In the wake of the racist killing of George Floyd, Rabbi Samuel Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois, shares his call to action, based on Jewish values, to listen to African-American leaders to form bonds and alliances to help fight racial injustice and inequality.
I am struggling to articulate a path through the pain and worry I feel. I truly fear for our nation. Ever since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have worried about our physical, psychological, and economic health. I have wondered how we would emerge from our quarantined homes and return to our shuttered offices, restaurants, schools, and public spaces. I have witnessed the trauma of over forty million Americans out of work, but I believed that there was some hope of a vaccine that might immunize us from this virus. There was a promise that eventually that vaccine would allow us to return to our normal life.
But now, I am far more fearful. There is a more insidious illness of racism and inequality that is deeply ingrained in American history and culture. There is no true cure on the horizon. Racism can destroy us. As The New York Times reported, August 1619 marked the beginning of African-American slavery in America, and sadly that moment of origin has defined our current world. I recognize that I am a privileged and truly fortunate white man. Yes, I am a Jew, but I am seen as white. When my children, especially my son, received his driver’s license, I did not have to warn him about the consequences of a broken tail light. I was not worried that he would be stopped for a minor traffic offense and then be subject to a police response that might end in his death. But my African-American friends, no matter how prominent, successful, or respected, have each had that talk with their 16-year-olds.
It is appropriate to condemn lawlessness, looting, and arson. Those acts will not achieve equality and justice. Indeed, those most harmed are often the people living in the marginal neighborhoods destroyed by the looters. But if we focus only on the issue of rioting, we ignore the legitimate sources of the rage. We must not ignore the legitimate cries of those who fear a knee upon their necks or other uses of power to keep them down.
Fifty years ago, President Johnson created the Kerner Commission to look at the causes of urban rioting and civil unrest. Its most famous phrase stated,”Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Fifty years later, far too little has changed. As I stated at the Chicago Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday breakfast, we are fortunate to live in a sparkling, vibrant Greater Chicago, but we know that much of the South Side and West Side have not shared in Chicago’s transformation and prosperity.
We are suffering the consequences of the great entrenched disparities of American society. As Langston Hughes asked: “What happens to a dream deferred?” We should not be shocked by the anger and frustration of an African-American community that has known far too many unjustified killings by police, including George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and too many more.
What can we do? We cannot leave the task of fighting racism to the African-American community alone. At the same time, the Jewish community cannot respond with paternalism. When our community suffered the trauma of the Tree of Life massacre, our Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i friends and religious leaders stood beside us in our sanctuary. Reverend Jesse Jackson joined us in prayer that night. So too, Congregation Sukkat Shalom will hear from Reverend Janette Wilson, Esq., National Director of PUSH Excel. We want to hear directly from a leading voice in the Black community. We are honored that she is joining us. We must hear directly from Black leaders who speak with voices informed by the pain of inequality and discrimination.
We are taught in Pirkei Avot, 2:21 that, “It is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we free to avoid its demands.” Racial inequality, discrimination, and violence are enormous problems deeply ingrained in American culture. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. Indeed, some of the most violent protests have occurred in our most progressive cities in which too many Black lives have been taken in unjustified police killings. Chronic poverty, substandard education, gang violence, and other problems will not be easily solved by people of good intentions. We need to do more, and we cannot give up. Elsewhere we are taught: “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied.” We must continue to struggle to bring about the promised fulfillment of an American dream built on justice and equality.
Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon leads Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois.