We All Count: To See Ourselves, We Should Also See Others

Apr 16, 2015 by

We All Count: To See Ourselves, We Should Also See Others

This blog is the second in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the period of the Omer to the issue of race and class structural inequality.  Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. 

בכול דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים

“In each generation, a person is obligated to see things as if they themselves came out from Egypt.”

Looking through my father’s desk after he died, in the wallet that he had used in high school, in Baltimore in the 1950’s, I found two cards.  The first said something to the effect that “I am glad that your establishment chooses to serve people of all races, and I am proud to patronize it.”  The second basically said the opposite.  “I am sorry that your establishment does not choose to serve people of all races, and I will no longer chose to patronize it.”  I do not know that my father ever actually used these cards.  None of his friends remember this campaign.  I can only imagine the combination of courage, tact, and chutzpah it took to do so.  But before my father could have used such a card, he had to take a look around and notice the patrons of a particular store, or the signs that denied patronage.

In my middle school grade, there was one black child.  I noticed that he was black, but I did not consider what it might have meant for him to be the only black student in a white, suburban school.  My high school, on the other hand, was more diverse – I recall one of my teachers calling it a “ghetto school.” While the race of students in my health class matched the local demographics, there were no black students who were enrolled in all honors classes.  I didn’t recognize this until later.   To be honest, I might have noticed a large amount of African-Americans in a given situation; I didn’t noticed a demographically disproportionate small amount.

I have since learned that a vast amount of racial inequality happens under the radar of those who therefore reap, often unknowingly, the benefits of that injustice.  In learning about “the talk” that parents of African-American children need to give to their sons and daughters, I have discovered an entirely different view of our society.  Over the last several years, with a small group of individuals of different racial backgrounds, I have been engaged in deeply personal and open conversations about our experience of race and prejudice.  Educationally, socio-economically, and geographically, the leaders of this group (Social Justice Matters) are in the same location.  The world that we live in, however, is very different.  There has been much talk about what it means to “drive while black”, how the encounter of an African-American male with the police can be very different from that of a (seemingly) white or Asian male or female, even about being seen as an opportunity for a sale or a problem in a retail store.  What I have begun to see is the entire social construction that a black member of the group wears every day in order to live in a world where he must be ever-ready to explain himself, where any encounter can turn disastrous, and where he cannot even voice his frustration at the failure of another’s understanding or the non-existent pace of social change, lest he be branded an “angry black man”.

What does it mean for Jews to see ourselves as if we ourselves came out of Egypt?  Even if we cannot live inside someone else’s skin, how can we begin to understand another’s story?  How can we not only share that we are willing to try, but that we can begin to open our eyes to see the world differently – through the eyes of oppression?  After my father put those cards in his wallet, and before he handed them out, he had to take account of where he was, and who was around him.  Because, only once we have begun to see and take stock of and to number what is around us – to truly count, as we are called to through the omer – can we even ask the question what we can do to make change.

We all count is not just about who matters.  We must also actually count – who sits at the table with us; who can even enter the same doors; who is present and who is not.  Only then can we seek them out, and ask what it is we can do to help.  I have just begun to open my eyes.  This period of the Omer, I, and Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, invite you to open your eyes and take a count, as well.  Take the old story of the Exodus, and see through different eyes.  Look at the numbers that are people – in your communities and across the nation.  Only if we all count, can others count on us.

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Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is project of the Reform Movement’s social justice initiatives: the CCAR’s Committee on Peace, Justice and Civil Liberties, the Religious Action Center, and Just Congregations.

Rabbi Joel Abraham serves Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains, NJ

2 Comments

  1. Leon Rogson

    While I don’t know what “driving while black” is, I do know what “walking while Jewish” meant in Argentina. I know what it means to be a “Ruso de mierda” (excuse my language) and the only Jewish kid in the school.
    Coming to this country in the late 50’s, it was a respite and a breath of fresh air.

    I have often heard that Jews were once discriminated against in this country, but I have never met such discrimination, not in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Huntsville, or anywhere else I have spent time in.

    To me
    בכול דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
    means not my own experience, but that of my parents while escaping the Holocaust, or those who lived through the purges of Stalin. In my own background, the 60s had a great deal of discrimination and racial hatred, especially in the South. We, the liberals of this country, fought against it, and won. But never did the experience of the 60s rise to the level of the Nazi persecution, or Stalin’s.

    I am a little surprise that Rabbi Abraham needs to feel in the skin of a black person to understand discrimination, racial hatred, and murder. We have a lot worse than closed doors and separate fountains in our own personal backgrounds, and perhaps being Jewish, that is more understandable to us than the other.

    While I hope for success in making race irrelevant in our country, economic barriers and social barriers take a long time to correct. Let’s concentrate on equality in law, and push for teaching our children to be forbearing of differences, be they social or religious. But let us insist that the laws be right, and that they be fairly applied.

    If this had happened in Europe, we would not be mourning our dead on Yom Hashoa.

    Leon

    • Thank you for your response, Leon. To answer your question, I was a little surprised myself, but it is a process of learning. I agree on the fairness of laws and their enforcement – I am currently learning about the prison system – and the systemic imbalance which exists despite an outer veneer of impartiality.

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