Twenty-five years ago on April 29, when I was the regional director of the American Jewish Congress, I sat in the front of the First AME Church along with other community leaders. There was a television off to the side. We were there in the Church along with its leader Rev. Cecil Murray, because we knew that when the verdict in the Simi Valley trial of officers accused of beating Rodney King was announced, it would be an explosive situation. It was my first time worshipping in a church like FAME; the choir was amazing! Politicians and religious leaders spoke, including Mayor Bradley. After the Mayor finished speaking, people noticed images on TV of fires breaking out. Some of the leaders went outside; they saw the fires just to the south of the Church and called the Fire Department. The Fire Department told Rev. Murray they would come but they needed protection because there were people on the streets throwing rocks at them. One hundred and fifty men come out from FAME to form a line to protect the firefighters as they put out fires in the neighborhood.
It wasn’t safe for me to walk back to my car alone, so one of the men from FAME walked me the several blocks. I was terrified, and grateful that he held my hand. In an extraordinary moment of interfaith dialogue, it turned out that he was one of the parishioners of FAME who had participated in a twinning program at Temple Isaiah. Each of the two communities had experienced worship at the other. Slightly more calm now, we talked about some of the differences in the worship.
Me: This service was amazing! We Jews don’t sing like that.
Him: And whenever I have been to Temple Isaiah I think… we AME folks don’t eat like that!
After the riots , AJ Congress created what we called the LA Jewish Urban Center to engage the Jewish community with issues connected to the city. I worked with a group of leaders around police reform, learning about the extent of racism by listening to African Americans talking about the way they were treated by police. I still have vivid memories of many of those testimonies.
There has been a lot of change since then in the Los Angeles Police Department.…but there is so much that still needs to change—in LA and around the country.
The experience that night and what I learned in its aftermath changed the way I am a rabbi . It encouraged me to step outside my comfort level and to work with One LA/Industrial Areas Foundation. the nation's largest and longest-standing network of local faith and community-based organizations, when I came to my congregation. Through One LA we have worked with other faith communities, institutions, and unions, because… in spite of our differences—one group sings, another group eats… we are all in this together.
On this anniversary especially, I remember the words of the Prophet Jeremiah:
“And seek the welfare of the city and… pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
We are all in this together –people to people, neighborhood to neighborhood, church to mosque to synagogue. Seek the welfare of our city… and our country, together.