“The memory of Ahmaud Arbery calls us to account...”
I am writing to share with you a story. My story.
On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was killed by three white men because they suspected him of trouble. My small Southern town became the center of a racial equity versus vigilantism tinder box, and my community was changed forever. As the rabbi of the only synagogue in Brunswick, Georgia, I am learning quickly about racial equity, privilege, and dialogue, about Judaism’s intersection with these ideas, about what is possible in an impossible place.
The arc of history bends toward justice, but it doesn’t bend itself. So, we have been busy here. My community, robust in its diversity while comfortable in its segregation, has maintained decorum against the odds. I am deeply proud to be from a place which has tolerated the stress of this time with beauty and dignity. Our local clergy have been united in building community unity. We welcomed here hundreds of Black pastors the week before the verdict along with 12 T’ruah rabbis and cantors from around the country to stand in solidarity and service. I know that change is possible. It takes time, patience, a willingness to be uncomfortable, and each person finding our own voice in the landscape for justice.
We got here through relationships. Soon after Ahmaud Arbery’s death, the clergy in our county began to lean on each other. We came together to stand up in this moment. We found a shared love for God, community, and one another. We began equity training with an expert based in Atlanta, and we formed Glynn Clergy for Equity.
Over the next two years, we kept “doing life together” and deepening our relationships. The local press knew us as the clergy gathered outside the courthouse, but our collaboration has been so much more, including hosting virtual and in-person equity dinners for the last half year. These have been opportunities for members of disparate groups in our community to come together. You see, here, there really isn’t a place to go to meet people outside of your silo. In the dinners, people have had meaningful and transformative conversations about race and equity — to bend the arc a little further.
During the trial, Rabbi Jill Jacobs reached out to ask what help and support I needed. This has been a tremendous gift. It was meaningful to be remembered and reached out to. And Jill, with the power of T’ruah, made it possible to send some reinforcements.
One defense attorney said that “Black pastors” in the courtroom supporting the Arbery/Cooper-Jones family were “intimidating” to the almost-all-white and female jury. In response, there was a call for clergy everywhere to stand with Black pastors. Jill and T’ruah’s network mobilized more than a minyan to come to Brunswick and show Jewish support for Black clergy. They also brought support for the small yet mighty Jewish community here.
My congregation is the only one for 60 or so miles in any direction. To me, it was so important that a group of white-presenting Jewish clergy show up in support of Black clergy. Not only did it make an incredible statement, but white-presenting Jews showing up in this way in support of the Black community feels like an appropriate evolution of our longstanding historical relationship with each other. I did not have the bandwidth to extend the invitation or organize the much welcomed guests. T’ruah was incredible stepping in to make this happen.
The morning of clergy solidarity, Glynn Clergy for Equity hosted a breakfast for out of town guests. Just before we went in, Jill suggested that we gather the Jewish clergy. But we’re a small community. If you gather clergy, other clergy just show up. Instead of just being the dozen of us, all of a sudden it was about two dozen clergy of all faiths. As we sang “Sanctuary,” there was a stunning moment where we split into Hebrew and English. Usually, it is just me, maybe a congregant or two, singing in Hebrew. Standing there, hearing the Hebrew and English so evenly woven together, brought tears to my eyes.
I could feel the support of the Jewish community in the weight of the ancient words, and my colleagues could, too. We all knew we were not alone.
When we arrived outside the courthouse, it started getting hot out. The keynote speaker was very late. People had been gathering since 11am to get good spots to hear the presentation, and by 1:30pm when it started, some were beginning to become ill.
Someone passed out, and an ambulance came.
One of the people in our group had seen pallets of bottled water at the lunch site. Our group of rabbis and cantors started handing them out as the presentation started. At some point, we were in the front of the crowd, handing out water, tallitot on. As is very common among Black Baptist communities, many people had their hands raised in prayer, and there we were beside them, our hands raised with bottles of water, serving the predominantly Black crowd in a silent message of “We are here for you. We are here to serve you.”
A few days after the T’ruah delegation went home, the verdict came out.
In the narrative of racial justice, 24 guilty verdicts on 27 accounts feels like a win. And there was an air of vindication outside the courthouse.
But it wasn’t joy. Because Ahmaud Arbery will never come home. Nothing we do can bring him back.
And now more community members are lost to a prison system which incarcerates but does not redeem. The apparent racism that led to the actions those three men took on February 23, 2020, is still glaringly apparent in this community.
The memory of Ahmaud Arbery calls us to account. We have the sacred task of transforming what is here. This is a change that needs to happen everywhere, not just in Brunswick. The Torah calls us to not only love our neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) but also to love the stranger (Leviticus 19:34). To make a difference, we must embrace loving ourselves, loving our neighbors; and loving the people we do not even know. The Torah is explicit; we love the stranger because we were strangers. We know the suffering of being outsiders. We know. And in that knowing, we are chosen by God to not let anyone else be alone in that pain.
Change can happen. When as many people as possible apply their gifts and talents toward the sacred work of bending the arc, all things are possible.
Thank you for being in this work with me,
Rabbi Rachael Bregman
Temple Beth Tefilloh