Each year at CCAR Convention, we honor members of our organization who were ordained 50 years ago or more. In advance of CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, we share a blog from Rabbi Jay Heyman.
In the fall of 1974, the Chief of Police called and asked me to stop by his office. “Rabbi,” he said, “I don’t want to upset you, but we have an undercover agent in the Klan, and he has told me of a plot to kill you or someone in your family.” So, for the next several weeks, while white fundamentalist Christians, right-wing extremists, and assorted white supremacist groups burned books, blew up bridges, painted Nazi and Klan insignia on public buildings, and generally created mayhem in Charleston and Kanawha County, West Virginia, my family and I were guarded around the clock by at least two and sometimes more uniformed police.
That spring, the Board of Education had selected new textbooks, which included multiethnic and multicultural literature. Local evangelicals saw the new titles as anti-Christian, anti-God, anti-Bible, inconsistent with American values, pro-integration, and filled with doctrines to encourage their children to merge their racial identity with Blacks. Within a matter of weeks, the John Birch Society, the Christian Crusade, the KKK, and American Nazis had climbed out of the sewers to lend moral support. Nor was it long before the entire community found itself embroiled in conspiracy theories involving the satanic banking system and the cabal of the “international Jew.”
Such was the first uprising of white, fundamentalist Christians threatened by 1960s social changes: the civil rights struggle, banning school prayer, the anti-war movement, women’s liberation, sex education. ’Twas an unholy alliance of religious fanaticism and political grievance; not just fringe extremists.
That era remains an enduring memory with me and, since the events in D.C. this past January 6, it is now one that plays even more than a leitmotif in the back of my mind.
Since those opening shots of the culture wars between the urban cultural elites and the rural red state rubes, we have experienced unparalleled affluence and poverty, national insecurity and popular dissatisfaction, growth and consolidation of power, the concentration of wealth and the spread of poverty. But mostly we have been lured into a trance of false promises by an economic system, best characterized as neoliberalism, that has weaponized the struggling, poorly educated, gullible masses of this country, enrolled them to serve an ever more fanatical Republican party, and has now unleashed a demon that threatens the very future of the nation.
We who have benefited from the status quo for such a long time seem to have forgotten what happens when the populace becomes fed up with not being seen, being denied equal opportunity and a fair share of economic benefit. It is so easy to forget what has always happened historically when the peasantry becomes impoverished and starving. That’s when the pitchforks come out. And Jewish history reminds how easily that pent up anguish and frustration can be ill-channeled through propaganda by those in with money and power.
Even before our current health and economic crisis—when our politicians were reassuring us of the basic prosperity and health of the economy—soup kitchens were filled to the brim, homeless shelters unable to accommodate all those needing shelter, emergency rooms overflowing with the uninsured. Millions of Americans have worked two jobs for decades for minimum wage and still do not earn enough to provide for their family’s basic needs.
The Reform Movement in which I was raised in the 1950s and 1960s prided itself on the notion that “ethical monotheism” meant living an obligation to build a better world. The imperative of tikkun olam should have reminded us not to forget seeking justice, speaking truth to power, confronting evil, bigotry, and greed in the great tradition of our biblical prophets. We have had strong social justice narratives, but all too often we have been largely silent about the political changes and widening economic chasms. Our values of compassion, justice, and concern for the poor are inconsistent with any politics dedicated to helping the wealthy become even wealthier at the expense of the poor and the middle class. Support for politicians who want to cut services while keeping tax cuts for the wealthiest is not consistent with Jewish teachings about caring for the most vulnerable of society. Indifference to the suffering of others is ungodly according to rabbinic tradition. The work of repairing the world is holy work. The work of economic and social justice is spiritual work. And that is what we are called to do.
Rabbi Jay Heyman is celebrating 50 years in the Reform Rabbinate.
We look forward to celebrating 50- and 51-year rabbis when we come together online at CCAR Convention 2021, March 14-17, 2021. CCAR Convention 2021 will strengthen us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally, bringing us together at a time when we need it more than ever. CCAR rabbis can register here.