On the last night of Chanukah, Darlington Road and Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill were shut down by a 100-plus crowd demonstrating against deaths of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York at the hands of police. Holding signs reading, “Black lives matter,” the group, while primarily Jewish, included several members of non-Jewish faith communities. Eight demonstrators lined up to form a human eight-flame menorah with torches.
“We selected tonight because it is the last night of Chanukah,” Karen Hochberg, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, said of the Dec. 23 protest. “The human-unity menorah [we formed is] reflecting the most light on the important subject of equal justice and equal treatment of all citizens and that black lives matter.”
“Black lives matter” became a trending hashtag and rallying cry of a movement in 2013, following outrage against the acquittal of Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. It picked up steam following grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.
The organizers of the Squirrel Hill demonstration say Chanukah and the Jewish faith are synonymous with reflection and justice.
“It’s a festival of lights, and it’s crucial for everyone, not just those in the African-American community, to shine a light on the injustices of police brutality,” said Jonathan Mayo, president of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN). “Chanukah also marks the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians, the few against the many; those who seemed defenseless against those with a vice grip on power. … We wanted to construct this multiracial, multicultural human unity menorah to show we are dedicated to proving that black lives matter.”
Mayo, who is active in social justice work at Temple Sinai, credited community leaders with articulating a Jewish response to miscarriages of justice.
“Both of our rabbis were very instrumental in getting the ball rolling in this effort,” he said. “Getting involved in this work was just a natural step in the work we try to do regularly at Sinai and with PIIN.”
The Rev. Rodney Lyde of the Baptist Temple Church in Homewood revved up the growing crowd who filled in the parklet next to the Squirrel Hill post office.
“Let the light shine in darkness,” Lyde said. “When darkness is confronted by light, darkness ceases to exist.”
Lyde asked the group to appropriate faith to “undo systematic bigotry and bias and hatred in our city” and promised the crowd that together, they would get there.
“We are relevant, as well as religious,” Lyde said. “When we forge coalitions that say we value black lives, we say we will be the light.”
Taking a stand against brutality is not a stand against all police officers, said Sheila May-Stein, an organizer of the event who posted the call to gather on Facebook.
“We respect and love police officers enough to be outraged when rogue officers break the law, dishonoring the noble calling of law enforcement,” she said.
May-Stein made the call to action following the national movement, Chanukah Action to End Police Violence.
“What an inspiration to see other Jews, activated by the young African-American women and men leading the national movement for justice,” May-Stein said. “To me, it seemed a matter of course to organize a Pittsburgh action in response to this movement; I am so glad that the young leaders in Ferguson and beyond have forced us to wake up and live our values.”
“[This movement is] about calling attention to our duty to hold each of us accountable to being the best citizens we can be; that means raising our voices when we see policing that reflects poorly on the majority of law enforcement officers who do a good job,” Hochberg said. “Gathering together and raising our voices will help to hold our elected leaders accountable for making sure culture change occurs in law enforcement.”
Particularly when Jews have also faced oppression.
“We have known persecution; [and] the Chanukah story is all about persecuted and oppressed people overcoming great odds simply to have the rights they should be afforded,” Mayo said. “We are commanded to stand up when others can’t, to not stand idly by while our brothers bleed.”
For Mayo, standing up now mirrors the Jews who stood up during the Civil Rights era.
“Abraham Joshua Heschel stood and marched with Dr. King,” Mayo said of the Polish-born Jewish philosopher and rabbi who believed that Hebrew teachings directly spoke to social justice. Heschel presented the Judaism and the World Peace award to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in 1965. “We must do the same today.”
Bee Schindler can be reached at email@example.com.