Introduction: Every bullet leaves pain in circles rippling outward, like the diameter of the bomb the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once described. Amichai’s bomb extends from 30 centimeters to the immediate range of dead and wounded, out to a solitary mourner “far across the sea,” finally encompassing “the entire world in the circle.” (Chana Bloch’s translation.)
Monday’s shooting on Benning Road killed Ayana McAllister, 18, home from college on spring break, and injured her roommate, Aqueelah Brown, 19, who was visiting. It traumatized Ayana’s sister, N’Daja, 19, who was also present. Friends and acquaintances suffer in ripples outward from two family circles that will never be the same, from school communities forever changed, and from Fort Chaplin Apartments, where such shootings are too commonplace. And somewhere in that web of sorrow and confusion are neighboring toddlers who experience, without knowing in any conscious way, the calculations their caregivers make every time they leave the house.
Note: In Jewish tradition, “Mi Shebeirach” [“May the one who blessed…”] prayers use a formula that calls on memory and relationship, a personal-divine history of sorts, to make a request of God. Traditions vary today and have varied throughout history regarding timing and content of such prayers, but requests for healing are a common use in most traditions. There are many articles on the topic. Here’s one interesting piece from Sh’ma written not long after the death of Debbie Friedman(February 23, 1951 – January 9, 2011). Friedman, singer/song-writer and faculty member of the Hebrew Union College, created a musical “Mi Shebeirach” that was extremely popular in the late 20th Century and had a strong influence on how the prayer is perceived and used.
May the one who blessed our ancestors,
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah,
and our extended family,
Lot and his kin, Hagar, Ishmael, Esau, Bilhah and Zilpah
– a clan that knew its share of trauma and grief –
bless and heal those recovering from violence, loss, and terror.
May the Blessed Holy One be filled with compassion
for all those experiencing ripples of violence.
May God swiftly send all who need it a renewal of body and spirit.
May our community health be restored
and our collective strength revived.
And let us say, Amen.
The following prayer, prepared by Virginia Spatz and Rabbi Gerry Serotta, was offered for use during the Yizkor (Memorial) service Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 5777 at Fabrangen Havurah. It is based on the yizkor prayers of several different Jewish traditions, relying strongly on the notion that acts of tzedakah [righteousness, sometimes translated as “charity”] perpetuate the names — “bind up in the bonds of life” — of the deceased. (jump to PDF version)
Consider this reflection for those in our neighborhoods lost to state violence in 5776
As we endeavor to return to the Eternal One in these Days of Awe — and into the new year — we carry with us connections to those killed by violence perpetrated in our name in our own country. Among iniquities for which we beg forgiveness is failure to stop police killings, disproportionately affecting the black- and brown-skinned among us, or to address the underlying systemic racism. In this season of return, we ask God to accept our pledges of renewed examination of state power, including militarization of police, and of renewed commitment to human rights for all.
In this Memorial Service, we recall three unarmed black men killed by police in the District last year, along with six other black citizens, and no one of another skin color, killed by police in DC during 5776:
James McBride, 74, Sep 29, 2015.
Unarmed, leaving hospital without signing out. Killed by MedStar Special Police. Death ruled homicide.
Alonzo Smith, 27, Nov 1, 2015.
Unarmed, unexplained circumstances. Killed by Blackout Special Police. Death ruled homicide.
Terrence Sterling, 31, Sep 11, 2016.
Unarmed, shot contrary to protocol/orders. Killed by Metropolitan Police Dept. Death ruled homicide.
Marquesha McMillan, 21, Oct 26, 2015.
Armed with a gun. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
James Covington, 62, Nov 2, 2015.
Armed with a gun. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
Darick Napper, 34, Nov 19, 2015.
Armed with a knife. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
Peter John, 36, Feb 1, 2016.
Armed with a toy gun. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
Sherman Evans, 63, June 27, 2016.
Armed with a toy gun. Killed by Metropolitan Police Department.
Sidney Washington, Jr., 21, July 4, 2016.
Part of a July Fourth crowd shooting off fireworks and firearms. Killed by Metro Transit (Special) Police.
O God, full of mercy, Justice of the bereaved and Parent of orphans , take special notice of those lost to state killings in our own country. Master of compassion, shelter under the shadow of Your wings those whose lives ended in violence, often fueled by racial injustice. Grant proper rest for the souls of all who went to their eternal rest through such killings.
May these moments of meditation strengthen the ties linking this community with our most vulnerable and troubled members. I pledge tzedakah/charity to address racial injustices contributing to these deaths. Through such deeds, and through prayer and remembrance, may the souls of the departed be bound up in the bond of life. May they rest in peace forever.
The heartbreaking and indicting list goes on.
Activists and mourners from the DC area and around the country joined together last year, at this season, for “Voices of Grief and Struggle,” focusing on ten mothers who lost black sons in police custody around the U.S.
Since, then, sadly and to our shame, we have lost too many more in similar circumstances.
It is time to listen again to these mothers:
Deborah Copp Elliott, mother of Archie (“Artie”) Elliott III (Age 24)
Collette Flannigan, mother of Clinton Allen (Age 25)
Darlene Cain, mother of Dale Graham (Age 29)
Rev. Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, III (Age 22)
and the others who shared their powerful messages, “ Voices of Grief and Struggle,” in the nation’s capital last year.
It is also time to stand with Beverly Smith, mother of Alonzo Smith (age 27), discovered dead in custody of private security at Marbury Plaza Apartments in Southeast Washington, DC, on November 1.
Prayers and support are needed to uplift Beverly Smith (left, at December 1 vigil), all who knew Alonzo (“Zo”) Smith, all who seek justice for this young man and the many others lost to police brutality, and all who demand an end to this on-going horror.
In the DC area, consider joining the rally on December 12. (See flyer)
Readers may have noticed a long silence on this blog. But I have not been entirely silent.
At start of June 2015, I began an additional blog, #SayThisName, to mark those lost to homicide and police action in the District of Columbia. Since then, I have personally typed out and said aloud the names of 95 individuals lost in our city in less than six months. The list includes friends of friends, a domestic murder-suicide a few blocks from my home, and a shooting on the steps of a church across from my work. I glimpsed a few seconds of the latter scene nearly three months ago, and the picture rarely leaves me for long. These are not statistics or abstractions. And this recitation has, it seems, captured a large part of my voice.
I am grateful to Temple Micah (DC), one of my spiritual homes, for their practice — several months old now — of listing the names of those lost to violence in the city as we rise to recite Mourners Kaddish. It is clearly having an effect on many in the congregation, including our new rabbi, Susan Landau, who is also new to DC. While guns are not behind every death in our town, they play a big role. And Rabbi Landau is joining with others nationally to address this problem.
Rabbi Landau spoke powerfully at the interfaith “United to Stop Gun Violence,” November 3, at the National Cathedral.
Rabbi Landau’s remarks begin at 23:00 above.
Imam Talib Shareef of DC’s Masjid Muhammad speaks at 28:00.
Film includes other local and national activists, prayers, and song.
Many national groups working on gun violence from one angle or another participated in the November 3 event. Some of the resources shared there appear on this page.
It is based on the prayer “for our country” in Mishkan T’filah, the most recent prayerbook of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. (Mishkan T’filah, NY: CCAR, 2007. This prayer is on p.258 here.)
[this blog originally shared a draft for comments]
Here is an updated version for considering, sharing, and, most importantly, for praying!
Chapter 21 of Deuteronomy (Shoftim: Deut 16:18-21:9) tells the Israelites what to do, upon entering the land, “if a corpse be found..the identity of the slayer not being known.” This is the elaborate ritual involving the Red Heifer in which the elders of the nearest town must be prepared to declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood…”
It turns out that this is not so simple, according to commentary across the centuries. First of all, many point out, neglect and indifference are sins and not easy ones to disavow.
Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, in the middle of the 20th Century:
“Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” (See The Prophets, and Essays on Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Essays edited by Susannah Heschel)
Ibn Ezra, the 12th Century Spanish commentator, writes that elders in Red Heifer cases have some responsibility for the fact of sinfulness was present in their town, without which the crimes could not have occurred.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th Century commentator, hypothesized that the only case where a body would be left out in the open, in apparent mocking defiance of public officials, would be if town officials had sent a hungry traveling stranger on his way without food and so he resorted to highway robbery. In this case, Hirsch says, the slayer is guiltless and the blameworthy ones are the officials who failed to exercise Jewish communal duty.
With this background in mind, here is information from the DC Children’s Law Center on factors contributing to child trauma:
One in four District of Columbia school-age children lives in poverty – which is defined as living on less than $24,000 for a family of four.
Over 4000 public school students were homeless in the 2013-2014 school year.
Adult incarceration is higher among DC residents than anywhere else in the country, leaving many children without one or more of their parents.
In DC, forty percent of high school students reported hearing or seeing violence in the previous year. This is far higher in some neighborhoods where gunshots and violent crime are constants.
A friend who ran two day camps in Southeast housing projects this summer had to help children cope with shootings in both locations. Heartbreaking, but not unusual occurrences there. She also returned to her office, after letting camp out early one day, to find a bullet hole in her window and a bullet lodged in the wall behind her desk.
Other friends are coping as we speak this morning (Temple Micah, August 22) with the aftermath of two juveniles shooting at one another on Tuesday, resulting in serious injuries to both boys and the death of the younger one’s mother. I witnessed the shooting death of a 21-year-old in another neighborhood on the same day, as did many people who were on that street, just going about their business, or inside the church while Amari Jenkins was shot outside.
A number of children witnessed the aftermath of both incidents. I know little about the third shooting of that same day. (All readers are encouraged to #SayThisName for each individual lost to homicide in DC; news stories about the high murder rate in DC and other US cities abound.)
A guest on the Education Town Hall, a weekly radio program I help organize, spoke on August 20 of how an annual back-to-school picnic he arranges now provides children with first-aid kits. Why would that be a back-to-school supply? Because, he says, these kids live in a war zone, and we need to acknowledge it.
The history and sociology of how this reality developed is too complex for this dvar Torah. But I think the Torah portion is asking us to consider our communal responsibility for helping children cope with situations that endanger them, lest we become as blameworthy as the elders in Hirsch’s hypothetical town.
Early childhood trauma affects the way the brain develops, and trauma in older children makes it difficult, if not impossible, for students to learn, often appearing in attention and behavioral problems in the classroom. The eventual result, according experts, is that trauma is transmitted, through further violence in many cases, if young people are not helped to transform it.
Taking positive action is important in recovering from the helplessness of a traumatic event, according to psychologists. I continue to seek ways to turn the energy of the tragedy I witnessed into something healing. Several possible courses of action, to help us take positive steps amidst this chaos, are shared here “Prayer, Advocacy, and #RippleEffect.”
Returning to the Red Heifer…
The Plaut commentary focuses on the practicality of the ritual, suggesting that it would attract so much attention as to enhance a sense of communal responsibility and help ensure that the murderer is apprehended.
The 15th Century Portuguese commentator, Abarbanel, said the shock value of the ritual would prevent people from forgetting the murder and keep alive the search for the offender.
However, the Mishnah (redacted around 200 CE) reports that the Red Heifer ritual had already ceased when crimes of murder multiplied to such a degree that the ritual was no longer feasible. I didn’t have the heart to read what Sanhedrin says about this (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 27b and forward), and I cannot imagine what the ancient Rabbis would make of DC and other major US cities today.
But it’s clear that we need some new approaches. And I’ve been thinking about that double “tzedek” in this week’s “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” [“Justice, Justice you shall pursue] (Deut 16:20).
Toward a New Approach
“Justice, justice you shall pursue”
Efforts like the #RippleEffect Campaign and Playing for Change Day are no expiation for murder, of course, and they’re no substitute for direct, head-on, immediate action in pursuit of justice. But we’re not all in a position to effectively take up that work —
The direct approach accounts for only the first “justice” in “justice, justice you shall pursue.” I suggest that the second “justice” calls for something completely different.
“Justice, justice you shall pursue”
Maybe a large public ritual PFC Day — one based on music, not blood — can capture a 21st Century world’s attention, to inspire some introspection and improvements, launch some creative energy and community building.
One of the reasons given for setting up judges at all the gates — at the start of this week’s Torah portion — is to ensure that justice enters into daily life in every location, a little like those ripples of kindness beginning from a variety of centers.
I also know that those of us facing the constant stress and grief of life today in some parts of the District — and what I experience is minor compared to what many others face — need the joy and release and uplifting power of music now more than ever.
Sometimes I image that music is the conduit the prophet Amos had in mind when he said that justice should roll down — or “well up” — like waters (Amos 5:24; see also below). Like water, music can exert its power with flexibility, perhaps in torrents or flood, perhaps through softer means, carrying us great distances, operating in ways we easily sense, and in ways below the surface and beyond our control that help bring transformation.
Stains and Ripples
The ritual of the Red Heifer warned the People that shrugging or hoping someone else would step up was not an option, reminded the elders that the conditions of their town could leave innocent blood on their hands.
This portion tells us that murdered blood pollutes the land and requires atonement.
I have watched a young man’s blood power-washed off concrete, and I can tell you the stain is still there.
We’re going to need some serious creative collective strength to address all the stains from all the murders in this town — and all the youth left to deal with what their elders should be managing.
Power washing doesn’t work.
Force doesn’t work.
More blood won’t work.
We need a new approach. For, now —
…Let there be songs to fill the air
Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men
— Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead, 1970)
NOTE: Amos, Water, and Justice
I confess that I largely know the quote “until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a might stream,” from its use by Martin Luther King and, consequently, in Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial.
How fascinating and disconcerting, in this context, then, to be reminded just now of what Amos says about music —
Amos 5:כא שָׂנֵאתִי מָאַסְתִּי, חַגֵּיכֶם; וְלֹא אָרִיחַ, בְּעַצְּרֹתֵיכֶם. 21 I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
כב כִּי אִם-תַּעֲלוּ-לִי עֹלוֹת וּמִנְחֹתֵיכֶם, לֹא אֶרְצֶה; וְשֶׁלֶם מְרִיאֵיכֶם, לֹא אַבִּיט. 22 Yea, though ye offer me burnt-offerings and your meal-offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts.
כג הָסֵר מֵעָלַי, הֲמוֹן שִׁרֶיךָ; וְזִמְרַת נְבָלֶיךָ, לֹא אֶשְׁמָע. 23 Take thou away from Me the noise of thy songs; and let Me not hear the melody of thy psalteries.
כד וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה, כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן. 24 But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Houses of worship across the United States are separated by many things: culture, religious denomination, style of prayer, theology and language. We’re also separated by demographics and location, even in the same town.
I believe it was DC’s former police chief Isaac Fulwood who noted that 10 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour of life in the city. Of course, many things have changed since Fulwood’s tenure in the late 80s — and Jews, as well as some other religious communities, don’t hold their biggest weekly worship on Sunday. But his basic point remains.
The relative segregation of our lives and our worship communities means that, in cities like the District of Columbia, some communities mourn violent deaths with terrible regularity while others, in the same city, remain largely unaffected.
It has been one of my deepest prayers that we can find ways, in our various worship communities, to ensure that our worship reflects the welfare of our own city, specifically, while never losing cite of our wider place as citizens of the world. One place we must start, I continue to believe, is for every house of worship in the city to acknowledge the violent losses of its citizens, even if those lost and their primary mourners are not members of the congregation.
In this past week, the District of Columbia has been bereaved of the following individuals through homicide:
June 26 1200 block of Raum Street, Northeast
23-year-old Kevin Cortez Johnson, of Southeast, Washington.
June 28 1600 block of E Street, Northeast
33 year-old Darrell Michael Grays of Northeast, Washington, DC.
June 29 Unit block of Galveston Place, Southwest
25 year-old Rodney Delonte Davis, of Manassas, Virginia.
We are still in the 30-day period of mourning for these individuals, lost to homicide:
June 8 5100 block of Southern Avenue
21-year-old Qur’an Reginald Vines of Southeast, Washington, DC.
June 10 (after June 3 injuries) Gallaudet and Kendall Streets, Northeast
57 year-old Anthony Ray Melvin of Clinton, Maryland.
June 13 3200 block of 23rd Street Southeast
54 year-old Kenneth Fogle of Southeast, Washington, DC.
June 13 2300 block of 15th Street, Northeast
44 year-old Donald Franklin Bush of Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
June 14, 5200 block of Central Avenue, Southeast
26-year old James Brown of Northeast, Washington, DC.
June 17 1300 block of Orren Street, Northeast
25 year-old Larry Michael Lockhart of Northeast, DC.
June 17 3300 block of D Street, Southeast
28 year-old Antonio Lee Bryant of Southeast, DC.
June 18 800 block of 51st Street, Southeast
42 year-old Brian Sickles of Southeast, Washington, DC.
June 18 1300 block of 5th Street, Northwest
26 year-old Patrick Shaw of no fixed address.
June 19 3600 block of Calvert, Northwest
53 year-old Joel Johnson of no fixed address.
June 20 (after June 16 injury)
16 year-old Malik Mercer of Clinton, MD (former 10th grader at Ballou SHS in SE).
June 23 (after June 21 injury) 2200 block of H Street, Northeast
26-year-old Arvel Lee Stewart of Northeast, Washington, DC.
June 23 1200 block of Holbrook Terrace, Northeast
19 year-old Heineken McNeil of Southeast, Washington, DC.
June 24 at the Tidal Basin
20 year-old Deante Tinnen of Southeast, DC.
June 25 16th & Galen Streets, Southeast
21 year-old Stephon Marquis Perkins of Maryland.