MINNETONKA, Minn. (JTA) — When I received a phone call last Saturday morning from the governor and lieutenant governor’s office, I sensed it would be a Shabbat and Shavuot unlike any other.
They were organizing a press conference with a small group of clergy and other community leaders that afternoon. “Rabbi, would you attend?” It was minutes before our Zoom service, a phrase that would have felt odd typing three months ago.
As an observant Jew, a rabbi leading community in prayer, and co-chair of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association, I felt the decision was painful and obvious. More than ever, the biblical call to pursue justice has guided my ears to listen more closely to the experiences of black Americans and Jews of color. They have moved my feet in protesting with other rabbis and cantors in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
And they opened my heart in new ways at the family memorial service for George Floyd. Rabbi Jill Crimmings and I, co-chairs of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association, were humbled and honored to represent the Jewish community.
In the sanctuary, at the family memorial service for George Floyd, we stood in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. That was how long the police officer kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck.
“How will I pray?” I asked myself at a loss for words.
But then a cry pierced the silence. “I can’t breathe.”
A few moments later, another cry rose. “I can’t breathe.”
And another and another. Black men cried out in the sanctuary, their voices full of anguish and resolve. I heard each as a modern-day psalmist in our midst, challenging, “Let every breath praise you God” (Psalm 150).
They know too well how it might not be so for people of color, especially when a knee is kept on your neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
Each voice pierced the sanctuary like blasts of the shofar. They called me from my sleep, challenging me to reflect on my own spiritual leadership, and how I as a white Jew am making space for every breath of every person of color. Or simply taking breath for granted.
“How will I pray?” I gave up on my own words. The spontaneous cries pierced my soul and became prayers themselves.
I thought about the Jews of color in my congregation, in the larger community, and around the world. Those who pray Psalm 150 day after day and hear those same shofar blasts year after year. But unlike me, they could have been crying like George Floyd, “I can’t breathe.”
I will never forget the piercing sounds of all the black men who cried today like the psalmist. And all the people of color across the Jewish community and beyond. They are my prayer leaders and teachers. Their breath is my prayer.