black lives have been specifically demeaned, and right now the Black community is fighting for their civil rights. We should be shoulder-to-shoulder with them and go outside of our narrow selves.”
Dr. Pomerantz said the banners on Chizuk Amuno’s campus “allow us to think broadly and put our values right out there on the front lawn, quite literally. Stating what you believe in is hard, but that’s what leadership does. I’m very proud that we’re doing this.”