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Op-ed | Pray with your feet during COVID-19 crisis in New York

A woman prays during a Roman Catholic service held outside of a food bank at St. Bartholomew Church, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Elmhurst section of Queens, New York City, New York U.S., May 15, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

BY LETITIA JAMES, REVEREND JACQUES DEGRAFF, RABBI PETER RUBINSTEIN AND MICHAEL SCHMIDT 

When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked upon his return from the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march with Dr. Martin Luther King, “Did you find time to pray?” he famously answered, “I prayed with my feet.” 

There has not been a prouder moment of united advocacy for the Jewish and Black communities than during the civil rights movement. However, since those historical days, the binding ties between these two communities has frayed and the tension between the Jewish and Black communities has escalated. 

Therefore, with the hope of mending wounds the Attorney General’s Office, in partnership with the American Jewish Committee, formed the Black-Jewish Clergy Roundtable last year. With a dedicated group of Black Christian Clergy and Jewish Rabbis dedicated to strengthening Black-Jewish ties, this diverse group, from across the spectrum of both Jewish Rabbinic and Black Christian Ministerial life convened to promote a message of tolerance, unity, civility and mutual respect for each other’s communities.

Especially now at this precarious time in our city and state these religious leaders feel called to know each other better [or “to know the pain in each other’s hearts”] and to turn faith into action through service, unity and compassion.

Social distancing has compelled each of us to alter the way we serve our congregations and constituents. In many communities, nerves are on edge and there is a temptation towards anger and finger pointing.

We acknowledge that communities of color and the poor are suffering in far greater numbers than the general population, both as victims of the disease and targets for unequal enforcement of social distancing rules. It is also true that antisemitism has increased for many reasons including extremists focusing blame for the coronavirus pandemic on the Jewish people.

Our Black-Jewish Clergy Roundtable hears these concerns and calls upon each and every individual to repudiate every expression of hate, anger, and division.  Furthermore, as faith leaders, we embrace the understanding that life is precious and a divine gift. It is painful that we cannot meet together in person with our congregations.

Nevertheless, we passionately urge all faith communities to continue to adhere to NY State’s social distancing guidelines. We honor the dedication and creativity that has emerged from spiritual leaders around the state. They have been uplifting and validate our faith in these leaders who are working 24/7 to provide the spiritual sustenance needed to help guide us through the pandemic.

Both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures teach, “Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” And both traditions mandate that we “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  The common message is that love and service should always guide our actions. 

Faith leaders across the country are steadfastly keeping these values alive and are providing solace and guidance to their constituents.  

When people ask us what they can do to cope with the stress we are all feeling from the pandemic, we say keep the faith and pray with your feet.  As a community of Jewish and Black leaders that have been affected heavily by this virus we believe that regardless of which faith one practices, or doesn’t for that matter, we are all called to equally respect the rule of law which is singularly designed to protect the health not only of ourselves, but of all inhabitants of our city and state. 

We must treat each other with love, recognize that we are all in this together and remember to look out for those who are the most vulnerable. Extend a helping hand to your neighbor, an elderly relative or those who are sheltered-in-place alone. 

If we do, there is no doubt we will meet this challenge and emerge with a stronger appreciation of each other and a recommitment to our goal of strengthening the common ties between the Black and Jewish communities.

The New York State Office of the Attorney General’s Black and Jewish Clergy Roundtable, in partnership with the American Jewish Committee NY Office, is comprised of Black ministers and Rabbi’s from across New York City, Long Island, and Westchester. It was created as a space for diverse clergy to come together, support one another and speak out against antisemitism, racism, and hate. The co-chairs of the group are Rev. Jacques DeGraff and Rabbi Peter Rubinstein. 

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