By Lee Chottiner
Seek the well-being of the city in which you live … for in its peace you shall find peace.”
— Jeremiah 29:7
Farrah Alexander stood in the crowd outside the Jefferson County Courthouse on Friday, May 28, protesting the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
That wasn’t unusual; hundreds of others were at the same rally. What set her apart was her small handmade sign.
Quoting Hillel, the sign said, in caps: “IF I AM NOT FOR ME, WHO IS FOR ME, AND IF AM ONLY FOR MYSELF, WHAT AM I. AND IF NOT NOW — WHEN? (HILLEL, PIRKE AVOT 1:14) SHABBAT SHALOM”
“I got some elbow bumps and some Shabbat Shaloms,” Alexander said. “I felt like people appreciated it.”
Alexander, a stay-at-home mother from Sellersburg, Indiana, and a writer (she has a book about political activism coming out in August), is one of four young Jews empowered to begin a Louisville chapter of the national Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc.
All four are among this year’s recipients of a Jeremiah Fellowship, a Bend the Arc leadership program for young Jews, ages 22-32, who want to learn how to mobilize their communities to fight for progressive change.
Taking its name from the above passage in the Book of Jeremiah, the fellowships went to 70-75 young adults in 14 cities around the country this year, including Louisville recipients Alexander, Sara Gottesman, Bonnie McCullah and Mitch Wiesen.
The four applied for the fellowship before the shootings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, even before the onset of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, so the Louisville cohorts had expected a quieter roll-out of their fellowships.
They had planned to attend a retreat in Pennsylvania, then a national conference in Washington, D.C., where they would take part in an action.
Then the pandemic hit. Then Taylor and Floyd were killed.
“This is completely different than what we intended,” Alexander said.
Since the shootings, the fellows have shown up at a memorial for Taylor at her apartment and at a June 7 vigil in Central Park, along with other Jewish Louisvillians, hosted by the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Justice.
They also are working with the Louisville chapter of Black Lives Matter, prioritizing their cause.
“We decided to prioritize supporting Black Lives Matter because they are at the forefront of the movement for racial justice in Louisville,” said Gottesman, another of the Jeremiah Fellows here. “We’ve already gotten involved by taking some actions according to their public demands.”
The pandemic has changed the way the fellows interact with the national organization and with each other.
“If things were normal, they would be meeting in person regularly, and I would be meeting them in person three times throughout the fellowship,” said Judy Robbins, a Bend the Arc Jeremiah Fellowship organizer, who is mentoring the group. “Now, our coaching and organizing occurs over Zoom.”
But each fellow is still obliged to commit 25 hours a month to organizing, curriculum and training, she said.
Bend the Arc, describes itself as a “movement” of progressive Jews working together to make the country “inclusive, equitable and supportive of the dignity of every person across race, class, gender and faith.
As Robbins said, “Showing up Jewishly is how we like to say it.”
Formed in 2012, Bend the Arc is already established in 19 cities around the country and is looking to become established in 11 others, including Louisville.
While the Jeremiah fellows here are prioritizing working with Black Lives Matter, fellows in other cities are concentrating on immigration or criminal justice reform.
Robbins said Bend the Arc’s overarching goal for 2020 and beyond is “to build a multi-racial democracy where are all free and safe.”
The goal of the fellowships, which end in August, is to make sure the chapter doesn’t end then as well.
“We would like to launch what we call a ‘moral minyan,’” Alexander said, “really launch a group of active Jews fighting for social justice.”