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Pursuing Criminal Justice Reform to Honor MLK’s Legacy

Pursuing Criminal Justice Reform to Honor MLK’s Legacy

Black and white photo of a bare jail cell that contains only a thin mattress/bed

Next Monday, January 15, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In the Reform community, we observe this day with Shabbat Tzedek: Celebrate Civil Rights and Social Justice. Shabbat Tzedek honors the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – and more broadly, honors the civil rights movement. As Jews working toward a more just society, we know that the vital work of the civil rights movement is not complete, and Shabbat Tzedek represents an opportunity to renew our commitment to these endeavors.

One way we are honoring this commitment in Ohio is through our ongoing work for criminal justice reform at the state level.

On October 25, 2017, 70 Reform Jews from every corner of the Buckeye State gathered at the Statehouse in Columbus to lobby for criminal justice reform as part of Reform Ohio, a project of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. But first, we heard the story of Tammy Fornier-Alsaasda, who works with the People’s Justice Project.

As a young, impoverished mother, she struggled to raise and support her children. She became addicted to drugs and eventually was incarcerated – like her mother before and her son, who currently is serving a prison sentence. In Tammy’s community, three generations of incarceration is not an anomaly.

Black Ohioans, like Tammy and her son, make up just 10% of the state’s population but half of our imprisoned citizens. This disturbing trend is borne out nationwide. The U.S. is about 4.4% of the world's population, but we house more than 20% of the world's inmates. According to Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, one in every three black male babies born this century is expected to be incarcerated.

On April 16, 1963, a different incarcerated black man wrote, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.” In his now famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continues, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Dr. King’s words teach us that mass incarceration is a Jewish problem, too.

The Talmud implores that “All of Israel is responsible for one another,” and gives us an example of what it means to truly be responsible for others. Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish have two different interpretations of responsibility. When their friend, Rav Imi is captured by bandits, Yochanan’s idea of responsibility is to purchase burial shrouds for him so that he can eventually provide him with the honor of a proper burial. Reish Lakish has a different idea. “I will kill or be killed, but I will go to save him,” he says about his friend before successfully freeing him. Although Yochanan’s intentions are good, it is Reish Lakish who creates justice where none previously existed. 

Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail addressed local white moderate clergy, including a Reform rabbi, whose intentions, he acknowledged, were good. Like Yochanan, they agreed that injustice was afoot. But, unlike Reish Lakish, they failed to appreciate the urgency with which they needed to act.

We are all inheritors of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. The civil rights era is today and the campaign for racial justice is underway now. Opportunities for systemic change exist in every city and state across America. In Ohio, the Reform Jewish community has joined a diverse coalition working to pass a criminal justice reform ballot measure in November. On this Shabbat Tzedek, we renew our commitment to this work.

At the end of Reform Ohio’s Lobby Day, we walked out of the Statehouse to face a looming granite structure in the shape of a Jewish star – the Ohio Statehouse Holocaust Memorial. The only building of its kind in the nation, it bears the words of Auschwitz survivor Avner Shalev: “This is a commitment to uphold human rights, above all, freedom and the sanctity of life.” 

Jewish texts and Jewish history beg us to answer Dr. King’s call. It is up to each of us to determine whether we will heed this call as Rav Yochanan or as Reish Lakish did. As we continue today’s fight for civil rights and racial equality, will we donate burial shrouds, or will we stand up for justice?

Learn more about Shabbat Tzedek: Celebrate Civil Rights and Social Justice and how you can participate individually or as a part of a Jewish community. To join Reform Ohio’s criminal justice reform efforts, contact Rabbi Lindsey Danziger. For questions about the Reform Jewish community’s broader racial justice work, contact Matt Fidel.

Rabbi Lindsey Danziger is the lead organizer of Reform Ohio, a project of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rabbi Michael Danziger is assistant rabbi at Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, OH, where they live with their children, Ben and Aviva.

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