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A rabbi in Chicago holds an annual Yom Kippur service for victims of gun violence


We are in the midst of Judaism's high holy days. Last weekend was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. Happy 5784 to those who celebrate. Yom Kippur begins tomorrow, Sunday, at sundown. That is the day of atonement but also a time when Jews remember their loved ones who have left us. Rabbi Tamar Manasseh will be holding a Yom Kippur service in Chicago and not in a synagogue but on a street corner. Rabbi Manasseh joins us now from the South Side of Chicago. Rabbi, thanks so much for being with us.

TAMAR MANASSEH: Thank you for having me. Good morning.

SIMON: Where will you hold this service?

MANASSAH: I will be holding this service on the corner of 75th and Stewart on the South Side of Chicago. It's the street that borders Englewood and Auburn Gresham.

SIMON: And why hold it there?

MANASSAH: You know, people there need Yom Kippur. Jews have this beautiful relationship with God where every year, there is a chance for us to be forgiven. There's a chance for us to forgive. There's a chance for us to do all of this soul-searching. In a place where there's so many murders, people don't have that kind of connection with God, and they don't have that kind of connection with loved ones that they've lost. And not only is it the idea of Yizkor, the idea of remembering - the idea that no matter what you've done, you still are not beyond redemption.

SIMON: I gather you light one Yahrzeit candle of remembrance for each person killed by violence in Chicago over the past year. I have to ask, how many candles - and recognizing there might be more by the time you light them Sunday - how many candles this year?

MANASSAH: So far, we're at 647 candles. Last year, it took us 45 minutes to read off 800 names. So part of our service is saying the name and remembering, by name, each one of those lives that, you know, are no longer members of our city and our society. So we light a candle. It looks like a conflagration out there because we have so many candles every year.

SIMON: Are there passersby? How many people stop by? People come from all around? What's the scene like?

MANASSAH: Oh, no. People come from all around, and people are curious. I like that I can do things like this on a street corner so people can be as involved or as not involved - they can watch from across the street, or they can come over, and they can light a candle, and they can stand with us, and they can read with us, and they can pray with us. The idea is they have access to our Judaism. So a lot of people in a neighborhood like that where they experience so much loss, where people have said the very things that they do to survive are things that they have to atone for - and to be given the opportunity to have this audience with God in this very special time is mind-blowing. It's a mind-blowing concept for people who have never heard of this. So it is a gift that we have to give to the community.

SIMON: Rabbi Manasseh, I think a lot of people might be surprised to meet a Black woman Rabbi.

MANASSAH: Yes, they always are.

SIMON: So how did you come to that, may I ask?

MANASSAH: I think it was just the natural next step, and it was - like, you know, I'm from Englewood on the South Side of Chicago. Girls like me don't grow up to become rabbis - not from my neighborhood, we don't. I've learned that it has to start with you giving Black girls and Black boys a voice. And Judaism gave me a voice. I grew up believing that I could do something. I lived in a place where there were so many problems, we always had to wait until we got a new elected official to fix it. But growing up in the Jewish community and going to Jewish day school and being exposed to this idea that these problems are not other people's problems to fix. They're yours. It was empowering the idea of tikkun olam. You can fix this problem. You don't have to wait on someone else to do it.

SIMON: Rabbi, I - you know, as you know, I'm also a Chicagoan. My heart bleeds almost every night. You mentioned we have to fix this problem. What can we do?

MANASSAH: It starts with education. And honestly, it starts with just basic human respect, with recognizing the humanity in each person and treating them as such because when you treat people as human beings, they tend to act more human. I've actually seen gun violence be reduced as a result of introducing Yom Kippur to a neighborhood full of people who feel like they have to have a gun in order to leave their house because they're afraid. People who have shot other people, people have been shot - to give them this idea that you aren't the sum of what you've done with your life. You can get a clean slate. You can start over again - that makes some people say, hey, you know what? I'm not going to pick up this gun. I don't need it anymore.

SIMON: Rabbi Tamar Manasseh on the South Side of Chicago. Thank you so much for being with us, Rabbi.

MANASSAH: Thank you for having me. And easy fast to all of those who will be fasting. Thank you. Shana Tova. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.