Standing before a packed room of supporters, media and members of United Synagogue on a hot Tuesday morning in early June, Rabbi Steven Wernick recited Birkat Kohanim. United Synagogue’s CEO was offering the ancient priestly blessing invoking God’s protection for Pastor Corey Brooks and his supporters as they embarked on the Walk Across America to End Violence. The walk was part of Brooks’ Project H.O.O.D. (Helping Others Obtain Destiny), a campaign to raise awareness about gun violence.
The blessing delivered by Rabbi Wernick to Pastor Brooks, the spiritual leader of New Beginnings Church in Chicago, was just one of many spiritually-charged moments on the first day of the anti-violence walk. Sounding at times more like a prayer service than a press conference, the rabbi and pastor took turns sermonizing about the need to take a stand against the “scourge of violence,” calling it an “illness” and a “plague,” and finally, “a humanitarian issue.”
Both Rabbi Wernick and Pastor Brooks quoted freely from the Bible, using examples of those who walked together – like Isaac and Abraham – and stood up to wrongdoing – like Queen Esther. “We need to see the image of God in every person,” said Wernick. “It is our responsibility. It is our mandate to follow Isaac and Abraham.”
Abraham was invoked in two other ways during the event. The first was when Wernick announced the creation of Operation Tent of Abraham and Sarah, an initiative to support Brooks, the walk and Project H.O.O.D. by creating a national network of kehillot to provide the pastor and his entourage hospitality and support and a pulpit in the Jewish community as they made their way across the country.
The second invocation of Abraham had to do with a modern-day personality – the rabbi and teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel who modeled the importance of Black/Jewish solidarity on issues of social justice and demonstrated the importance, in his now famous expression, of “praying with our feet.” Indeed, Heschel’s saying was printed on the back of the t-shirts worn by participants in the Walk Across America to End Violence.
Walking from Midtown to Harlem, Side by Side
The Heschel quote was brought to Brooks’ attention by Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, who joined the walk to Harlem. Indeed, the involvement of United Synagogue in the walk builds on the bond developed by Siegel and Brooks, who are both committed to re-energizing the relationship between Blacks and Jews in this country. Project H.O.O.D’s (http://projecthood. org) mission is to end violence and build strong, vibrant communities, one ‘neighbor H.O.O.D’ at a time by empowering people with the resources, information and tools necessary to become peacemakers, problem solvers, leaders, and entrepreneurs in their own communities.
The Walk Across America is the second phase of Brooks’ ongoing efforts to develop a state-of-the art community and economic development center in Chicago. The center will not only serve as a prototype for cities across the country, but will also become the epicenter for the training and empowerment of both aspiring and existing community leaders nationwide.
One of the first stops along the way of Operation Tent of Abraham and Sarah was Newark’s Congregation Ahavas Sholem. A moving YouTube video captures the visit and the hospitality extended by the synagogue. It is accessible here.
Wernick is especially adamant about the imperative of ending gun violence in our society. “It is the God-given right of every human being to live a life that is safe from the threat of harm or violent and untimely death,” he said. “Gun violence is a modern scourge that requires a coordinated and proactive campaign of resistance and re-education. When the pro-gun lobby cites the Constitution’s Second Amendment right to bear arms, they are misconstruing the original intent of our forefathers who surely did not intend to create a Wild West-type of society.”
United Synagogue’s involvement in Project H.O.O.D. and the walk is a natural consequence of its public policy and social justice programs. It has a long record of resolutions against gun violence. As part of Operation Tent of Abraham and Sarah, United Synagogue is also encouraging its kehillot to stage teach-ins about the scourge of gun violence in America during the Walk Across America to End Violence.
“Houses of worship are the 21st century version of the village square within which the community can gather to learn and remind one another that we are all created in the image of God,” said Wernick.