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Why a bunch of rabbis went to Baltimore to protest — and pray

In moments like the one we're in, it’s important to remember that Americans, regardless of race or religion, have more in common than we don’t.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, left, and Meach Johnson celebrate on Friday, May 1, 2015, after State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced criminal charges against all six officers suspended after Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody in Baltimore. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

If you read Saturday’s Washington Post, you probably saw the picture of Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah congregation in Baltimore County celebrating in West Baltimore last Friday with Meach Johnson at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania avenues.

The image itself is a beautiful representation of neighbors supporting each other and, speaking first-hand, quite reflective of the mood in the street that day after the news spread that formal charges were being brought against six Baltimore City police officers as a result of the death of Freddie Gray.

But it’s also important to share the context: why five rabbis and one maharat (a woman spiritual leader) went to West Baltimore last Friday to add our voices to the prayerful voices being raised — and to turn toward, not away from, our neighbors in a time of adversity.

Rabbi Shapiro, myself and three of our rabbinic colleagues from a local Greater Washington Orthodox rabbinic organization known as The Beltway Vaad were invited to Baltimore by Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel, a historic synagogue in Downtown Baltimore. He encouraged us to join his Circle of Unity gathering, which he had called for in response to last week’s riots.

We arrived not knowing what to expect and, truthfully, had concerns about whether our presence would be welcomed.

On the contrary, though, we were welcomed, literally, with open arms. Our experience that day — six Jewish clergy in a predominantly African-American neighborhood — was one of warmth and welcoming.

The Baltimore we found was vastly different from the one we, and most Americans, have seen portrayed over the last few days in the national media. As we walked the streets with our prayer shawls on our shoulders and kippot on our heads, we were stopped and embraced by total strangers. Together, we prayed for solidarity and unity in a way that made me feel more alive than my prayers that same morning in my own synagogue.

We spent much of our time listening to local citizens talk about the problems they were facing in their community.

Then at one point, we looked up and saw Rabbi Shapiro leading a prayer for a large group that had gathered around him in a circle. He was in the middle of the circle swaying with them in song and prayer. It was a brief, but genuine moment of community and brotherhood.

The more we dialogued, the more personal connections we made. More than 30 pastors from the community gathered on Saturday in prayer with Rabbi Mintz, and one pastor we met forged such a strong connection with Rabbi Mintz that the next day, Saturday, he came to B’nai Israel and led the entire congregation in song.

It should be obvious, but the more we got to know people in West Baltimore, the more we realized how much we have in common with them. One man I met had once lived two blocks from my old address in Brooklyn, New York. I met another man who grew up in West Baltimore, but now lives less than a half mile from me in Washington, D.C.

And while my colleagues and I have no illusions that spending one day in West Baltimore will bring about dramatic change, we hope, and believe, that it’s a positive step. Now that charges have been brought and the city’s curfew has been lifted, there’s more work to be done.

One of our primary goals as human beings should be responding with kindness and understanding toward our neighbors, and to build connections as a result. The Torah tells us to love thy neighbor like you love yourself, which the Talmud teaches is the most important verse in the Torah. Maybe the key to understanding this verse is to recognize that we have so much in common with all of our neighbors in this world, and our job in life is to discover our commonalities.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rabbi Etan Mintz’s synagogue. The story has been corrected.