This blog is the third 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.
Last October, I went to Ferguson. Why?
The simplest answer is that my colleague and friend, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Justice, invited me. There would be an interfaith service and a protest in front of the Ferguson police department. We would stand in solidarity with young leaders crying out for justice following the death of Michael Brown, Jr. an unarmed African-American 18 year-old gunned down in the street by a white police officer on August 9, 2014.
Rabbis, we’ve been taught, show up. We show up at moments of agonizing pain and joyous celebration. We show up to teach Torah, to illuminate moments of holiness. We show up to animate justice and hope in the world.
In 1978, then UAHC President Rabbi Alexander Schindler (z”l) called for Reform Jews to engage in outreach. He demanded that we “remove the ‘not wanted’ signs from our hearts.”
Twenty-seven years later, Rabbi Eric Yoffie compelled the Reform movement to “fashion our synagogues into face-to-face communities of intimacy and warmth.” This is what our best congregations are. Like Abraham’s guests, our members need to feel safe, comfortable, and connected. They need a congregation that supports the deep experiences of life; where you are there for other people and they are there for you; where they notice when you are missing and take the trouble to find out why; and where you never face a crisis alone.”
In 2013, Rabbi Rick Jacobs carried the holy light forward: “Audacious hospitality isn’t just a temporary act of kindness so that people don’t feel left out; it’s an ongoing invitation to be part of a community where we can become all that God wants us to be – and a way to transform ourselves in the process. Audacious hospitality is a two-way street, where synagogue and stranger need each other. Hospitality is not just our chance to teach newcomers but, just as important, an opportunity for them to teach us.”
The result: Many of us have listened to these inspiring words and we show up. We’ve worked on opening our hearts and our congregations; we’ve told interfaith couples and GLBT people and Jews of color and those with disabilities that they are welcome in synagogue life; that they count; that we count on them to make the circle of Jewish life complete.
The proximity of “the other” transforms what could be a political debate into a pastoral encounter. These matters are no longer “issues” for debate but people with lives and stories that enrich our congregations and our lives.
Our communities today are the direct results of courageously transforming our congregations from one filled with Jews resembling the mythic “Ozzie and Harriet” to beautifully diverse, holy communities that transcend walls and state borders.
And that means we bear witness to very real pain and suffering:
When a mother comes to her rabbi following the death of Travon Martin and says, “I’m afraid to let my (African-American) son wear a hoodie outside the house,” how does such a statement not shatter our hearts?
Or when another congregant who is African American chokes up, offering the name Michael Brown Jr. at Kaddish, what is our response?
Or when a pregnant interracial Jewish couple sits in our rabbinic study and weeps “Rabbi, if we have a son, how do we keep him safe?”
Surely, stating that everyone counts has political implications.
It is also deeply, profoundly personal. And moral.
For a generation, we in the Reform movement have proclaimed that we seek to expand the tent of Jewish life, to engage in the Biblical process of welcoming the stranger, to practice “audacious hospitality.”
These ideals must go beyond mere sloganeering. If we are to take seriously and count each member of our community—and live into the reality that their stories, their pain, their suffering, their hope—then we cannot ignore the impact of racism and police brutality on the lives of members of color of our congregations and our communities. Our empathy, our compassion, our humanity demands a response to both people we love and people we don’t know but whose suffering is real.
We rabbis must show up and cry out with the voices of the prophets, with moral courage, with a vision of a just society where all our children can realize their dreams. And that means we must stand up and speak out about racial disparities in policing, arrests, and incarceration.
If not us, who?
As Rabbi Schindler so eloquently explained 36 years ago, “Let us shuck our insecurities; let us recapture our self-esteem; let us, by all means, demonstrate our confidence in the value of our faith.”
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 Michael Latz serves Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota