Photo: Nina Chacker

Essay: Leading Michigan Poor People’s Campaign

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Dozens of rabbis and lay leaders join together for social justice.

This summer, interfaith clergy and lay leaders gathered to revitalize the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) through six acts of nonviolent civil disobedience paired with songful, impassioned rallies.

Each weekly action in May and June focused on one of the many intersecting issues of violence, racism, environmental devastation and poverty. Leveraging the age-old tactic of creative performative arrest, the massive wave of PPC actions shed light on these injustices all over the country.

Across the nation, Jewish institutions got on board with this historic movement: The Jewish Council of Public Affairs, Union of Reform Judaism, Bend the Arc, T’ruah and Reconstructing Judaism endorsed the PPC.

Locally, Rabbi Alana Alpert, executive director of Detroit Jews for Justice (DJJ) and rabbi at Congregation T’chiyah, worked to cultivate a robust Metro Detroit Jewish voice within the PPC. Thanks to Alpert’s recruitment efforts, the Metro Detroit Jewish community participated in Michigan PPC actions in Detroit and Lansing in solidarity with those directly impacted.

Metro Detroit Jews at a Poor People’s Campaign event PHOTO BY NINA CHACKER. Michigan PPC
Metro Detroit Jews at a Poor People’s Campaign event
PHOTO BY NINA CHACKER

Metro Detroit Jewish clergy were trained by the PPC legal support team and spirit leaders of the PPC in order to safely risk arrest at the days of action. On Mondays in May and June in East Lansing, Alpert was arrested along with Rabbi Aura Ahuvia of Shir Tikvah and Rabbi Ariana Silverman of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. DJJ leaders Seth Archambault, Daniel Hurwitz-Goodman, Jake Ehrlich, Dr. Justin Sledge, Dan Klein, Hannah Lewis, Eleanor Gamalski and Valeriya Epshteyn were also arrested.

Rabbis who risked arrest included Rabbi Brent Gutmann of Temple Kol Ami and Rabbi Becca Walker, rabbi at Michigan State Univiersity Hillel. Rabbi Jeff Falick and members of the Birmingham Temple were regular participants as well.

“It is important for the Jewish community to be a visible part of the Poor People’s Campaign because Jewish values are human values,” said Ahuvia. “And, to me, it feels important to publicly affirm that. I’m also proud to participate as a religious minority because it reminds the world that Jews are an important part of the conversation. We want to be allies in repairing the world. This proclaims that desire visibly.”

Jews have a longstanding history of fighting for social justice since Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. King to Selma, Ala. Of course, the social justice veins of the Jewish people run deeper than the 20th century.

Gutmann asserted that the impetus to take action is rooted in our holiest text. “Torah is filled with mitzvot designed to create socioeconomic protections — peah, shmitah, al titosh ger, yatom, v’almanah,” he said. “Moreover, the prophets’ overarching message is religious ritual without derekh eretz, common decency, is contemptible. With all these Jewish principles, is it possible not to feel a sense of religious obligation to help the poor of our country? What purpose does our faith serve if not in helping us become agents of change in demanding a more compassionate and more just world?”

Added Silverman, “The work of the Poor People’s Campaign is deeply resonant with Jewish values and our obligations to care for the vulnerable in our communities. It is also vital that we work in partnership with other clergy and people of faith in Metro Detroit as we work together to improve the lives of all Detroiters. I admire and am grateful for Rabbi Alana Alpert’s leadership in the PPC. I am honored to do my part as we do this sacred work together.”

Valeriya Epshteyn
Valeriya Epshteyn

Valeriya Epshteyn is a program associate at Detroit Jews for Justice.

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