As Jewish New Year approaches, two clergy reflect on a year of protest

Sep 8, 2015

The Jewish New Year begins at sundown Sunday. It's the start of 10 days of prayer and reflection for lay people and clergy alike.

Susan Talve, of Central Reform Congregation, and Rori Picker Neiss of Bais Abraham, an Orthodox synagogue, have much to reflect upon. Each in her own way emerged in the Jewish year 5775 as a leading voice in the protests inspired by the death of Michael Brown.

They sat down with St. Louis Public Radio's Rachel Lippmann to consider what the past year means.

What inspires you to activism?

Susan Talve: “It comes from Torah. I see Torah calling to me to level the playing field, the respond to suffering, and to make sure that the people who are the most marginalized have a voice."

Rori Picker Neiss: "It's hard to say that I feel inspired to activism specifically. I think that I feel called when something is necessary. My faith tells me that it’s not our responsibility to sit back and just enjoy the world around us, but it’s our responsibility to be partners with God in the process of creation, and in the process of perfecting the world around us."

Is there a particular figure from Judaism that you feel you are honoring by responding to the call to be active?

Talve: "I can't help but think about Rivka (Rebecca). I think about that moment when she's pregnant with twins and she says, אִם כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי?  ["If it be so, why am I like this?"] If this is the nature of creation, it is so imperfect, it's so messy.

"I think she's asking for the purpose of her life. And there's a wonderful dichotomy between thinking that your purpose is to do and to make and to be successful, whatever that means, but instead of that, to have the purpose of your life to be this notion to be part of the solution and not part of the problem."

Neiss: "There are so many stories throughout our tradition, throughout the Torah, of women who have really struggled and suffered for their children, and really looked around at the world around them. And I think Rebecca is a great example of a woman who saw what others couldn't see, who really looked deeply into her children, who realized the individual needs they had and not just the role she wanted them to fill.

"And I would also go back to the very first woman, to Eve. Eve chooses to open her eyes, to look at the world around her, and with that comes suffering, but with that comes power. That’s really when we start this whole process of our participation in the world."

Talve: "I love that in Rori's explanation of the story of the Garden and Eve's role that it was not a sin at all. In fact, it was liberation. I love that idea, I embrace that idea with all my heart. When I think about this new civil rights movement, or what's happened in our region around the death of Mike Brown, I think about how as Jews we have to be there."

Neiss: "We can get caught up in who ate the fruit first, and who blamed whom for the fruit, but the reality is, that's the moment when the whole world begins. We can also get caught up when we start talking about the details of Mike Brown, and who was standing where, and who was doing what, and people want to debate it until the end of time, but the reality is, it was a catalyst. It was a moment in history that opened our eyes to what had always been going on. The eating of the fruit, the one moment in history -- that's not what the whole world is about. It's about everything that comes after it. It's about how humanity starts. That's the point that we're at right now. There's no going back. There's only going forward. We get to choose what it looks like."

You are two of many women who have been at the forefront of these protests. Why have women been the leaders?

Talve: "I'm really not sure, other than the outrage of seeing this happen to our children. We're taking it very personally. What got my attention was Mike Brown's mom not being able to hold her son as he bled out on the street. I also resonated with what she said — she said, 'Do you know how hard it was to get this child through school?' What woman wouldn't relate to her agony, and how hard she had worked for that child. The other mother that I think about is VonDerritt Myers' mom, Syreeta. I've been at many vigils where she's said, 'Please don't let them demonize my son. He wasn't a demon. He wasn't perfect, but please don't let them demonize my son.' That gets my attention, because we know that attempt to demonize, to dehumanize, to shame." 

You are two Jewish women in a protest movement driven by women, yet you come from different branches of Judaism where women participate very differently in religious life. Has your involvement in the movement led either of you to reflect on the role of women in the movement versus the religious community?

Neiss: I think even within Orthodox Judaism, women have always had a very important role in the relationship building, in family units, in really driving the community. But it really does change the impact that we’re able to have when we go back to the community. For me to be able to go out on the street and to talk to the people, to hear their stories, and then to go back to a pulpit and share some of those stories, that’s a tremendous power and privilege."

Talve: Having more traditional women out there — Jewish women, Muslim who wear the hijab — for me personally, has been very empowering. It reminds me that this is local, but it’s also a global phenomenon.

Neiss: It’s important to state, and to emphasize, that this is not a movement of the liberals. This is not some crazy progressive cause. This is what our faith calls us to do.

What is your hope for this new year, for 5776?

Neiss: My hope is that we take some really strong steps forward in all of it, that we can start to give people the lives that they need, the lives that they want, and that we can really start to live in a world where people aren’t afraid for their lives, where people aren’t afraid of those around them, where people aren’t debating terminology of whose life matters more, but that we can really start to look at the world that we really want to create together, and do that in a place of growth and healing.”

Talve: Amen.

A crowd waits to be arrested outside the Eagleton federal courthouse on August 10, 2015. Both Rori Picker Neiss and Susan Talve were among those taken into custody.
Credit (Sarah Kellogg/St. Louis Public Radio)