Social Justice Seder Addresses Police Accountability

Attendees participated in discussion about social justice (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), a grassroots organization that pursues justice and equality through a Jewish lens, uses the story of Passover to focus on a key Baltimore issue — police accountability

The organization’s social justice seder, held April 2 at Bolton Street Synagogue, included a revised haggadah for the theme and was attended by nearly 150 people. Repair the World and Charm City Tribe were contributing partners.

Josh Sherman, an associate at Repair the World who was on the planning committee for this event, said it was important to them that people step out of their comfort zone to dialogue about this specific issue that affects so many people in Baltimore.

“At my specific table, three-quarters of the people were current residents of Baltimore City; however, most were born in Baltimore County,” he said. “Police accountability is now an issue for them, but it didn’t used to be. We are trying to demonstrate that police accountability affects every citizen, regardless of your socioeconomic status or race or any privilege or power you might have. It is an issue that can touch your life regardless, so we want to make sure that people come away with a bit more information about how and why it impacts them personally and what they can do to help alleviate some of the symptoms.”

Molly Amster, director of JUFJ in Baltimore, said the planning committee discussed in depth what type of language to use in the haggadah to help people understand the issues and be moved to act. Rather than using the entire traditional haggadah, the team created parallels between contemporary issues and the most important elements of the seder, such as the four cups of wine, the four questions and the 10 plagues.

For example, the first cup of wine included a discussion about history, which led to the current policing issue, including white supremacy and red-lining, “the practice of denying home loans in certain neighborhoods to certain groups of people” according to the haggadah. The second, third and fourth cups addressed disproportionate policing in black neighborhoods, the impact of this disproportionate policing and a vision for the future, respectively. Each of these different subjects has a page in the haggadah dedicated to explaining the issue, complete with citations, graphs and statistics to provide visual proof.

“We tried to hit the core and key elements and make them as applicable as possible by highlighting a number of issues, whether it be the war on drugs or police brutality,” said Sherman. “We made sure sure that we are not attacking the issue from one vantage point. There are a lot of smaller issues within the larger framework, so to say that police accountability is just that we want them to stop targeting minorities or just to be held responsible for their actions when they commit crimes, that’s not the case. There are a lot of different faculties of what police accountability means. There are a lot of tiers of accountability and how we can effect change.”

At the conclusion of the seder, envelopes, paper and a prompt were handed out so attendees could write a letter to Mayor Catherine Pugh asking her to support the consent decree between the Baltimore Police Department and the Department of Justice. Pugh expressed her desire to continue with the consent decree, which a judge signed last week.

“The mayor’s continued commitment is very critical, particularly as the DOJ’s commitment wavers,” said Amster. “Our vision is really about the community having a voice and a say in holding police accountable. People want to be protected from crime and violence but feel afraid of the police in these neighborhoods. To create a positive working relationship built on trust, accountability and respect will help everyone.”

A number of speakers at the event addressed the current conditions in Baltimore. Lady Brion delivered a powerful oration of her spoken-word poem, “Fraternal Twins,” addressing the two separate halves of Baltimore — privileged white neighborhoods and impoverished black ones. And Garland Nixon, a black former police officer and trainer, acknowledged the challenges for officers and their inability to police themselves.

“It was really exciting to see so many folks of different backgrounds and ages together to celebrate Passover as one community,” said Madeline Suggs, director of public affairs for the Baltimore Jewish Council. “We really do think this is a time to renew our mission and fight against anti-Semitism, hate and bigotry in all forms.”

Amster underscored the importance of the discussion and the need to act.

“As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘None of us is free until all of us are free,’” she said. “To live in a city where some people, mostly in black communities, feel like there is an occupying force in their neighborhoods and feel they aren’t free to sit on their porches without being harassed, we have a responsibility to work with them to alleviate that oppression and reform our police force into one protecting everyone in the city.”

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