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Standing for Our Values: Why 19 Rabbis Were Arrested in NYC This Week

Standing for Our Values: Why 19 Rabbis Were Arrested in NYC This Week

Rabbi Rachel Timoner being arrested by NYPD while wearing a prayer shawl

I sat on the police bus in the dark with my hands cuffed behind me, and I knew I was safe. During my arrest for civil disobedience with 18 other rabbis in protest of the Muslim ban in front of the Trump Hotel in New York City, the police had been respectful and even kind. I knew I had the right to participate in civil disobedience and that there are not yet laws criminalizing protest in the United States (as some lawmakers are proposing). I knew I was being represented by a team of excellent volunteer attorneys, and that I am white and not poor – and a rabbi.

These last factors felt like a kind of protection for me, making it unlikely that I would be mistreated. I was not afraid that I’d be kept in jail for weeks or months, even though people on Rikers Island, not far from where I was, are sometimes held for years without a trial. Habeas corpus is theoretically available in America (for now), and I trusted it would be available to me because of my privilege.

A moment like this is exactly what all of that privilege should be used for.

I was not afraid that I would be beaten, tortured, or harmed in any way, as would happen to prisoners in the countries that refugees flee from. I trusted that the police would follow the law. And I was not alone. I was with 18 other rabbis, all big-hearted and strong in their convictions. If something went wrong, we had each other.

So as I sat on the police bus with my hands cuffed behind my back, in the dark, I was not at all afraid.

In fact, I was less afraid on that police bus than I have been at any time since November. Since November, I have been afraid. I am afraid for our country, for our democracy, for human rights and human dignity and human decency. I am afraid for our public education system, for the civil rights and the voting rights we have won through so much struggle. I am afraid for my lesbian family. I am afraid for my Muslim neighbors and my immigrant neighbors. I am afraid that there will be reckless war, even nuclear war.

I am afraid of the hate that has been unleashed against the Jewish people. Just two days before our arrest, an entire NYC subway car was defaced with swastikas and the words “Jews belong in the oven.” The passengers on the train took it upon themselves to clean the graffiti away, and we organized a vigil to say, “Not in our city” – but such incidents are on the rise.

And the reason I was sitting on that police bus is that I am terribly afraid for the small number of already-extremely-vetted refugees who will be turned away from our borders, possibly to their deaths. I am afraid that we are losing the soul of our nation. And I am afraid that I am watching the most core Jewish values – that we not oppress the stranger, that we not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor – be violated.

But here, now, my rabbinic colleagues and I were doing something about it. We were going on record to say no. No, we will not stand idly by. No, we will not lose the soul of America.

It just so happens that this week, we read about our own people becoming refugees. In parashat B’shalach, we read of our people’s flight from Egypt, our fear that we would be killed or captured, our despair, our hope, and our cry for freedom. And then we read that God said, “Tell the people to go forward.”

We are going forward together, walking right through our fear. Because, as Audre Lorde said, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Rabbi Rachel Timoner is senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner
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