Moral Monday Arrests

Moral Mondays and Reform Jews

Now, there are some who will say that the role of clergy should be to take care of the spiritual needs of congregants and not to become involved in politics.  However, what has happened in North Carolina in just a few short months is appalling and has really hurt people; especially the most vulnerable in our society, the poor and the children.

To ignore this situation one would have to reject the teachings of the prophet Isaiah who taught  (58:6): “No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke; To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin.” 

Later in history, the rabbis taught: “If all the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 31:12).

It would also mean giving up on what Al Vorspan said we should strive to be: “Nudniks for Justice.”

Being silent now would mean ignoring the Civil Rights – people first – history of the Reform Judaism Movement.

Elie Wiesel said it beautifully when he said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

I mention this because recently, the North Carolina state legislature has done the following which are of great concern to a broad spectrum of the Jewish community:

  • The state refused to accept the Medicaid expansion, depriving benefits to an estimated 500,000 of its citizens. This refusal will cost hospitals and state government dearly. Hospitals across the state have laid-off employees. Here in Greensboro, our local non-profit hospital laid off 300 employees. At the end of July, it was announced that the HealthServe ministry, a clinic that serves some 8,500 poor, would be closed down in part due to the refusal to accept the Medicaid expansion.
  • Dedicated tax free shopping days before the school year were eliminated. These days have been very popular, especially with lower income families.
  • Laws aimed at shutting down abortion clinics were passed; this despite a promise by the governor during the campaign not to sign such legislation.
  • Voter registration ID laws were passed aimed at tamping down the participation of minorities, the elderly, the poor and students.
  • The education system was gutted. No teacher raises were approved. Almost four-thousand teachers’ assistants will be fired. Merit pay increases for teachers who get a Masters degree while teaching were eliminated. The state university system was cut by 80 million dollars. In terms of per student expenditures on education, it is highly likely that North Carolina will now rank 50th in the nation.
  • In Greensboro, our local school board, which had been non-partisan, was made partisan; this despite the fact that most people in this county prefer a non-partisan school board. A proposal to allow a local referendum on this was rejected.
  • In July, the state cut unemployment compensation for more than 170,000 of its citizens and introduced the most draconian laws in the country concerning the unemployed.
  • The main response to these extreme and hurtful legislative initiatives was organized by the North Carolina NAACP under the leadership of Reverend William Barber. For the past 12 Mondays, there have been rallies at the state capital under his leadership. These rallies are called “Moral Monday” rallies. I attended four of them and spoke at one.

Moral Mondays were organized and driven a large group of interfaith clergy.  At every Moral Monday, clergy would lead crowds from the outdoor rally site into the state capital.  We should be very proud that many of our Reform clergy in North Carolina also attended these rallies. At these rallies, I had the honor of speaking once and Rabbi Judy Schindler from Temple Beth El in Charlotte spoke on two occasions. Almost every senior rabbi and numerous non-senior Reform rabbis in North Carolina within a reasonable distance of Raleigh came to Moral Mondays.

Reverend William Barber is an extraordinary and very different leader. I first met Dr. Barber during our fight against the anti-LGBT Amendment One campaign here. (Rabbi David Saperstein helped arrange this as he knows Dr. Barber from their both being on the NAACP National Board). Reverend Barber really helped the African American community understand that anti-LGBT initiatives were not religious in nature, but had everything to do with depriving others of Civil Rights. He predicted correctly that it would not be long until the very same people who were pushing Amendment One would turn their attention towards eliminating key sections of the Voting Rights Act. His work against Amendment One led to an astonishing revision of thinking about civil rights for LBGT citizens among the African American community here in North Carolina.

Reverend Barber put together an amazing coalition in the Moral Monday movement. This coalition included labor, teachers, progressives, Jews, Christians, Muslims, African Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics, LGBTs, women, healthcare workers, voting rights advocates and others. The diversity at the Moral Monday rallies was indeed striking.

Meeting with and getting to know Reverend Barber was truly an amazing experience. In a certain way, I felt as though I was in the presence of a “reincarnation” of Dr. Martin Luther King and I now in some way feel what my older colleagues must have felt when they met with MLK.

The Moral Monday rallies at the state capital have now ended, but there will be other local rallies in the next few months. I am disturbed by what happened in a short few months, but am hopeful that the damage and injustice done to real people can be undone through advocacy and activism. In Elie Wiesel’s words, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Rabbi Fred GuttmanRabbi Fred Guttman is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC.

Image courtesy of AP Photo/The News & Observer, Travis Long.

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